The four obsessions of an extraordinary executive

four-obsessionsThe four obsessions of an extraordinary executive is another easy-read, high-return leadership book by Patrick Lencioni. This book describes a competitive advantage available to every organisation. It’s not about technology, strategy, marketing, or money. It’s about organisational health. Extraordinary executives and standout leaders are described as paying attention to the health of the organisation they lead. Healthy organisations put less drain on morale, time, energy, and output. There is less staff turnover and greater work place satisfaction. We all want our organisations to be like this. As a pastor, I want our church to be like this. The book recommends four leadership priorities that will help build such organisations.

#1 Build and maintain a cohesive leadership team

This is the most important discipline because it enables the others. It doesn’t come easily because it commitment from the leader and team. People must grow to trust each other. This means being willing to work through disagreements and issues together. It requires people willing to be vulnerable, and fight over issues often. The fights are not to be personal, but focused on issues and achieving the best outcomes for the organisation. People learn to ask difficult questions and challenge ideas. Others learn to respond without feeling threatened or taking things personally. Working to achieve cohesive teams requires the effort and investment of all the leaders.by ever but it’s well worth the effort.

Cohesive teams require trust, and an effective way of building trust is what Lencioni calls ‘getting naked’. Don’t worry! He’s not speaking literally. It’s about team members becoming comfortable with their colleagues seeing them for who they really are. There are various tools that can help with this. He suggests teams take the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test, which is a very effective tool for helping people understand each other. He also recommends The Wisdom of Teams by Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith, and his book The Five Temptations of a CEO as good books to help teams identify and address weaknesses and problems.

Sharing personal histories helps people get to know each others backgrounds, family circumstances, personal philosophies, hobbies, and interests. Spending time together is essential. And teams that have been through difficult times together can develop strong levels of trust, but it needs to be maintained by a willingness to address core issues.

#2 Create organisational clarity

Most executives profess to understand the importance of creating clarity in their organizations, but ironically, they often fail to achieve it.  (p151)

Organisational clarity isn’t about choosing the right words to describe mission, strategy, or values. It’s about agreeing on the underlying concepts that drive them. This type of clarity provides everyone throughout the organisation with a common vocabulary and set of assumptions about what’s important and what’s not. It builds a sense of unity around everything it does. Resources get aligned around agreed values, goals, and strategies.

These basic questions help the organisation to build clarity:

  • Why does the organisation exist, and what difference does it make in the world?
  • What behavioural values are irreplaceable and fundamental?
  • What business are we in, and against whom do we compete?
  • How does our approach differ from that of our competition?
  • What are our goals this month, this quarter, this year, five years from now?
  • Who has to do what for us to achieve our goals this month, this quarter, this year, next year, five years from now?  (p154-155)

#3 Over-communicate organisational clarity

Organisational clarity must be communicated throughout the organisation. This is the simplest of the disciplines, but a common point of failure. Much of the hard work in achieving clarity gets wasted through poor communication. Over-communication is much better than a failure to communicate. People might get sick of the message, but at least they get the message.

The three most critical practices of effective communication (are) repetition, simple messages, and multiple mediums.  (p168)

Some experts say that people need to hear a message six times before they begin to believe and internalize it. The problem is we don’t like to keep repeating the same message over and over.

We also need to avoid over-complicating important messages. In an age when people are bombarded by useless information, we need to be crystal clear about where our organisation is going and how people can contribute to getting there.

Multiple mediums help to get the message through. Most leaders have a preferred form of communication and stick to it. It could be large groups announcements, special meetings, emails, or communicating through other staff to the relevant areas. We need as many mediums as are required to hit the maximum number of people effectively. We need to tune into people’s preferred means of receiving messages too.

Lencioni believes the most powerful communication strategy in any sized organisation is ‘cascading communication’. After every executive staff meeting, there are usually important decisions that have to be communicated to the organisation. Sometimes people leave meetings with different understandings of what’s been decided and what needs to be communicated. So take a few minutes at the end of the meeting and ask the question, ‘What do we have to communicate to our people?’ This will show up what issues need clarification and which are ready to be communicated.

#4 Reinforce organisational clarity through human systems

Over-communication isn’t enough to maintain clarity in an organisation. Clarity must be reinforces by being built into the processes and systems that drive human behaviour. The challenge is to do this well without getting tied up in red tape.

There are four primary systems in an organization that reinforce clarity:

Hiring profiles
Employ people and appoint leaders who match the values of the organisation. Look at behaviour and seek to objectively evaluate if the applicant aligns with the core values. This is very different from asking ‘Did you like him?’ which tells you next to nothing about how they might fit with your organisation.

Performance management
This is not about filling in endless forms and having endless interviews. The goal is to foster good communication and healthy alignment. The best performance management is an ongoing dialogue, rather than an occasional event. This means managers and leaders need to make a priority of investing their time into other leaders.

Rewards and recognition
This system has to do with how organisations reinforce behaviour. Healthy organisations remove as much subjectivity as possible. They use consistent criteria for paying, recognising, rewarding and promoting staff. Recognition should be more about alignment to the organisation’s values than increased productivity.

