Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

If you think about your day, there are many decisions we make all day long. Some as are simple as what we eat for breakfast, some are more complex as to how we spend our time, and others are just so complex they take hours of study and input from others. As leaders, we are called to make decisions on a regular basis that affect the institution we serve. These decisions sometimes are very easy (paint the walls brown)...sometimes a bit more difficult (adding new programs, letting people go), and often take hours of our time (like moving a campus?). Each of our decisions, whether easy or difficult, have an impact on the institution and its constituencies. Therefore, each of our decisions need to be made STRATEGICALLY, so that each decision moves the mission and vision of the institution forward.

Strategic decision making is not as difficult as it sounds. If one KNOWS the mission and vision, if one adheres to the values, and if one is in communication with their people, then every decision flows out of the strategy. When someone asks a question that needs a decision, it is easy to ask, "How does this help us as an institution move forward?" When new ideas are brought to the table, the question needs to be, "How does this help our institution move forward?" The leader deals FIRST with this questions, and only second (or third or fourth) with the question of affordability.

I was asked the other day what I thought of a decision recently made by someone here at Concordia University. Because I had seen that decision as being made strategically, I replied that I was so happy it had been made that way, I did not care what the decision was. For me, when I see decisions being made strategically, my trust level goes so high that I will follow no matter what the decision made. Maybe a little blind following on my part, but it is so wonderful to know that the people who are making decisions are doing so with a plan in mind - and strategically!


Yesterday I had the chance to interview in front of the Concordia community Jill Kolasinski, founder and school director of KIPP Austin College Prep. Jill founded the school when she was only 29 years old, and has grown it to 400 students in 5 years. This 5-8 middle school is one where students from undeserved communities come in below grade level in math and reading and leave ready for any college-prep high school. How does the school achieve such results? A culture of excellence and high expectation.

But I was more interested in how Jill achieved such results. How could she, at 29 years old, build such an institution? How could she, a young blond Caucasian woman make such an impact in a largely Hispanic community? How could she motivate teachers and students to be a part of a school where classes run from 7-5, meet twice a month on Saturdays, and 3 weeks during the summer? I think it comes to one simple word - PASSION!

Because Jill believes in what she does - because she wants to make a difference in this community - because she knows that through education people can break the cycle of poverty - and because this is so much on her heart, she can do whatever it takes to get the job done. Her energy is incredible (even having a newborn at home), her commitment is unwaivable, and her passion runs deep. I think that's the difference in leadership. There are many in leadership positions, but the few whose PASSION takes over are the ones who truly are exceptional - and make a difference in the world!

For more info on KIPP Austin, go to

Do You Believe?

Napoleon once said that "Leaders are dealers in hope." If that is true, then those of us who are fans fo the Chicago Cubs might be the best equipped to be leaders. For is, hope always springs eternal. We live to believe that this is our year to win it all. We are perennial losers, but keep coming back for more every year. We believe that until the team is mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, there is still a chance (never mind that we might be 20 games out first place - as long as there are 2o games left to play, there is still a chance).

But this year is different - or so it seems at this point. With only seven days left in the season, the Cubs are in first place in their division by 3 1/2 games. That's huge. As I watched my team win yesterday (and also watched as the Brewers lost) I could not help but have a tear in my eye - a tear of joy and a tear of sorrow, because while hope springs eternal, it is still not over. I keep replaying scenarios in my mind of a six game losing streak to finish the season...or of a playoff game next Monday in which Dempster gives up a 10th inning home run...or of Big Z falling apart over the final two months of the season (oh wait - that has already happened).

However, I am a Cub fan - I have always been a Cub fan (there are no such things as ex-Cub fans) - and I know that after 99 years of frustration, this is our year. Many thanks to Sweet Lou who juggled the lineup more than I could have imagined and got us to this point. And many thanks to the baseball Gods, who just seem to be smiling on us this year.

OK, so this did not have a lot to do with leadership per se. But i still hold out that Cub fans have what it takes to be strong leaders.


It seems that everyone wants to give input - but few want responsibility for decision making. Those of us in positions where we make decisions that affect multiple people on a regular basis are often criticized for not seeking more input. Well, maybe we should be!

