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.

The Dangerous Dark Side of Being a Visionary Leader

If you’re a visionary leader, this post is for you.  If you work for a visionary leader, forward it to them.

Though a lot of people think of me as a systems guy, I actually tip more to the visionary side of things when it comes to leadership.  I like to set direction, cast vision, and get out of the way. Though I value checklists and systems, I don’t love them the way others do.

Whether i was leading a summer camp business, student ministry, or brand new church, I preferred to take care of the big picture and leave the details in the hands of other competent people.

But there’s a dangerous dark side to leadership, one that has crept in to my life on many occasions.  So from personal experience, here’s a behind the scenes look at the dark side of visionary leadership.

  1.  Visionary leaders can easily overpower a room.  Whether it’s a regularly scheduled team meeting or an impromptu get-together, visionary leaders can take over and impose their strong will on everyone.  The doers and thinkers don’t speak up, because they don’t feel it’s their place.  They sit in silence, afraid to share their opinions.   On many occasions, I’ve taken a conversation off topic because it’s where I wanted to go, but mildly chastise people back to the topic when they raise supplemental issues.   Because visionary leaders are so passionate about their vision, we can unwillingly override the vision of others.
  2. Visionary leaders try to creation visionary solutions to every problem.  Les McKeown says not all problems have a visionary solution.  For example, systems problems can’t be solved by throwing more vision on the problem.  Systems problems need systems solutions, and those are probably going to come from systems people.  As a visionary leader, I’m tempted to bring everything back to our purpose and mission, and keep us in the warm fuzzies.  But there are times when we need to dive into processes and systems and create some documents.  If I minimize this or attempt to check out every time, it will deflate others on the team.
  3. Visionary leaders tend to dump tasks on everyone. As a visionary leader, it’s easy for me to create a solution to a problem.  But just because something is decided, doesn’t mean it’s done.  Just because we’ve set the direction, doesn’t mean we’ve won.  I often don’t consider the true cost of a decision.  Not just the financial cost, but the time, energy, and intangible cost of follow through.  As a leader, I’ve got to slow down and consider the real ramifications of committing to a project.  After I’m gone, someone (or a group of people) will have significant work to do.  I’ll be on to the next visionary problem, but they will be implementing the last thing.
  4. Visionary leaders are overconfident. Psychologists talk about confirmation bias – the tendency to overvalue information that goes along with their beliefs.  When I’m emotionally connected to an issue, I’ll always find data, examples and reasons to charge forward.  Instead of looking at things from all angles, I search out facts that validate what I really want to do.  So this comes across in strong statements like “I absolutely know” or “This will work” or “If we do this, we will easily hit our goal.”
  5.  Visionary leaders tend to leave people behind. Perhaps the biggest struggle I have as a visionary is leaving people behind.  Because the vision always propels me forward, I suppose it’s a natural byproduct.  Perhaps you’ve heard the scaffolding analogy:  Some people are like scaffolding – incredibly useful in building something but not necessary after it’s done..  People say “it’s lonely at the top” to justify ram-rodding people and alienating relationships in the name of growth.  Maybe growth at the cost of relationships is necessary, but sometimes, it might not be worth it.   Well, it’s just as likely that I can’t lead as it is that they can’t keep up.

I love being a visionary leader, but I have to constantly guard against the dark side.  It tempts me far more than I let on.


Book Notes: Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek


Here are my notes from Leaders Eat Last, by Simon Sinek.  This is one of the top 10 books I’ve read, and it’s going on my culture-shaping list of books every leader should let shape the culture of their organization.  The title of the book comes from the military, where officers ate last.

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” – John Quincy Adams

Exceptional organizations have a culture of empathy, where leaders provide cover from above and the people on the ground look out for each other.  Being a leader is like being a parent, and the company is like a new family to join.  Letting someone into an organization is like adopting a child.

Marines are better equipped to confront external dangers because they fear no danger from each other.  They operate in a circle of safety.

To earn the trust of people, the leaders of an organization must first treat them like people.  A toxic culture causes biological survival mechanisms to kick in.  Without a circle of safety, people spend too much time and energy protecting themselves from each other.  Results are not a result of orders, but the results of being trusted.

The ability of a group of people to do remarkable things hinges on how well those people pull together as a team.

