15 Ways You Can Become a Better Leader

When we help churches or organizations grow, one of the first topics we get into is leadership.

Because when you become a better leader, everything around you gets better.  Whether you’re leading a company, team or family, becoming a better leader will help you and those you lead.


Here are fifteen practical ways you can work on your own leadership.

  1. Listen to a podcast. Some of my favorites are Revisionist History, The Distance, Planet Money and Stuff You Should Know.
  2. Read books written by people who disagree with you. You’re not going to be challenged by people who already share your perspective.
  3. Follow a few blogs. Some of my favorites are Paul Sohn, Carey Nieuwhof, and Brian Dodd.
  4. Listen to audio books while traveling.
  5. Take walks to think. Charles Dickens did this all the time and characters he saw in real life made their way into his books.
  6. Go to a conference. Not the same one you always go to but one that addresses a key skill you want to develop.
  7. Join or start a mastermind group. A mastermind is a group of people who meet once a month to share ideas. One person sits on the hot seat, shares a problem, and the others provide targeted advice.
  8. Get good at asking questions. “What’s something that is working well for you right now?” is a great question to ask.
  9. Hire a leadership coach. I’ve done this a handful of times, and every single time, there was a breakthrough that truly paid off.  For what it’s worth, I’ll work with you for six months.  It’s not cheap, but it’s worth it.
  10. Invite someone to come in and evaluate what you’re doing. Because you’re in the middle of it, you’re not the best person to evaluate. Bring in an outsider with a fresh perspective. You’ll get 10x the return on investment.
  11. Watch a TED talk. One of my favorites is this six minute one from Angela Lee Duckworth.
  12. Limit the voices. If you are trying to follow and emulate 25 different people, you’ll end up being a confused leader. Pick 3-5 mentors and go beyond the surface.
  13. Schedule appointments with yourself. Most of us schedule interruptions to work, not the work itself. So put work time on your calendar and treat it like a real appointment.
  14. Read books about US Presidents.  My friend Tony is doing this and is sharing some great insights on his blog.
  15. Work on your strengths, not your weaknesses. If you’re pretty good at something, develop it further. You’re not going to excel by going from terrible to mediocre, but you can get an unfair advantage when you go from good to great.

Tools and Apps That Run Our Online Business

The team at Church Fuel is growing and we’re serving more and more church leaders.  I like to share some of the inner workings on the blog in hopes it encourages and helps you in your business.

Today, I’ll talk about the tools, apps and services we use to run our business.  Here’s the quick list.

  • Email Marketing: Infusionsoft.  This really powers everything we do.
  • Customer Support: ZenDesk.  All customer support requests go here and our team handles.
  • Project Management: Basecamp.  We use Basecamp to manage projects, action lists and team communication.
  • Website: WordPress, Studio Press, and some custom design.  Our online presence is built on WordPress.
  • Landing Pages: Lead Pages.  We have a few custom pages, but I’ve been a big fan of Lead Pages for quite a while.
  • Website Hosting: WP Engine.  Since upgrading a year ago, I’ve been extremely pleased.
  • File Storage: Amazon S3.  Files we share with the public go here and we link in emails.  Very reliable and affordable.
  • Merchant Account: Power Pay.  This lets us take credit cards and it hooks into our shopping cart.  We also have a second merchant account as a backup.
  • Social Media: Buffer.  Our team uses Buffer to post and schedule content.
  • Webinars: Go to Meeting.  I’ve tried some of the cheaper options, but this is the best.
  • Video Conferencing: Zoom.  Whether it’s recording an interview or working with our remote team, Zoom gets it done.
  • Email and Calendar: Google Apps for Business.  Email, doc sharing, and shared calendars all happen through Google.
  • Screencast: ScreenFlow.  Whether it’s capturing a screencast for a training or doing a pre-recorded webinar, ScreenFlow is my software of choice.

What tools do you use?  What should I add to this list?

Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces that Shape Behavior

Invisible-Influence-Jacket-ImageHere are my notes, quotes, and thoughts from Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces that Shape Behavior, by Jonah Berger.