I have found that people (including myself) want to be listened to. They want to know that their opinions are worthwhile and can have an impact. They don't want to make the decisions - they don't want the responsibility that goes with being in a leadership position - but they do want to be heard. And they should be heard, because they have good ideas...and so many of the decisions we make directly affect them. So it is only natural that people will complain when they are not asked their opinions on decisions that affect them.

This has come home to me over the past several weeks in multiple ways. I have watched the decision makers in my organization move forward without really asking for input from those whom will be most affected. I have made decisions without seeking input from my faculty or students at times. And I have seem the hurt, fear, anger, and disappointment in these people's eyes. Oh, we try to excuse away our decision making process by saying there is too much to do...there is not enough time...out plates are too full...we can't find people to get their input...we think others can't possibly know all the intricacies of the decision to be made...and on and on.

ENOUGH EXCUSES! As leaders, it is our duty, when making decisions, to seek input from those who will be most affected. It is our duty to involve followers in the decision-making process, finding out more information that might be needed. It is our duty to be good stewards of the organization and its resources, seeking out knowledge from others. It is our duty to set the example of what it means to be a learning and collaborative organization. So let's get busy seeking input - from lots of people - but especially from those who are most affected by decisions we are trying to make.

Tiger Leadership

This past weekend I once again watched Tiger Woods put away the competition - and play amazing golf. As a fairly new golfer, I always wonder at how Tiger makes it look so easy. I know that it comes with practice, but there is something special about the way he plays...and I think it has to do with FOCUS.

Much has been written about the power of focus, beginning with Tim Green's The Inner Game of Tennis and more recently with Jim Collins' Good to Great (At what can you be the best in the world?). Focus takes excellence to the next level. It is one thing to be good at what one does - it is another thing to be great at what one does. Tiger Woods is a great golfer (the best ever?) mostly as a result of his intense focus.

What does focus look like in leadership? It begins with blocking out other distractions (read: crowd) - what will you say NO to so you can focus on that which is the most important? Another area of focus has to be putting yourself in a place (read: lie) to make the best decision you can each time you are faced with a problem. Another area of focus is having the right tools (read: clubs) and knowing exactly how those tools will work as you make decisions. Another area of focus is having someone (read:caddie) who you will listen to even when they might seem wrong. Another area of focus is finishing strong (read: putt) whatever you begin.

When we take on the challenge of being excellent in our leadership - of focusing our energies to be the best at what we do - people will willingly follow...and changes will be made that have an impact on the world. After all, isn't that what leadership is really all about?

The Big Three

OK - here it is - my three favorite books having to do with being a professor at Concordia University:

1. The Courage to Teach by Parker Palmer

2. Leadership Can Be Taught by Sharon Daloz Parks

3. The Gift and Task of Lutheran Higher Education by Tom Christenson

Each of these texts layers upon each other and forms the framework for walking into a classroom and teaching. Of course, teaching is much more than subject matter - it is teaching about life and how one sees and reacts to life. To teach at Concordia University is to teach within a Lutheran ethos. In other words, how does my theology shape the way I see and interact with the world? Both Palmer and Parks come from a Mennonite tradition, one in which the inner self is held up as important - one in which conversation is almost sacramental. Is it any wonder that their thought pattern would parallel that which is truly Lutheran?

Here are the highlights for me from each text:

1. Palmer address the issue of the culture of fear that is present in any classroom. Understanding this allows one to address their fears and see them as real - and also how to work through them to become more authentic in one's teaching (and learning).

2. Christenson's work on Lutheran higher education gives permission for teacher and student to question everything -and to become a critical thinker at the highest level (after all, isn't that what Luther did?)

3. Parks' description of teaching leadership as "case-in-point" provides a way for everyone to teach leadership in their classroom - whether it is a science, history, math, English, education, or business class. It begins where the student comes from...and answers their questions in a way that teaches them the principles of leadership (which again is about critical thinking).

I have rambled long enough. Now go and get these three books, read them cover to cover, and let me know what you think!

The Trees - and the Forest

In a conversation with a student and colleague yesterday, the old adage of not being able to see the forest for the trees was brought up. While the two of us focused on the need for leaders to keep pointing out the forest to those who had become obsessed with the trees, another thought entered my mind - if we don't ever focus on the trees, we will lose the forest.

