Do You Know Why You’re Successful – Part 2

The question can really be asked in 2 different ways: “Do I know what makes me successful”, or “How do I become more successful”.  We’ve all had our share of achievements; maybe it’s in business, or education, or athletics, or maybe you just married way above your pay grade.  Either way, it’s good to identify the contributing factors of past success if only to help clarify a path toward future success.

In part 1 of this series we began looking at systems as the first area of focus when answering the questions above.  Systems are easy to spot in organizations, but just as powerful in our personal and family lives.  This time I’d like to highlight what I believe is the single most influential point of leverage in this framework for success.


Over the years I’ve moved around, traveled a bit, and seen my share of cultures, both in and outside America.  People groups are so diverse in how they communicate, what they eat, what they value, how they drive, and just about everything else.  I think this is probably what most of us think of when we hear the word “culture”.  However, take a minute to think about each of the groups below and try to identify a culture that accurately defines who they are.  I’ll start with an easy one:


Disney World

Wall Street

Your extended family

Your place of business

Some of those are easier to define than others.  If you’ve been to Chick-fil-A it’s pretty obvious that, among other things, they have a culture of friendly service.  But even though most of us know our extended family, it may be hard to nail down anything we’d consider a culture.  While systems are fairly easy to observe and define, often without speaking to a single person, culture is all about the people.  No people, no culture.  Put any group of people together for long enough, and a culture WILL develop.  Similar to systems, this will either be by design or default.

Excusing my rather junior high choice of example, why do most of us avoid farting on an elevator?  It’s not comfortable to hold it, and it’s not like we’ll avoid its assault at a later time and place.  We suffer for the sake of culture.  The power of culture is greater than our own comfort.  It compels us to act outside our own immediate interest.  Nobody has to follow us around and remind us; we don’t even put up signs!  And while some of us may tell grizzly stories of when it failed, 99 times out of 100 we all comply.

So here’s the shift in thought.  Think of the most important human factors, in any group, that contribute to success.  What if the social pressure to comply with those things was as strong as the elevator example above?  Honesty, diligence, kindness, preparation, tenacity, courage – imagine if there was no need to police those values because the culture did it for you!

Not only that, but when someone complies with a cultural expectation, it’s more likely that they feel a deeper inclusion in the team rather than just a pawn being controlled by authority.  For those in leadership, learning to leverage that kind of cultural energy is absolutely invaluable!

Here’s the question.  What cultures can you identify in your business/church/family/team that are positively drawing people toward your vision?  Once you decide, celebrate them!  Often!  On the other hand, we can all probably identify some negative cultural energy that’s keeping us from reaching the next level.  The key is to identify it, call it what is, and then begin working toward change.  And if you’re a leader, the change begins with us.

What are some ways you’ve seen the power of culture, either good or bad?


Do You Know Why You’re Successful? – Part 1

What are the factors that make you successful?  Do you know?  We usually don’t ask what makes us successful, only what makes us fail.  When something fails, we instinctively hold a mental inquisition and attempt to identify and execute the offender.

However, we are not as quick to dig around when everything goes right.

“Just keep doing what you’re doing” we often say.  But what are we doing?  If tomorrow everything tanked, what would you start rebuilding?  This is why it’s important to identify the factors that make us successful.

I recently started developing a grid to help me put some skin on this.  After all, it’s difficult to evaluate a ministry, business, project, or a household from the ground up without some kind of template.  And for those new to this kind of evaluation, knowing where to begin can be very confusing.  So while this grid isn’t exhaustive by any means, hopefully it’s a great springboard that launches you in the right direction.  So without further ado, I give you my grid:

Systems, Cultures, and Teams

Now you may be thinking “That’s not a grid, that’s just 3 lousy words”!  True, but don’t let the simplicity derail you here.  One reason this works is because it’s simple.  Depending on your situation, you may use this quite frequently, so it makes sense to keep it streamlined.  Let me start breaking this down a bit, and I believe you’ll begin to see the value.


For our purpose, a system is set of interacting actions or pieces that, together, produce an identifiable result.  Think of it like this, in my house we have a post-dinner system.  Once the meal is done, my son Xander clears the table, my daughter McKenzie washes the dishes, and my son Mason drys and puts them away.  It’s incredibly basic, but each element of the system contributes to producing an end result – clean dishes back in the cupboard.  Notice I did not qualify the overall consistency or effectiveness of our system.  That comes later.  For now we just identify it as a system.

In that example the system was intentionally designed.  But not all systems are intentional, some just happen by default.  Default systems are typically ineffective at producing good results, although probably just a consistent.  Because nobody crafted them, they’re usually a product of the “easy road” and produce results nobody really wants.

I recently corrected a negative default system in my personal life.  For several months I’d developed a habit of staying up late to watch TV.  That single decision (or lack of one) had significant impact on several areas I needed to improve.  Because I stayed up late I got up late, didn’t have time to exercise, didn’t have time to read my bible, and didn’t have time to talk and pray with Karrie before starting our day.  Additionally, TV in the evening was taking the place of reading good books and spending more time with my kids.