  • Without realizing it, others have a huge influence on almost every aspect of life.
  • We know other people are easily influenced, but believe other’s influence on our life is weaker than it really is.
  • Who you follow affects what you do. When you’re uncertain, you tend to rely on others more. We see their decisions as a shortcut for decision making.
  • Even when an answer is clear and obvious, other people’s decisions affect your choices.
  • Mimicking is a helpful negotiating tactic.  If someone acts like us, we infer we have things in common or a part of the same tribe.  That’s why bribing kids to eat vegetables doesn’t work.  Kids know if they were good in the first place, they wouldn’t need a reward to eat them.  If broccoli is the first thing on parents’ plate and the first thing parent eat, kids will do the same.
  • Three-fourths of the best sports players in the country have at least one older brother or sister.  Top athletes tend to be later-born children.
  • Sometimes people don’t want to be the same as everyone else. Sometimes people want to be different.  Example: ordering food at a restaurant.  You’ll order your second choice if someone else orders your first.  When a band becomes popular, liking it is less unique so people talk about “their early stuff.”
  • Differences are often illusions.  People think their babies and pets are completely different from others. We fixate on the tiny distinctions and miss the fact that, at the core, we are very much the same.
  • We imitate others and try to distinguish ourselves at the same time.  Example: Everyone goes to Starbucks but orders an original drink.
  • Geoffrey Cohen, a Stanford professor, examined how people felt about a welfare policy.  Liberals loved in and conservatives hated it.  But when he told people the policy was supported by 95% of the House Republicans, they became in extreme favor.  Liberals were just as susceptible to social influence.  In both cases, party is stronger than policy.
  • Words matter: When men see a 12-ounce cut and an 8-ounce ladies cut on the menu, 95% of men choose the larger option regardless of how hungry they are.  Changing the name of the smaller steak to “chef’s cut” dramatically changed the results.
  • Criminals eat bread, yet that doesn’t seem to have stopped people from eating it.  That’s because the association isn’t strong.
  • Wealth is often private.  No one but you knows how much money you have in your bank account.  Status is social.  It’s attained in the eyes of others.
  • Piracy speeds obsolescence. When people start selling knock-off Gucci bags, people stop liking them and choose a different model.  When everybody starts saying it, people change because it’s no longer cool.
  • The popularity of names is influenced by the names of devastating hurricanes.  Hurricane Katrina decreased the popularity of the name Katrina, but increased the popularity of other names that began with hard K sound.  It’s called moderate similarity.
  • You might think Strawberry is your favorite ice cream, but if you never try anything else, it’s hard to know for sure.
  • The right blend of familiarity and novelty drives what becomes popular.  If it’s too novel, it’s unfamiliar.  If it’s too familiar, it’s boring.  It’s why people dress the same but try to personalize.  The same brand, different color.  Similar, but different.
  • We clock on the icon of a floppy disk to save files and drag items to what looks like a waste bin to delete them.  Veggie burgers have grill marks to make the different seem similar.
  • Cyclists know racing together improves performance.  It’s called social facilitation – the presence of others leads people to perform faster and better than they would otherwise.  It’s true in the animal world as well, where ants dig her times as much sand when working alongside other ants, even if they aren’t cooperating.
  • But the presence of others can have a negative effect when performing unfamiliar or tough tasks.  Skilled pool players make more shots when others are watching, but unskilled players miss more.  Other people make you run faster (easy task), but make you parallel park worse (tougher task).
  • People don’t check their energy bill (the most important thing one could do if they want to conserve energy), because it’s confusing.  Nobody knows what a kilowatt hour or a therm is.
  • To change people’s energy use, don’t focus on the environment or social responsibility or even saving money.  The more effective campaign is telling people their neighbors are saving energy.

I highly recommend everyone read this book.  It’s well-written, full of insight and helpful data and can help you be a better leader.  Grab it here.

Seven Lessons Learned Leading a Startup

My company, Church Fuel, is almost 2 years old.

We have 500 members in our flagship program and we’ve served more than 1,300 pastors and church leaders with paid training and thousands more with free resources.

If you want a quick review of where we’ve been, check out this series of posts called “Behind the Startup.”

It hasn’t been easy, and I’ve messed a lot of things up along the way. We’ve had our share of low-lights, but we’ve also learned so much in the process.

In fact, learning is one of our company core values.  We don’t call it failure – we call it tuition. Because every mistake we make provides an education we will use in the future.

Here are seven things I’ve learned as the CEO of a young, growing, primarily online organization.

#1 – Recurring revenue is the key to sustainable growth.

In the early months, our revenue primarily came from consulting.  I actually still do this on a small scale because I want to stay connected to the tribe we serve.  There’s nothing wrong with helping people one-on-one and nobody says you HAVE to scale your business.

But we knew in order to serve more people we had to adopt a broader business model. We created a few digital resources and began selling them online.

The final pivot was to a membership site model.

Around the time I’d mostly settled on the new direction, I read The Automatic Customer by Paul Warrilow.  This book solidified our team around the new membership program and we launched Church Fuel One.