1/3 of employees consider leaving their jobs, but 1.5% actually do.  Most people stay stuck in unhealthy environments.


  • Progress releases DOPAMINE – the chemical that gives us a good feeling when you find what we are looking for or do something that needs to be done.  Accomplishment is fueled by dopamine.  But a lasting sense of accomplishment comes from engagement.
  • SEROTONIN is the feeling of pride you get when you perceive respect.  It makes us feel strong and confident.
  • OXYTOCIN is the feeling of friendship, love or deep trust.
  • CORTISOL is responsible for the stress and anxiety you feel – the first level of our flight or fight response.  It alerts us to possible danger.  It’s not meant to stay in our body forever.  Many people get accustomed to this.  But just because it’s normal, doesn’t mean it’s acceptable.

“The cost of leadership is self-interest.” – Lieutenant General George Flynn, USMC.

We don’t trust rules, we trust people.

The more we have, the bigger our fences.  Too many environments today do more to frustrate than to foster our natural inclinations to trust and cooperate.

When we cannot see the impact tot our decisions, when the lives of people become an abstraction, 65% of us have the capacity to kill someone. [based on the Stanley Milgrim experiment]  Don’t work too far out of sight from the people your decisions affect.   When numbers are the only thing you see, your ability to perceive impact is diminished.


  1. Bring people together.  The Internet can’t buy connected relationships.
  2. Keep it manageable – obey Dunbar’s number of 150.
  3. Meet the people you help.
  4. Give them time, not just money.  A parent can’t buy the love of their children with gifts and a boss can’t buy the loyalty of an employee with salaries and bonuses.
  5. Be patient.  It probably takes longer than 7 days but shorter than 7 years to fall in love.

In a weak culture, we veer away from doing the right thing and doing the thing that’s right for me.

The leader is responsible for the culture.  So goes the leader, so goes the culture.  Bad cultures breed bad leaders.   80% of 3M’s patent applications list more than one inventor.

We work to advance the vision of a leader who inspires us and we work to undermine a dictator who means to control us.  Perhaps we should measure the health of an organization by the number of quality and healthy relationships inside it.

The goal of a leader is to give no order – Captain Marquet, Sante Fe, who banned “permission to…” in exchange for “I intend to…

Would I want to be in a foxhole with you? 

Cooperation doesn’t mean agreement.  It means working together to advance the greater good.

Lead the people, not the numbers.   What if we judge a leader not on what they do when they ar holding the torch but on what happens after they pass it on?  Leadership is about taking responsibility for lives and not numbers.

When short term performance is valued above all else, the well-being of the people will be put second.  Short term results don’t truly inspire people.  Too many CEO’s seem to skip the hard work of actually leading their employees.

Step 12 is the commitment to help another alcoholic beat the disease.  It’s all about service.  The connections required to beat addiction must be real.

I highly recommend this book for every leader.  Order it here.

Three Things Every Leader Needs

I love helping leaders.  And I’m blessed to be able to work with so many great leaders.

And it’s awesome to see leaders in so many areas of life – in the home, in the workplace and in the church.  Here are three things every leader needs.

Three Things Every Leader Must Have

1.  Purpose

Most organizations know what they do.  A few can articulate how they do it.  But very few know WHY they do what they do.

That’s what Simon Sinek says in Start with Why. (one of my top five books for leaders, by the way)

This isn’t just a business principle – it’s something for every leader.  Before you build a list of action steps or hire people or do anything at all – you need to come to grips with the purpose behind it all.

There’s a good chance you inherited your purpose – either from your parents, or from culture, or from the immediate need in front of you.

Before you do anything, you need to know WHY you’re doing it.  Uncovering the true driving force will provide a lot of clarity on any decision.  If you can take the time to clarify the WHY, the WHAT will become much more clear.

2.  People

In addition to a clear purpose, you need people around you.  You might be able to accomplish more than the average person, but without a great team around you, you will never be able to do all you were meant to do.

“Give a great idea to a mediocre team and they will mess it up.  But give a mediocre idea to a great team, and they will pull it off or make it better,” writes Ed Catmull, the President of Pixar in Creativity, Inc.

Nearly every great accomplishment happened through a team.  Take the light bulb, for example.  You credit Thomas Edison for that invention, but he had a whole team of people working on that project.

