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.

It Might Not Be As Bad As You Think It Is

I wanted to share a quick and hopefully encouraging lesson with you. It starts with this picture.


Looks like a pretty nice place, doesn’t it?

Now, take a look at this next picture.


That’s a picture of the exact same property. Know what’s different?


Perspective is your mental view or outlook. It’s how you see things. Consider…

  • You might feel like things are financially tough. Perspective tells you that your church is more blessed than you think.
  • You might feel like you’re not growing as fast as the church down the street. Perspective tells you to shepherd the people God has entrusted to you.
  • You might feel like you don’t have enough people to serve. Perspective teaches you to appreciate and pastor those who give so much of their time.

It’s easy for our perspective to get out of whack…it happens to me all the time. I get caught up in the here and now and lose perspective. I think about the things I don’t have, and forget about things I do have. I try hard to get to the next level or break the next growth barrier, and I forget to enjoy the journey. I slip into leader mode and forget that my first ministry is to my family.

So maybe these pictures can give you a perspective change today. I know they did for me.

By the way, shout out to Kem Meyer who originally posted these pictures in a blog post titled “perspective.”

Celebrate Limits


There are a lot of things you might not have.

  • You might not have enough money in the bank account.
  • You might not have an administrative assistant.
  • You might not have enough space, a MacBook Pro or a volunteer leader.

Tt would be easy to sit around and talk about what you could do it we only had this.  Or what might be if you only had that. But that’s deadly thinking.

It’s the kind of thinking that leads to excuse making.  It’s the kind of thinking that, unchecked, turns into complaining.  Dreaming is good, but depending on dreams to execute our daily tasks will only lead to frustration.  Hope is a sucky strategy.

Let me say it this way. You can only work with what you have.

The stuff you have at our disposal right now are the pieces God has given you.

  • If I only had more time…that’s wrong thinking.  You have the same number of hours in the day as Albert Einstein, Thomas Jefferson and Mother Theresa.
  • If we only had a bigger budget…that’s wrong thinking.  You have more resources at your disposal than the startup who found a way to bootstrap greatness.
  • If we only had access to so and so…don’t believe that lie.  You know who you know.

The Superbowl-winning Baltimore Ravens played on the same size field, under the same rules, and with the same salary cap as the 2-14 Kansas City Chiefs.

Constraints are not the enemy.  Limitations don’t mean losing. It’s when those things become excuses that we will find ourselves handicapped by the potential blessings.

You have what you have and that’s enough to do what you do.

What the Church Could Learn from the US Postal Service

Yesterday, the United States Postal Service announced it would end Saturday delivery of mail in an attempt to cut costs. Say what you want about the inefficiency of government, but this was the right move. It will save the federal government about $2 Billion and it’s supported by 7 of 10 Americans.

It will bring greater efficiency, decrease cost and not make many people mad. Most people can do without catalogues and credit card offers on Saturday.

The local church could actually learn something from the USPS.

Cutting programs that drain the budget but don’t serve many people might be a step in the right direction. Putting resources elsewhere (budget dollars and volunteer hours are among those very important and limited resources) might make more important ministries more effective. Each church should wrestle through things that could be cut, in order to do better ministry elsewhere, but here’s a short list to get you thinking.

  • Services that aren’t close to capacity.
  • Mid-week programs that used to be effective.
  • Mens and women’s ministries that duplicate ministry done elsewhere
  • Daycares and schools that don’t fulfill the stated mission of the church.
  • Ministry specific websites.
  • Mission trips that are more sightseeing than missions.
  • Superbowl parties and Fall festivals that keep people from hanging with their neighbors

I’m not suggesting all of those ministries should be eliminated.  I am suggesting you take a hard look at all of the things you are doing and see if you should prune in order to grow.  Focusing on fewer things often makes them better things.

Break it Before You Fix It

Our company is in the midst of breaking a lot of things. And we’re doing it on purpose.

Because it can be put back together in a better way…smarter way…and a way that will work better for the next season.

In The Leadership Challenge, Kouzes and Posner argue that all ideas have to be periodically deconstructed. Before it’s absolutely necessary, it’s a good idea to challenge every assumption and process, and when necessary, tear it all down so you can build it back up.