Dismissal
Healthy organizations use their values, and other issues related to clarity, to guide their decisions about firing people. This prevents decisions being subjective or arbitrary and limits the costs to the people and the organisation.

Conclusion

The model described here is a holistic one: each discipline is necessary to achieve success. Different organisations will struggle with different aspects of the model. Some teams building trust but fail to put good systems in place. Others love strategy but lose interest in repeatedly communicating their plans.

Successful organisations are healthy organisations and leaders need to keep this their number one priority. Extraordinary executives focus on that above all else. The ability to identify a few simple things and stick to them over time is one of the most powerful tools any leader has. An executive who does this will be extraordinary and will often end up leading an extraordinary organisation.

Some thoughts on how this can impact church leadership teams

The focus on organisational health is important for churches. It’s easy to be swept up in the latest fads, establishing clear vision statements, adopting a special program, engaging new ministries, employing new staff, planting new churches… and fail to notice how unhealthy the church has become. We don’t want to reproduce sick churches. We don’t want to drive ailing churches toward terminal illness. So organisational health is critical. And we need to be biblically clear about what this should look like. A desire for God’s glory, love for one another, care for all, compassion for the hurting, submission to Scripture, humble prayer, passion to see people saved, a willingness to serve, growing leaders, sacrificial service, generous giving, and more.

Pastors and leaders can get so busy and caught up in chasing their tails that they fail to step back and focus on how and where to lead the church. We get so occupied in the ministry that we don’t have time to work on the ministry. If the pastor and leaders cant see the big picture because they are so buried in the detail, then church won’t know where it’s headed. We need to gain perspective. We need to look at the function of our churches as a whole. We need to evaluate our systems and determine what’s working, what needs changing, what needs axing and what needs adding. We need to open our calendars and determine ways to get ahead of the game, so that we’re not always reacting to the latest problem.

Senior pastors and overall leaders need to spend time with their ‘direct reports’. Associate pastors, elders, youth workers, children’s ministry coordinators, and so on. These are key people for creating clarity and alignment for the church. If the lead guy doesn’t do this, then he will soon discover that the church is headed every which way. People will fill the vacuum with their own ideas and priorities. Teamwork will be little more than an idea. The health of the church will suffer.

This Lencioni book is another opportunity to ‘spoil from the Egyptians’, as Augustine put it. Sift through the ideas, apply some uncommon sense, filter it through the message of the Bible, and improve the way you lead your church.

The five temptations of a CEO

FiveTemptationsofCEOBeing a self-confessed Patrick Lencioni fan, I figured it was time to re-read another of his books. I love reading them because he writes so well, and he begins most of his books with ‘A leadership fable’. He tells a story that illustrates the main points of the book. You get swept along in the story, and the points are obvious once he’s finished. The five temptations of a CEO is a complement to another of his books: The five dysfunctions of a teamThis book isn’t just for CEOs. It’s valuable for leaders everywhere. The temptations that Lencioni identifies are common to leaders in many contexts. My leadership experience has been mainly in churches and Christian organisations, and I can testify that these temptations are very real.

The first temptation: Choosing status over results

Lencioni argues that the most important principle the CEO must embrace is a desire to produce results. Sadly, this is what gets many people into the position but their attention changes to preserving their status. This results in CEOs making decisions to protect their ego and standing. They tend to reward people who support them, rather than who produce the greatest results for the organisation. Contrast two answers to a question presented to a sporting coach: ‘What was the greatest day in your career?’

Answer 1: ‘The day I was hired.’
Answer 2: ‘The day our team won the championship.’

The first answer is about the coach and his position. The second is about the results of the organisation. This is why he is coach. The CEO is responsible, not for maintaining his position or status, but for leading the organisation to achieve results.

The second temptation : Choosing popularity over accountability

We all agree about the importance of holding people accountable, yet we rarely do it. I suspect this is an even bigger issue in many churches than it is in companies. It’s not easy. Nobody wants to be the bad guy. We all want to be liked – I know I do – and it’s a dangerous trait for a leader. We want to develop friendly relationships with our staff and that can make it harder to keep people accountable. Especially if someone we like is consistently not doing what is expected of them.

If the leader doesn’t hold people accountable, this will breed a culture of lack of accountability in the organisation. The irony is that some CEOs will fire people who do not perform, but they are too gutless to walk through processes of accountability with them beforehand, which might have avoided the need to fire them.

Holding people accountable requires that you give them clear targets to shoot for. They need to be very clear about expectations. They also need to understand the consequences if they don’t meet expectations. These are difficult conversations for many leaders, who would rather avoid them than feel awkward. The temptation to be liked can cripple an organisation.

The third temptation: Choosing certainty over clarity

Some CEOs will not make decisions until they are certain that they are correct. This is often impossible because outcomes are affected by so many unknown variables. This can paralyse the leader and the organisation. It often means that leaders are deliberately vague with others as they attempt to gain clarity for themselves. This wastes a lot of time and damages good will from others. The leader can end up frustrating their staff by their failure to make decisions or clarify directions.