Whenever you see someone win a prize, know there is probably a team equally deserving of praise.

One of your most important jobs as a leader is to build a team of people that is smarter than you.

3.  Plans

On Sunday night, we huddle as a family to talk about the schedule.  Between tests, chorus, baseball, tennis, lacrosse and two birthday parties, the week looked pretty full.  Honestly, we were stressed before the week even got started.

Now every family has weeks like this from time to time, but this was becoming normal in our house.  One day, we made an important realization.

Our schedule was driving our plans, not the other way around.  We need to let OUR plan as parents dictate the kids schedule, not just accept everything as fact and go with the flow.

There’s nothing wrong with tennis, chorus or lacrosse (though I don’t fully understand the rules), but if those activities don’t help our family fulfill our purpose, they are distractions.  All to often, we just accept things, refusing to understand we’re really in control.

Any knucklehead can set goals.  It’s the hard work and the everyday step you take that sets you apart.

  • I know a lot of people who want to be better parents.  What’s your plan?
  • I know a lot of people who want a better marriage.  What’s your plan?
  • I know a lot of people who want to get out of debt.  What’s your plan?

It’s great to set goals, but what you need is a plan.  They won’t appear out of thin air; they require intentional thought and focused discipline.

Organize Your Church with Good Systems

About one year into leading a rapidly growing church, things were spinning out of control. There were people everywhere and we had no processes to get anything done.  My friend Matt sent be a verse from the book of Proverbs that changed things.

Proverbs 19:2 says “passion without knowledge is not good.”  I was a church planter drunk on passion and vision, but had no real strategy to make anything happen.  Passion alone wasn’t enough, I needed to get organized around that passion.

I’ve met  many well-meaning, good-hearted people who simply can’t get anything done.  I don’t think the problem is a lack of understanding around the calling, or a vision to reach people for Jesus.  A lot of churches have systems problems…organizational oversights that hinder growth.

Seven Principles of Church Systems

1. Good systems don’t naturally develop. The Second Law of Thermodynamics (also called the law of entropy) states that things naturally go from a state of order to chaos. This scientific principle is the reason that my kid’s clean room turns into a disaster area in twenty minutes. What begins well in the church often gets confusing and muddy over time. This is why we must evaluate and improve, because if you leave things alone, they get worse all by themselves.

2. Good systems solve problems. Trying harder rarely leads to greater results. Instead of asking everyone to problem solve setup issues, create a system for people to follow.  Instead of dealing with volunteer issues all the time, create a system to onboard people the healthy way.

3. Planning saves money.  I saw a triangle once that had the words good, cheap and fast in the three corrners.  The rule is you could have any two of the three you want.  You can have good and cheap, but you’re not gonna get that fast.  You can fast and cheap, but it won’t be good.  Planning allows churches to have things good and cheap, and that’s where most need to be.

4. Planning leads to better decisions.  If you have some good systems in place, you will make better decisions.  “Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established.” – Proverbs 16:3. “The simple believes everything, but the prudent gives thought to his steps.” – Proverbs 14:15

5. Someone needs to think this way. If you’re wired for passion and vision (like most pastors and church planters), then you are probably not good when it comes to thinking through systems. . That’s okay, but you MUST find someone who is. You can let organized volunteers speak into this process or bring in someone to help you set things up for maximum effectiveness.  “Give instruction to a wise man and he will be still wiser, teach a righteous man, and he will increase in learning.” – Proverbs 9:9

6. Involve your team. When people contribute to the creation of the system, there’s automatic buy in. People don’t like to be handed a plan and hear, “Hey, you…go execute this.”  If you can involve your team in building healthy systems, they will be far more effective at running them.

7. Write it down.  A system that’s not written down, referenced and discussed won’t make a difference.  Get those ideas out of your head and create a document.  And bring that document out of the folder on your computer and talk about it in real life.

Church Systems Action Steps

  1. If you haven’t done it already, go through my Organize Your Church in 30 Days course.  It’s free.
  2. Do a systems makeover. Consider bringing in someone to help. You will surprised in how much you could accomplish with just one or two days of focus.
  3. Pick one system that needs improvement and work on it this week.

Getting organized isn’t about making ministry easier, it’s about making it more effective.