It's really a simple idea - the forest is made up of many individual trees. Each tree adds something to the texture of the forest. Each tree provides a new way to see and understand the forest. And each tree brings its own unique color and shape to the forest. If we forget about the individual tree, we will soon lose the parts that make up the whole. Similar to how St. Paul describes the body of Christ where EACH PART is important and has its own role. So what should a leader do about this?

Yet another paradox of leadership is that while obsessively focusing on the forest, the leader is also taking care of the trees. If leadership is about people (and it is) then the leader, while being a fanatic for the organization is also fighting for the individual. Without individuals, there is no whole. Without individuals, the organization fails. Without individuals, there are no followers...which in turn means there is no leader.

So be sure to see the forest - be sure others see the forest - but take the time to look closely at each tree.

Lessons Learned at Convention

Over the days of July 14 - 18, I was at the convention of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod and watched different roles of leadership occur. Our president - Rev. Gerald Kieschnick - displayed many leadership practices that impressed me in different ways. While running the convention, he showed poise and gentleness when the assembly wanted to "get out of hand." Here are a few thoughts I wrote down on the pad in front of me:

-leadership is allowing people to discuss their thoughts and opinions which lead to a decision...without letting your own views be known.

-leadership is about being criticized publicly and just being able to listen - with respect - so that those who are criticizing feel they are important and can be heard.

-leadership is the ability to make everyone in the room (all 1200 delegates) feel important.

-leadership is about honoring people...even if they do not particularly like what you stand for.

-leadership is about delivering the same message over and over again - with a slightly new twist each time - so that people can never misunderstand the mission of the organization.

Many kudos to Dr. Kieschnick for his fine efforts not only as chairperson of the convention, but for his leadership of our church and its efforts to hold forth ONE MESSAGE - CHRIST - HIS LOVE IS HERE FOR YOU!

History and Leadership

I recently returned from a two-week vacation where - as is my usual fare - I spent a lot of time reading. This year's reading list entails historical biography, and of course, I am reading them through my leadership lenses. During June, I read about Andrew Carnegie, Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, and one of my favorites - Abraham Lincoln. I plan to spend this summer reading more and reflecting on that reading in this blog. So let's start with one leadership characteristic that came out, and of course, you might guess that it is paradoxical.

Good leaders exercise great patience. Much of what we read in the leadership literature is that leaders know how to make decisions and make them quickly. Not so in the case of people like Franklin Roosevelt. What amazed me is how, when the country and the world was at war, he could take the time to listen to people, think about the options, discuss the possible outcomes, and only then begin to come to a decision. How hard it must be to wait (and for FDR to know that in waiting more people were dying) so that the decision is a wise course of action. How long did Lincoln wait to send relief to Sumter? How long did it take congressional leaders to investigate President Nixon?

Many people move into leadership positions because of their ability to think on their feet and make decisions. Once they are in a leadership position, then they need to SLOW DOWN in their decision making process due to the new complexity involved in those decisions. Think about how you make decisions...and next time pause, breathe, and then begin to decide.    

three simple letters - one big word

This past week I began teaching a summer session class entitled Leadership & Business. This class, which is a part of the business core at Concordia, is one of the few classes at our University in which LEADERSHIP is the main topic. One of the ways in which my students learn about leadership is to engage in discussion with each other, which can be difficult for students at 9:00 on a summer morning. So over this past week, it was my challenge to teach them to use one word - WHY.

One of the goals of the class is to learn how to think, speak, write and read in a critical manner. It begins with one word - WHY. Another goal of the class is for students to understand their own style of leadership, so when they answer questions, they still have one question left - WHY did I answer that way. To be able to lead, one should understand their followers, and what makes them tick. That can be done by asking WHY.

During the first two days of the week, discussion was minimal, and my job was to help them learn the right questions to ask. The first question we learned was to ask WHY. By yesterday, I was able to begin to move myself out of the discussion and students engaged with each other on a deeper level. Why? Because they had learned to ask WHY.     

A Higher Calling?

Are you engaged in a higher calling? Before you answer that question, think about these things:

1. Does society consider certain jobs more important than others?
2. Given certain types of jobs, are there different groups or classes of people we assume will be employed in those positions?
3. Do you consider your work secular or sacred?
4. Do you see your job as something you have to do so you can enjoy the rest of your life?
5. If you felt the call to be pastor, would you consider that a higher calling?