So here’s my intentionally crafted system.  Since the first of the year, my family has been on a “no tube during the week” system.  It was initially unpopular, but we’ve all commented that we like it better this way.  Intentionally making a decision to eliminate TV during the week was the single key to regaining ALL the things listed above that I value.

One tweak in the system had a significant ripple effect, not only on me, but also my family.

Andy Stanley often says, “Your system is perfectly designed to give you the results you’re getting”.  Don’t like the end product?  Interrogate the system responsible for producing the outcome.  This applies to social interactions, assembly lines, food production, church services, athletics, and myriad other arenas!  Trying to change the outcome without addressing the system is like taking Tylenol for a brain hemorrhage.  It may temporarily mask the discomfort, but there’s a massive problem in the background that’s going to get worse.

If you’ve been successful at anything, chances are  good that there was a system propelling you in that direction.  Even a default system, while much less likely, can result in success.  We usually call this the “secret sauce”.  The problem comes when you or I don’t know the ingredients of our own sauce.  If something ever corrupts it, we’ll be hard pressed to correct it if we don’t understand it.

From time to time pick up the end product, look at it, sniff it, poke it; if it isn’t what you want, go back and tweak the system.

Pick something you’re successful at.  What system propelled you toward that success?



Ride the Storm or Steady the Plane

Does anybody actually enjoy turbulence?  I’m willing to bet we’d all say no.  Years ago I took a flight from Chicago to San Antonio with terrible turbulence the entire trip.  It was the only time I contemplated using the barf-bag for its intended purpose.

We’ve probably all heard the captain come across a loudspeaker and say something like “Howdy folks, we’re lookin’ at some nice clean cruising up around 30’000 feet, but we’ve gotta wrangle a tough ride in order to get there.  So sit tight and we’ll do our best to get everyone comfy again as soon as possible.”  (Ok, maybe you haven’t heard that exactly, but you might if you flew out of the South.)  As long as we believe he’s looking for better conditions, we’ll cut him some slack and appreciate the safe landing.

Bottom line is, nobody likes turbulence, but we’re willing to endure it if we know it’s necessary and temporary.  In a manner of speaking, all leaders fly “planes”.

You may not have wings, but you have people, and they’re trusting you for the ride.

More than once I’ve had to key the handset and tell my team “we’re in for some turbulence”.  Maybe it’s a change in direction, an increase in expectations, a compressed schedule, a new system, whatever – it’s all turbulence.  And no matter how necessary and healthy the turbulence is, sometimes you just have to steady the plane.  Even the best get weary of nonstop jostling around, and a lull in the chaos is often all that’s needed to rejuvenate and refocus our energy.

While I’ve never struggled to make decisions that result in a bumpy ride, I DO have to remind myself to steady the plane.  It feels unproductive and boring, but it’s as necessary as the turbulence if we want to lead well and take care those we’re flying.

Are you naturally a turbulence creator or a smooth sailor?  Neither is wrong, but neither is perfect either…


“Look out, she’s going to blow, Captain!”

Have you ever had a conversation that began harmlessly, but ended up with you in the hot seat?  You can tell the person is quite upset, but can’t understand their approach to save your life.  Like a pressurized tea kettle, they just begin angrily blowing off steam.  Criticizing, exaggerating, belittling; maybe you earned it, maybe you didn’t.  In either situation, good leadership doesn’t allow for venting back.  It’s in that moment we have a choice.  Let’s face it, venting is largely unproductive which only further complicates an appropriate response.  So having a couple healthy options on hand can make the difference between success and failure.  Here’s a few I find helpful:

  1. Own what’s yours – whatever percentage of their complaint is accurate, admit it and apologize if necessary.  Don’t apologize for what you didn’t do, but don’t dismiss their entire complaint just because some (or most) of it is inaccurate.  Many times this is the silver bullet.
  2. Get clarity – it’s natural to go on defense when we’re attacked, especially when it’s unjust. Instead of immediately going into survival mode, ask questions and make sure you understand exactly what you’re being accused of.
  3. Ask what you can do – sometimes there is literally no point, they just want to vent.  If that’s what you determine, it’s reasonable to ask “What do you want me to do?”  Depending on how well you manage your tone, this can help bring clarity and closure.  It puts action steps into play which you can then appropriately respond to.

Conversations don’t have a rewind button, so we only get one chance to respond. Good or bad, people will remember the choice we make.

What are some ways you’ve learned to defuse a potentially explosive conversation?

macho insecurity

3 Tools to Combat Insecurity

If we’re honest, we all deal with insecurity. That internal voice that speaks, and often screams “you’re not good enough”. Often it’s without serious consequence because we’re able to justify our inadequacy…nobody is good at everything. However, when insecurity attaches to something we’re supposed to be good at, it can be absolutely crippling. This is why insecurity can be dangerous, especially for leaders. Unchecked, insecurity injects a paralyzingly poison leaving us crippled, unable to move forward, and sluggish to make even the simplest decisions.