I’m bullish on membership programs.  They are hard, but they are worth it for two reasons.

First, they give us the best opportunity to develop a relationship with our client.  It’s really hard to help someone if they just download something and go on their way.  Problems are usually too deep and situations are usually too complex for a short ebook or a digital download to solve.  For us to truly make a difference, we need to walk with our customers for a longer period of time.

Second, they provide recurring revenue.  This is the holy grail of business because it allows us to sell something one time and get paid every month.  I’d much rather sell a membership to Church Fuel One than a digital download of Church Docs.

Both products are helpful, but when someone joins the membership, we put revenue on the books for three months from now.  This really helps us hire staff and do business with the end in mind.  The pressure to hit a revenue number, create 75% off sales, and come up with the next great product is small because there’s a consistent user-base.

We still sell a few single-purchase resources, but now we use them as a lead-in to our membership program.  And I’m happy to say that we’ve passed 500 monthly subscribers and we’re on the way to the goal of serving 5,000 pastors.

#2 – Our best customer is a pastor with a staff.

Before we built Church Fuel One, we did a ton of research.  We asked people what they wanted to know, how they wanted to digest content, and what their goals and fears were for the next few years.

We built a perfect customer profile that allowed us to tailor our message to the ideal client.  There’s no point spending money trying to attract the wrong customer!

Part of this analysis led us to this simple truth: our best customers have a staff they struggle to lead.  It could be a few full-time people or a handful of part-time people, but pastors who have a small team are dealing with some of the most complex leadership issues in the church.  They are bigger than one-man-shows, but not big enough to have people in all the boxes on their org chart.

This is why The Senior Pastor Guide to Leading a Staff is not only our most downloaded eBook in the series…it also leads to the most revenue.

Our team isn’t trying to become experts in church leadership, we’re trying to become experts in church leaders.  It’s the people who make the decisions.  It’s the leaders who execute the strategy.

We can have all the helpful stuff we want, but if we miss out on understanding the client, we’ll miss it.

You can’t build a product or service for everyone, so who are you trying to serve?  Your description should be as narrow as possible. Almost to the point of making you uncomfortable. Taking the time to create a buyer persona is well worth it. This Hubspot article will give you a step-by-step guide.

#3 – In order to grow, we need specialists not generalists.

When Rob and I started Church Fuel, we both did everything. We created the products, set up the Infusionsoft campaigns and ran the marketing ads.  Every project was a two person project and we had little outside help.

We were like the mom and pop store where pop stocked the shelves and mom ran the register.

After a few months, we realized that if our hands were in everything, we would never be able to break through and have a real business.  We didn’t need generalists who cared about everything; we needed specialists who were experts in one thing.

The last few people we’ve hired have been specialists.  Yes, they care about the whole company, but their expertise is limited and far more focused.

If you want to have a business, you really need three people.

  • Someone to make it.
  • Someone to sell it.
  • Someone to fulfill it.

It took us a while to get there, but we have those three people on our team.

Karen is our content director.  She helps me make resources that address people’s problems.  She project manages the content and makes sure it’s great.  I want Karen to think the secret to growing our company is to produce the best product possible.

Kurian is our marketer.  His job is to move the membership needle.  Yes, he cares about the product and of course he cares about customer satisfaction, but his goals are tied to sales.  He wakes up thinking about how to sell.  I need Kurian to think the secret to growing our company is a systematic approach to marketing.

Emily is on our team to make customers happy. She spends half of her time reacting to customer needs and the other half of her time proactively thinking about how to do what we do better.  Yes, she cares about how many customers we have, but her primary concern is making every customer feel like family.  I want Emily to think the only thing that matters is making people happy.

These three people are specialists.  Of course they care about the whole organization, but they aren’t thinking about all parts of it at the same time (that’s my job).  They bring extreme focus to where they add the most value.

#4 – Quality matters

I recently bought a very expensive online course from one of the internet gurus. I’d been tracking his stuff for years and have actually used some his philosophy.  But I wasn’t an official customer yet.  The product was really expensive.

Now the marketing videos were amazing.  High production value, shot in multiple locations, with all kids of testimonials and graphics.  It was fresh and modern and I could tell this guy spent a lot of money on the promotional materials.

The product videos (what I actually paid for) were considerably lower quality.  One camera shot in front of a whiteboard.  They looked like they hadn’t been updated in years.  The content was great, but it didn’t look great.  Clearly, the money was spent on the marketing.

In our business, there is a lot of competition.

There are a LOT of online courses, digital resources, and membership programs for pastors. Every network and denomination has available resources.  There are lots of pastors who sell things on the side.  It’s crowded.