Too many times, we think there’s only one way to do something. Usually, it’s our way, or the familiar way. But we must always believe that there’s a better way to do something. We won’t improve naturally – we get worse naturally. Only when we challenge the assumption and deconstruct stuff will we create something that’s better.

What Makes High Level Leaders Ineffective

Here’s a random observation.

The higher level leader you are, the more resources you need in order to be effective.

So the big mistake we make in churches (and business for that matter), is depleting the budget to bring in a high level leader, but have nothing left over for admin help or an operational budget.

Without these things, top leaders could be frustrated or ineffective.

The Best Ideas Come from Unlikely Sources

Masking tape was invented by a guy who worked for an auto body paint shop.

Post It Notes weren’t invented because someone was trying to invent the post it note.

Some of the best ideas aren’t totally out-of-the box, brand new thoughts, but a combination of two or more ideas. So it’s not always a brand new product that revolutionizes life, but the mixing of two ideas to create a semi-new category of something.

The technical term for this is conceptual blending.

It’s why you get great ideas when you’re outside your normal flow. For example, we recently got a great idea because we intentionally went into a section of a bookstore dealing with art and design. I have minimal interest in art and design, but something I noticed there greatly influenced one of my core responsibilities.

It’s why the best people to ask about your church bulletin and handout might not be your staff, but moms or insurance salesmen who have a good grasp of writing. The people knee deep in the operation might not be the best people to innovate…you might need to bring in help. Not complete outsiders, but people on the fringe.

It’s why pastors need to read people magazine. There’s very little there of eternal worth, but it’s a glimpse into what people are thinking and talking about throughout the normal week.

Get outside the normal.  Or bring in some people from the fringe.

That’s how innovation happens.

Your People Don’t Want You To Grow

When I go to a restaurant, I don’t want my server to be slammed with tables. It prevents me from getting refills. But the restaurant owner, wants every table in the house filled, with a waiting list to boot.

When I hire a consultant, I don’t want him to have 35 other clients. It means I miss out on personal attention. The consultant, however, wants a packed calendar because it leads to a bigger paycheck.

Customers don’t want their favorite business to grow because it means less personal attention – less of what attracted them in the first place. Yet most business owners want to expand, often choosing to focus on who is NOT a customer. It’s an unresolved, never ending tension.

You can brag about how many clients you have. For some, that’s social proof. For others, it’s a sign that you’re too busy for them.

It’s true for churches, too.

Do you realize that most people in church don’t WANT their church to grow. It means more hassle in the parking lot, less personal attention given to their kids, and more difficulty finding a seat.

Church leaders like crowded services – most church attenders hate them. Leaders like crowded parking lots – anyone driving a car hates them. Pastors like crowds of people in the congregation – most people avoid crowds.

But there are very few churches whose members are clamoring for the next capital campaign and building expansion.

Because growth is an inconvenience.

A Simple Formula for Good Decisions

All leaders must make decisions. And while there are nuances and determining factors that can make some decisions difficult, here’s a simple formula for making good decisions most of the time.

Information + Time = Good Decisions

Good leaders crave good information.

That’s because good information often leads to good decisions. And good information plus enough time to process often leads to the best decisions.

Leaders become great leaders because they can make the right decision with little information. And great leaders can process information in a little bit of time.

But combine information with time, and good leaders will make the best decision in most circumstances.

If you work for a leader, one of the best things you can do is give him or her the best information possible with enough time to think about it.

If you are a leader, as your team to bring you the right information in plenty of time so you can let it simmer.

7 Things Pastors Should Never Say (Part 2)

Part one is here.  And here are two more things pastors should never say.

6. I don’t need to go to counseling. About a year ago, I started going to counseling. And about a year ago, I started wishing I had gone much, much sooner. As a pastor, I thought it was admitting weakness to go and talk to someone about my issues. I thought I would lose credibility if word got out I was seeking help.

In retrospect, I believe this is a lie from the devil. I wanted to deal with stuff on my own, but it didn’t work. I wanted to pray problems away, because after all, if I’ve got the Holy Spirit and the Bible, that’s all I needed. But that’s neither true nor Biblical. The book of Proverbs is full of encouragement to seek the counsel of others.