Unfortunately, unless you’re dead there’s no way to avoid insecurity.

Which is why the tactics of defeating it are so important. Here are 3 concepts that will help you maintain the upper hand next time you’re slapped by insecurity. They’re not silver bullets, but paired with discipline they can be extremely effective.


1. Stop the Comparing – at least twice a year I have to take a Twitter hiatus. After months of subconsciously comparing myself to the rich and famous, insecurity begins to whisper “You’ll never be as good as that guy”. There is no benefit in comparing ourselves to someone else. It requires mental discipline. Safeguards within our mind that signal “Danger!” whenever we flirt with comparison.

2. Acknowledge Your Limits – Matthew 25 gives us the parable of the master & the talents. Notice after receiving the report, the master responded the same to both servants who’d doubled their masters money. Regardless of how much they’d initially been given, what mattered was what they DID with it. We all have natural limits: economics geography, intelligence, education, opportunity. Often there’s no way to overcome those things. What matters is what we do with what we’ve been given, without regard to its magnitude.

3. Focus Your Energy – It’s popular to be well balanced. We enroll our kids in every program available, pack our schedules to the brim, and buy toys for every pastime imaginable. For what? Jack of all trades and master of none? Confidence is born out of success not involvement. This may not be entirely universal, but I would rather be amazing at a couple things rather than “good” at a bunch of things. Determine how you’re naturally wired, focus on becoming excellent in those areas, and empower those things to be your front line defense against insecurity.

These 3 have served me well on many occasions, but they’re not the only options. What tools have you developed to combat insecurity?

Open Hand

Leaders Give Up

At the end of this month I will have been in full time ministry for 8 years.  Eight years longer than I thought possible in my 20’s.  In that time I’ve realized that leadership in ministry isn’t all that different from leadership elsewhere.  I’ve lead Marines as a squad leader, teams as a project manager, and staff & volunteers as a pastor.  Each one required its own approach and skill set, but some things have been exactly the same.

Leadership always requires something from the leader before it ever gives anything back.

Here are 5 things leaders give up:

1.  AGENDA:  Squad leaders train war fighters to accomplish the mission.  Project managers align teams to maintain profitability.  Pastors encourage and enable people to carry a message.  There’s no room for a personal program that detracts from the main objective.  In each case, the leader gives up his own agenda for the sake of the bigger picture.

2.  LEAVING EARLY:  Andy Stanley says “Speed of the leader, speed of the team”.  It’s hard to ask big things from people if the leader isn’t personally willing to sacrifice.  This could extend to showing up late as well.  Either way, longs hours are part of the game.  Everybody wants to go home, but leaders give up the right to leave early.

3.  VENTING:  As a lance corporal I would say “bitching is how I cope”.  That worked as a lance corporal.  However, as an NCO I learned something different: “only bitch up hill”.  Leaders have the power to influence the emotional and psychological tone of the team.  No matter how bad the situation, leaders give up the right to vent frustration on those they lead.

4.  SIDES:  During group conflict it’s human nature to choose sides.  It’s a survival mechanism; none of us wants to be alone.  Choosing sides as a leader, though, jeopardizes the big picture which is getting EVERYBODY going in the same direction.  While it’s absolutely necessary to address the conflict, leaders give up the luxury of choosing a side within their team.

5.  TROPHIES:  Great leaders absorb criticism and deflect praise.  It’s easy to get that backwards. Most team failures usually point back to leadership, and good leaders know this.  Conversely, none of us achieve success entirely on our own, we always have someone to thank.  Lone-wolf leadership was debunked years ago.  Great leaders hold accolades with an open hand and give up the trophy.

Can you add to my list?  What have you given up as a leader?  (Hint:  Parents, you can make a colossal list!)


Being Good could be a Bad Idea

How many times have you been told to “be good”?  Especially as a kid.  We grow up thinking that conforming to this often vague concept is the pinnacle of human development.  At the very least, conformity usually avoids negative consequences.  But let’s face it, something inside us hates being good.  We hate conforming.  Yes, human (sin) nature plays a part, but I don’t think that’s always the strongest factor at play.

What if our drift away from “good” also represents a healthy desire to distinguish ourselves?

A desire to break free from the enormous bubble of mediocrity.  Misguided, desire can lead to the break down of morality.  But what if we harness it?  Certainly the desire to be unique can drive us toward something other than “bad”.

So much energy can be spent on trying to be good that we never stop to consider becoming great!

I’m guilty of using “be good” language on my kids, and on myself for that matter.  I’m trying to change that.  Plenty of modern evidence points toward the benefit of pursuing greatness as opposed to just the avoidance of wrong doing.  A more efficient use of energy?  A better strategy for success?  It’s a slight play on words, but an interesting shift in how we might think about the good, the bad, and the great.

Agree? Disagree? How have you seen this play out in your life? I’d love to hear your story!