One of the ways we’re looking to stand out is quality.

We want our videos to be insanely practical, but we also want our customers to like the way they look.  It’s why our courses aren’t recycled webinars and expanded free ebooks.  Our best stuff goes to our paying customers.

If you want to stand out in business, create great stuff.

#5 – Communication is so important when working remote.

Looking  back on the last 18 months, the areas where we failed were marked by poor communication.

Either I didn’t properly communicate expectations. Or we didn’t have set times to talk honestly about progress. Or we got too busy doing the work to stop and talk about effectiveness.

With a remote team, communication is even more important.  We still have a way to go here, but I’m happy we’ve made progress.  Here are a two we do to stay on the same page.

We use Basecamp to keep all our projects in line and on time.  We have one project for general communication and everyone in the company is a part of it.  There are discussions, to-do lists and files shared here.  Screen Shot 2016-06-07 at 7.32.03 AM

Every time we launch a new resource, we create a new basecamp and invite the appropriate people.  If people aren’t involved in the project, they don’t need to be a part of the discussion.

Basecamp also lets me quickly run simple reports of what’s on someone’s plate, what’s been assigned to me, or what’s overdo.  It’s my favorite collaboration and productivity.

The second thing we’ve done to streamline communication on our remote team is stay really clear about our meetings.  Here are the four meetings that happen:

  • We have a weekly meeting that lasts 30 minutes. This is where we celebrate wins and get quick updates on goals.
  • We have a monthly meeting that lasts 1 hour.  This is where each person on our team gives an update on their area of focus.  We used a modified version of the Level 10 meeting system that Gino Wickman talks about in Traction.
  • We have a quarterly meeting that lasts 2 hours.  This is where we set goals for the next quarter.
  • We have an annual, in-person meeting that lasts 2 days.  This is where we set annual goals and build our annual calendar.


Each bigger meeting knocks the smaller meeting off the calendar.  It’s not a perfect system, but it works well for us.

#6 – Short-term projects are a great way to keep focused.

Traction is one of the books that has shaped our company culture.  Another book is The 12 Week Year by Brian P. Moran.

The idea in Brian’s book is to take an entire year and shrink it to a quarter.  In February, December feels like a long way off, which is why annual goals don’t often motivate us.  Instead, set 12-week or quarterly goals and treat the end of each quarter like it’s the end of each year.

In Q2 of 2016, one of our three goals was to pass 400 monthly members in our membership program.  Because we only had three months to do this, it was on the top of everyone’s mind and it kept coming up in meetings and phone calls.

12-week goals have been one of the keys to our productivity.

Another thing that has really worked well for us has been the weekly sprint.  We take a project that involves everyone on the team and shrink it down to one week.

The first sprint was to launch an eBook called 101 Church Ideas.

On Monday, we discussed on Basecamp and made all key decisions (including the price).  On Tuesday and Wednesday, we built everything from the sales page to the thank you page to the shopping cart description.  On Thursday, we wrote and sent a sales email.  On Friday, we followed up with people who purchased and measured the goal.

On day 4 and 5, we sold 141 books, just 9 short of our goal.  But the real win was the teamwork and the focus it brought out team.  Involving the entire team and working toward one specific goal really helped us come together.

#7 – Survive and advance.

Quality is one of the things that will help us stand out from the competition.

The other thing is patience.

I’ve shared with this our team on several occasions, but one of our goals is to outlast the competition. To be there years from now when others have moved on.

Seth Godin says a ten-year plan is absurd. It’s a ten-year commitment that’s required.

That’s the view we’re taking with Church Fuel.

Slow, steady and built for the long haul.

Church Fuel Low Lights

Everybody loves to talk about highlights and accomplishments.

We’ve been doing Church Fuel for a year-and-a-half now, and while things are going really well, not everything we’ve done has worked.

We’ve had some highlights for sure.  But we’ve also had some lowlights.


I want to pull back the curtain a little bit and talk about some of the things we’ve done that haven’t worked all that well.

Here you go.

#1 – We had some products that didn’t work well.

Today, we have three main products.  All of them are really helpful and all of them are selling on par with the plans.

But in 2015, we launched some products that didn’t work that well.

We had some coaching modules called Action Guides.  I thought they would sell, but they just didn’t.  We pulled them from the store.

We launched a really good course called Content Marketing for Churches.  It was really well-produced and the content was really helpful.  But it didn’t connect with the audience or sell really well.  We still have this product and it’s really good, but it’s not a core part of our strategy.