One's answers to the questions above might lay out a theology of vocation, and help one understand their particular calling at this time in thier life. A Lutheran understanding of vocation puts all work at the same level. All work is done to the glory of God and in service to our neighbor. The one who teaches...the one who picks up our Monday morning garbage...the one who trades stocks...the one who stays at home to care for children...the one who attends classes and studies...the one who serves as a doctor...the one who volunteers at the nursing home...the one who preaches on Sunday morning...the one who plays and sings in a band...the one who is the CEO of an organization...the one who mows our lawn. All of these occupations are modes of full-time Christian service.

God has gifted each of us with certain abilities at certain time and certain places - and He calls us to use those abilities to serve our neighbor and to give glory to Him (which demands excellence in all we do). When we are engaged in that type of work - no matter what the work is - we are living out a HIGHER CALLING!    

Is Leadership Leadership?

How does one quantify leadership? If I lead one type of organization, does that qualify me to lead another type of organization? If I am a school principal for a time, could I transition to be the CEO of a non-profit...a church administrator...a small business...a college of business? While there are always new skills to be learned, I believe that leadership skills are leadership skills - and transferable.

What are the leadership characteristics and traits that are a given in all types of organizations? They might include:


I think that if I have these abilities and skills, I should be able to lead pretty much any organization. Is there a learning curve involved with this type of change? Absolutely, but I am guessing that people who have the above skills are also quick learners?

So go ahead - take a chance - try something new - transition into a different leadership role - and keep making a difference in the world and in people's lives!    

The Rhythm of Vocation

After finishing Gordon Smith's Courage & Calling: Embracing Your God-Given Potential (1999, InterVarsity Press), the following phrase keeps running through my head: It is who I am that marks (or informs) what I do: It is not what I do that marks (or informs) who I am. Vocation comes from within. Because it is a calling from God based on the gifts, talents, personality and background with which he has blessed me, it permeates me from the inside out. The Scriptures talk about how the Spirit works on the heart and mind...therefore it must begin from within.

How often do we ask people to tell us what they do? It is, in fact, one of the great small-talk questions that can launch a conversation between two strangers. To answer that question, we have to talk about our "day job," about the organization at which we work, how hard we work, and how what we do makes a difference to the economy at large. Perhaps the question could be stated better with, "Tell me about yourself." When asked to expound on that subject, we might begin to talk about our families, our skills and strengths, our hobbies, our past,and perhaps what we do during the day to make a difference. But notice the subtlety of where the answer begins - from the inside. This is who I am!

So...who are you? What kind of person are you? What makes you tick? What brings you joy? What matters to you? What is it that you would like to do that would make a difference in the world? These are the questions with which we can begin our search for a vocational identity. Then - and only then - can we can begin to discover and talk about what what it is that we do. 

Joy & Courage

In his book Courage & Calling, Gordon Smith quotes Paul Tillich: "Joy is the emotional expression of the courageous Yes to one's own true being" (The Courage to Be, 1952). In looking at our vocation, we must be courageous enough to ask and answer the question, "Who am I?" In looking at our vocation, we must be courageous enough to ask and answer the question, "What do I want to be?" In looking at our vocation, we must be courageous enough to ask and answer the question, "What is keeping me from being who I really am?" In looking at our vocation, we must be courageous enough to ask and answer the question, "If I am not really being who I am, then who am I being?" In looking at our vocation, we must be courageous enough to ask and answer the question, "If I am not being me...and being someone else...then where am I finding my joy?" In looking at our vocation, we must be courageous enough to ask and answer the question, "If I am not finding joy in my vocation, what do I need to change?" In looking at our vocation, we must be courageous enough to ask and answer the question, "Am I willing to make those changes - or am I willing to lead a life that is less than fulfilling?" In looking at our vocation, we must be courageous enough to ask and answer the question, "If I make these changes, what is the worst thing that could possibly happen...and what are the positive things that will come about as a result?"

Might I be bold enough to say that with the courage of our convictions come great joy...and with joy, comes the ability to act courageously within our vocation.         