There’s a pastor reading this who needs to go to counseling…who needs to go with his wife to counseling. I can say this because I’ve been there. Listen…overcoming that fear is nothing compared to the crap you will deal with if you continue to refuse help. It’s not a sign of spiritual maturity. It’s a sign of stubbornness and pride.

I have a great counselor, and she has been a huge help to me. I’ve learned about the issues behind the issue, and not in some weird, hyper-spiritual, super-Freuidian way. It’s just a healthy feeling.

7. Can I get a pastor discount? There are many underpaid pastors in the world, including Lead Pastors, Youth Pastors,  and missionaries. I remember my first job in ministry when I asked for a raise and was told “We’ve always wanted to get you UP to the level of a public school teacher but it’s going to take many years.” I could write about this for a really long time, but that’s not my point today.

Good stewardship is a good thing, but poor-mouthing brings dishonor to the profession and calling of pastor. I know a pastor who asked for a “pastor discount” at Home Depot – apparently, new kitchen cabinets can be used for the Lord’s Work. I really do understand the financial limitations of most pastors and churches, but in my humble opinion, constantly asking for discounts seems to cheapen the importance of what pastors do.

I’m not advocating extravagant spending, either from the church or the leader, but a cheap mentality is deadly. It leads to broke thinking, which is hurting the church.

You Can’t Lead From Behind Your Desk

In 2006, when I was doing the leg-work that would lead to the launch of a brand new church, I spent a lot of time creating strategies and systems. I wrote every word on our website. I drew up some pretty charts.  I created a darn good strategic plan.

And all of those things, while foundational, did not directly result in one person joining our launch team or showing up to our grand opening service. Nobody ever showed up at church with a print out of something from our website claiming that our doctrinal statement on heaven is what drew them in.

A computer screen is my comfort zone. And I like my desk. I’d be perfectly happy behind a closed door surrounded by books and connected to blogs. Such is the life of an introvert.

But my introverted personality quickly turned into a relational obstacle, and I failed to realize this important lesson: Leadership involves people, not just paper.

While strategies are helpful (in fact, I believe they are essential) I allowed myself to get lost in them and missed the bigger picture.

Musicians are not going to be developed via twitter. You can put out a twitter APB for bass players, and someone may respond. But frequent calls for help is a sign that there isn’t a culture built on relationship and mission.

You cannot make disciples via Facebook. You can find out what vampire you are most like, or join the pirate army in the fight against the Sith Lords or maybe even discuss that obscure Old Testament passage in the One Hundred Million Christians Strong Studying the Old Testament Group, but for all the social that Facebook brings to media, life isn’t going to happen there. It might be a window into life, but it’s not real life.

If we are going to make a difference, it’s going to involve conversations. We’re going have to push back from our desks, leave the confines of our keyboards, and go out there and talk to people.

Maybe it’s time to stop creating sending status updates looking for musicians and go listen to some bands play. Maybe we should stop sending emails to groups of ten people hoping for one response and take someone for a cup of coffee.

I cannot force myself into being an extrovert. But If I want to be an effective leader, I’ve got to lead where people are. And that’s not from behind my desk.

The Pastor is a Human

I read a line in Tina Fey’s book that made me think of pastors. She was commenting on her portrayal as Sarah Palin and the disdain she received from various groups of people. As an intellectual comedian, she didn’t have any problem with the critics, but as human, she wanted everyone to like her.

That’s insightful, and it made me think of pastors, and my own time as a pastor of a local church.

  • As a pastor, I had to learn how to deal with criticism from people who didn’t think my sermon was deep enough. As a human being, I wanted everyone to like me.
  • As a pastor, I felt the need to be “careful” about what I shared in a small group. As a human, I just needed to be honest.
  • As a pastor, I was concerned with going to the next level in leadership. As a human, I needed to be content with where I was and who I was.

Pastors aren’t super-spiritual Christians with a members only call in number to Jesus. They are real people, with real families, mortgages and problems. We may fake a lot of things, because like the professional comedians, we feel the need to insulate ourselves from hurtful things, but deep down, we’re human like the rest of you.