The Action Guides – they weren’t clear.  I think they were good products, but the benefits to the customer weren’t clear.  What you actually got and what you could expect were a little confusing.

The Content Course – it was a bad name.  Churches may not even know what content marketing really is.  There was no appeal in the course.  There was no baked in benefit.

Both of those resources fell far below expectations.  They didn’t work.

#2 – We wasted some money on marketing that didn’t work.

We’re finding a lot of success advertising our free resources on Facebook.  Our list is growing and we’re helping a lot of people.

But last year, we tried an email ad buy with a major advertiser, and it was a flop.  We spent a good bit of money on design and sending, and it just didn’t convert at all.

No rhyme or reason – it just didn’t work.

Our own efforts outperformed this expensive option by a factor of 10.

It makes me sick thinking about the wasted money and it was definitely one expensive flop.

#3 – I didn’t define roles and responsibilities at the partner level.  

Church Fuel is a partnership, and I absolutely love partnerships.  Done right, you bring different skill sets to the table and you can go further, faster.

Nearly every business I’m a part of is a partnership.

But early on in Church Fuel, I didn’t define the roles, responsibilities and expectations clear enough.  This hasn’t hurt us in the long run, but I think it slowed the momentum and created a little confusion.

I’m learning that every role needs specific responsibilities and measurements.  Not generalists, but specialists.

The other day, I attended a board meeting for an Atlanta-area non-profit. There were some high-level leaders on the board and they were talking about who they should add for the next term.

Instead of just listing great people, they focused on the skill sets they wanted to add to the room.  As they talked about potential board members, they talked about what they would add to the group.

It wasn’t about filling a seat with a generalist who cared about the mission of the organization.  It was about bringing in a specific person who could make a specific contribution.

#4 – Our company meeting rhythm was weak.

Early on, it was just two of us.

Then we added some virtual employees and freelancers.

As we grew, we got sucked into the daily operation of the company and we didn’t have a good meeting structure in place.

In my last business, this was a strong point.  And we’re righting the ship right now.

As the leader, I didn’t force the right kind of meetings and insist on clear communication.  I’m convinced no matter how small the team, a meeting structure is absolutely necessary.  You don’t need to have a lot of meetings, but you need to have the right meetings.

#5 – We tried an in-person event and it was a total flop.

I have this infatuation with getting people together in person. Maybe one day we’ll be able to pull it off. But that’s not even close to what happened the first time we tried.

We created this 2-day event called The Systems Workshop.  Bring 12 people together to create systems and build them right in the room.

We built a sales page.  We sent emails.  We promoted it pretty hard.

And exactly one person signed up.


Even through all of these tough lessons and lowlights, it wasn’t all bad.

We’re learning.

We’re growing.

And we’re getting better.

Messing around with products that didn’t work solidified our plan to start an online membership program for pastors.

It’s worked really well and it’s growing at a steady pace.  We just signed a deal with a major partner to expand it exponentially.

The roles and responsibilities thing led me to create crystal clear job descriptions and focus people on specific areas of the company.  No more generalists!

The sketchy meeting rhythm is turning into clarity and our team is going to be better because of it.

The in-person event?  It just reminded me that we can be the best in the world at delivering online training with a personal touch.

In short, messing things up and getting things wrong is a part of business.

As I write this, I’m thinking about your business.  What can you learn from my lowlights?

Here are some takeaways.

  1. Don’t be afraid to try things.  So many people wait around for the great idea.  But here’s the thing…it doesn’t matter if it’s a good idea.  In fact, stop trying to figure out if it’s a good idea and just test it.  A mediocre idea executed properly will beat a great idea executed poorly.
  2. Think of money you lose as TUITION.  I don’t know where I first read that, but it’s helped me greatly.  Nobody is truly angry about tuition costs.  Because tuition is more like an investment.  You pay tuition because you know there’s something worth it at the end of the line.  So that wasted ad buy…that’s tuition.  It’s going to teach you what not to do, and that’s a valuable lesson that will pay off down the line.
  3. Don’t beat yourself up when it doesn’t work.  Lots of things you try aren’t going to work. They key is to learn and move on.  It’s okay to pull an underperforming product from the shelves.  It’s okay to shift gears.
  4. Look for specialists.  If you’re trying to grow something, you don’t need a bunch of generalists who care about the big picture.  You actually need specialists to unfairly focus on one aspect of the organization.  You want people who think like a broken record.  You need people who think the solution to everything is the same thing.  This is why a team of point guards doesn’t win games.  Who is the next specialist you need to add to the team?

In the next post, I want to share some of the lessons I’ve learned in running this company for the last 18 months.

Stay tuned…