The JOY of Leadership

I often tell my classes that leadership is hard work. I may have to change that, because I fear that what the hear is "leadership is hard why woulod anyone want to engage in it?" This past weekend I came across the book Courage & Calling by Gordon Smith. One of his themes is that we should find joy in our work - not just because it is fun and easy, but because it "is a central expression of what it means to be a Christian believer, a critical aspect or component of our spirituality" (p.22). If our vocation is a call from God...and God has called us into that work at this place and time...and we believe that God gifts each of us to do that work...then we should be finidng great joy in what we do. That seems to make sense.

I asked a colleague of mine recently how he was enjoying what he did. His response seemed to indicate that while he rather be doing something else, he would keep doing this particular role because there was no one else to do it at this time. That seems to me a weak response to why one engages in a particular vocation. Unless one finds joy in their leadership, they will be less than effective as a leader. They will see people as obstacles to getting things done...they will see opportunities for growth as yet something else they have to do...they will look at the institution they lead as a place that keeps them from fully living...and they will regret any time spent away from friends or family, causing heartache and pain for themselves, their family, and their institution as a whole.

If you are in a position of leadership, how do you feel about it? As you look at the leaders around you, how do you think they feel about their role? If there is "no joy in Mudville," it may to time to ask why, and explore the reasons behind it. There should be joy in one's vocation, and if in one's leadership there is no joy, then perhaps it is time to consider another calling...which takes courage...which shall be a topic for another time.

What Are You Doing?

In a meeting the other day, we discussed the importance of the term VOCATION and what it means to live out one's calling. Our vocation (which is defined by what we do, not by our titles), puts us in a place where we can serve our neighbor and give glory to God. Please note that our work is directed to the neighbor...and in that process the Kingdom of God is sustained.

Whenever one reads about leadership, it is defined as being about vision, strategic planning, aligning people and the institution, growing the institution, and helping others find their gifts of leadership (John Kotter). Servant leadership is described as helping others become more free, wise, autonomous, more likely themselves to become servant leaders (Greenleaf). But if you did an inventory of your day, how would time have been spent?

Many of us in leadership roles find ourselves spending time doing that which is not about leadership - filling out requisitions, setting up a room for a meeting, substituting in a classroom, visiting people in the hospital, inventorying the supply cabinet, and on and on.  All very important things to do, but do they help to move the organization forward?

Those who are called to lead should do things that are about leadership - and not get wrapped up in distractions that keep them from that calling. Leadership is a vocation - God calls people to that role - and those who are called must respond by doing the things that leaders do. SO...what are YOU doing?   

Sitting at the Feet of Greatness

Last night I had dinner with a man whom I would define as great - he is well-known, he thinks differently than others - he sees the world through a completely different set of lenses - and he is willing to put those ideas OUT THERE for people to wrestle with. While I am not at liberty to name this person, please know that I left dinner last night feeling as if I had been in the presence of greatness.

As I drove home (exhausted after a day of golf and intriguing discussion), I asked myself what made this person so amazing? I believe it comes down to several items:

 1. He reads voraciously. When I asked him how to stay on top of things today, he laughed and noted, "While it is impossible to keep on top of everything, I read three papers each day (NY Times, LA Times, and Financial Times) and I am currently reading about 10 different books." Obviously, I was humbled.

2. He takes information he learns and processes it through lenses that are not afraid of predicting the future. Many of us often THINK what the future might hold, but are afraid to talk about it as if we might be wrong or sound weird. Maybe it is time more of us actually said what we were thinking and not kept it to ourselves.

3. He has longevity. This is no fly-by-night consultant who has all the answers. He has been doing this for years, and consistently is right in his thinking. A proven track record goes a long way in defining greatness.

A few thoughts from the conversation:

"We have to unlearn before we can re-learn. Unlearning may be the best type of learning in the years ahead."

"We're very good at bureaucracy...that's why we keep perpetuating that broken system."

"Before the system can be fixed, we will be forced to face several institutional Katrina's - who would have imagined that Walter Reed Hospital would not be able to care for it's patients?"

"The de-massification of society will lead toward greater we know how to deal with this issue?"

Please forgive my ramblings this morning. It was an amazing evening, and I am sure that this blog will portray other thoughts in the days and weeks ahead that flowed out of the rich conversations that took place. A special thanks to my boss for including me in this dinner and wonderful experience. 

Who's more important?