What organisations need is clarity, and it is the leader’s job to provide it. Clarity about the goals of the organisation, what it’s aiming to achieve, the roles and responsibilities of the employees and other leaders, and the consequences for success and failure. This has to do with core things like vision, mission, values, and goals. It’s easy to give lip service to these terms, or to waste endless time getting the right words but failing to make any changes.

If the leader is spending his time trying to make sure that he makes every decision correctly, then he won’t offer the clarity the organisation needs. He’s more likely to fudge, just in case he’s wrong. He will remain deliberately vague about matters about which others desperately need clarity.

It’s okay to be wrong. Some would say it’s the CEO’s job to be wrong. If he discovers he’s wrong then he can fix it. If everything stays vague, if decisions don’t get made, then he will never know what needs fixing.

The fourth temptation: Choosing harmony over productive conflict

It’s normal to want peace and harmony, but it can be counterproductive to good decision making. If harmony or consensus is our goal then we will naturally restrict conflict, but Lencioni argues that healthy conflict helps us to create the best outcomes. He’s not talking about interpersonal conflict targeted at people, but healthy exchanges of different opinions on issues. The best decisions are made when all the knowledge and perspectives get aired. And people are more confident in decisions if they’ve had a chance to contribute. Meetings can be a good indicator of problems in this area.

Pleasant meetings – or even worse, boring, meetings ones – are indications that there is not a proper level of overt, constructive, ideological conflict taking place.  (p129)

The fifth temptation: Choosing invulnerability over trust

Even leaders who resist the temptation to protect their status, to be popular with their staff, to make correct decisions, and to create harmony sometimes fail. Why? Because even though they are willing to cultivate productive conflict, their people may not be willing to do so.

temptationsMany leaders are not willing to allow themselves to be vulnerable. They mistakenly believe that they will lose credibility if people feel too comfortable challenging their ideas. No matter how much a leader encourages healthy conflict, it’s only going to happen if people feel safe to engage. Otherwise people will passively line up with what they think the leader expects. It’s about trust. People who trust each other aren’t fearful about offering their opinions. But if you want people to trust you, then you need to trust them, and this means being vulnerable.

Five temptations of a senior pastor

Some time back out staff team spent a couple of days away and we watched a video of Patrick Lencioni teaching about the five dysfunctions of a team. I think we decided that we had all of them in varying degrees. If we’d been assessing the five temptations of a senior pastor, then I suspect the rest of the team would have identified me as giving into all of them in varying degrees too!

If you lead a church or a Christian organisation, then my guess is that this book will diagnose some of your temptations and give you areas to work on. I also suspect that your team will be pleased if you do.

Temptation 1
My temptation was not to measure anything. If you don’t measure then you can’t fail, but nor can you know how you are going. The results for a church will be measured in very different ways to a company or business. We will be focused on the impact on people’s lives, people growing into maturity as believers, people committing to serving one another, people not being tossed around by the latest ideas, people loving one another and reaching out to their neighbours.

Temptation 2
I’ve never been very good at holding others accountable for their work. A desire to avoid unpleasant conversations has led me to let some things slide. This might have been motivated by kindness, but in the end it’s not kind. It hurts the individual and frustrates the people they lead. Sometimes I would let things go until I became exasperated. The danger is that this would sometimes lead to overreacting. If I had my time again, I would establish clearer expectations for the members of my team and hold them more accountable. Regular clarification, update and review meetings would have helped people to perform better and meet expectations.

Temptation 3
Vagueness breeds frustration and can lead to a work environment becoming toxic. If people aren’t clear on their roles and responsibilities, then they will likely step on each other’s toes and annoy one another. Turf wars sometimes result. I’ve seen this in our teams when people do not have clear job descriptions. Ministry trainees working with different staff across different areas can find this especially difficult. Clarity covers over a multitude of sins – or should that be charity?! Maybe both.

Temptation 4
I think I’ve led far too many boring meetings. People have often wondered why they need to be there. I should have read Lencioni on meetings at the start of my ministry leadership. The only trouble was he hadn’t written the book yet! It’s important to encourage constructive conflict in our meetings, but this will only happen from a foundation of trust. People need to know that we’re on the same team and we can disagree together to arrive at the best outcomes for everyone. Leaders need to work hard to create such an environment, otherwise we just end up avoiding conflict so we don’t hurt each other’s feelings.

Temptation 5
Have I been willing to be vulnerable? I think so, but maybe there are blind spots that I haven’t seen. I can remember breaking down in tears during a few staff meetings. I can remember apologising to my team for what I’d done or failed to do. But I can also recall getting very defensive about people criticising my ideas and decisions.

We need to remember that we’re called to lead others by serving them, putting their needs before our own. The greatest example of one who did this is Jesus Christ. My desire is to follow his example, with his help, for the sake of his honour and glory, not my own.

1 Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.

For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.  (2 Corinthians 4:1-2, 5)