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to celebrate the retirement of a good friend of mine, Mr. Bruce Schaller, from his position as principal at Lutheran High North in Houston. Bruce has been in Lutheran secondary schools for most of his career, and will officially retire at the end of July. It was good to be together with him and many of his colleagues and friends in saying THANKS for a job well done

I take the time today to write about Bruce because he always knew WHO was most important in his vocation. No matter the time - no matter the circumstance - the student always came first. We would always comment on that if a teacher, a student, and a parent were standing outside our doors at the same time, all with equal need, I would invite the teacher in, another colleague of ours would have invited the parent in, and Bruce would have invited the student in. I guess that makes a good team. But more important, Bruce knew what was important to him.

Because Bruce knew what his response would be in any given situation, he could act with certainty. Because Bruce knew without a doubt what he would do, he could act quickly. His quick and certain action not only diffused tense situation, I believe it saved several lives. There are many young men and women (and their parents) today who perhaps owe their lives to Bruce Schaller. Stories have been told behind his closed door that will forever remain there. People have told him things they would never tell anyone else. That also speaks to this man's character - he could keep a secret better than anyone else I have ever known.

I want to take this space to personally thank Bruce for his friendship over the years and the partnership in ministry we have shared. I will forever be grateful to him for being at LHN during my years there as Headmaster. He is the epitome of Christian leadership - someone who understands and knows WHO is most important in the organization.  

GOOD Friday

Isn't it quite paradoxical that we take the day on which Jesus Christ was crucified and title it as the Friday known as GOOD. What could be worse than death by crucifixion? How must it feel like to be abandoned by your friends - and even by God? What is it like to whipped and humiliated - only to have nails driven through your hands a few hours later? My guess is that any of this is anything but GOOD.

What IS good about this day is that the work of Jesus Christ, begun when he became flesh through human birth, was finally finished, and because of that those who believe in Jesus Christ have eternal salvation. It IS good because that which was BAD, namely Satan and his power, has been conquered through the death of Jesus Christ. What IS good is that I can now live under the freedom of the cross, knowing that I have an unshakable hope for eternal life.

So what does this have to do with leadership? Probably very little, except for the fact that leaders face very dark days. They are the ones who carry home the weight of the organization at night. They are the ones who struggle over who to let go and what to stop doing. They are the ones who are on the receiving end of hate and hurt from others. And yet, it is a job that must be done. It can't be delegated - it can't be left until another time and place - and it can't be taken in a trivial manner.

And so, on this GOOD Friday, we as leaders first ask for strength, that we may endure the tough times ahead. And then, we give thanks to God for sending his Son Jesus Christ to become man, take on the sins of the world, sacrifice himself even unto death, and then rise again that we might have the hope of eternal life - THANKS BE TO GOD!   

Defining Reality

Martin Luther, in his Heidelberg Disputation, wrote that "A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the thing what it actually is." How approriate for a leadership dictum. One of the roles of leadership is to look at the organization and "define reality" - literally to tell it like it is. Too many people want to hear only the good (or how we can make the bad look good). The problem with this is that it confuses people. When I look at an organization that is run poorly...that is in trouble financially...that does not have the right people in place...I know that. No one has to tell me things are wrong, and if the person leading says that things are okay, then what am I to believe (not to mention the trust issues created).

The cross is not a pretty sight - it denotes death and suffering. It is a symbol of torture. It is the place of Christ's death. Yet without the cross, there would be no redemption - no salvation - no hope. The cross defines for Christians the ultimate sacrifice and the ultimate triumph. It is the place God, through his Son Jesus Christ, HAD to go. There was no other easy way. But thanks be to God that he went the way of the cross for us.

So it is with leadership. Leadership has to go down the dificult road in order to make a difference for the institution which it serves. It means having to let people go...even those who have served the institution for many years. It means having to cut products, programs or places...even those that have seemed to define the organization for many years. It means cutting benefits at times, even when people have come to rely on them. It means doing the things that no one else would be willing to do, because it means saving the organization. No, the CEO or president is not a messiah figure, but they have to go down the hard road - and call "evil" what it really is - and make the hard decisions.

Is leadership hard? Absolutely! But it is still not the pain and suffering our Lord went through for us, so that we might have the hope of eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God for this indescribable gift!