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?

When in need, Create!


I’m not a car person. I have one, but only out of necessity. I don’t ever dream of owning a corvette, can’t rattle off the year and model of everything I pass on the highway, and couldn’t care less about the latest thing with a HEMI in it. There, I said it.

In spite of that, I end up doing most of my own car work…brakes, water pump, alternator, master cylinder, etc. (although i did pay to have my transmission rebuilt). It’s because I’m cheep. Not stingy, just cheep labor…I don’t charge myself much. I guess I ended up with good mechanical sense and it pains me to pay for what I can can figure out on my own.

It’s funny how necessity breeds ingenuity.

One of the things I enjoy most about my job is the challenge of making something really cool with very slim resources. It’s a chance for team work, ingenuity, creativity, and some crazy MacGyver engineering. Okay, to be totally honest it can also be one of the most frustrating parts of my job. Certain days I wish I could just buy what I needed and save the effort. But where’s the fun (or stewardship) in that?

So on that note, I thought I’d share some of my favorite examples of team genius (at least we thought they were genius).

Here’s one that I had very little to do with beyond the concept. My good friend Will Gallagher made this for our Christmas production last year and we liked it so much we kept it. It’s a brilliant combination of the old and new. On the audience side it looks pretty much like an ordinary piano with enough wear and tear to look nice and vibey.


But on the other side…


It was a ton of work gutting all the original parts, but it’s a great way to have all the cool keyboard gear without looking like Styx.

Here’s another one of our faux keyboard rigs. It started life as an empty Fender Bassman cabinet owned by one of the band guys. Add in some 1/2″ MDF, a bunch of hardware, a little cabinetry work, and a couple cans of spray bed liner and…voila! Looks like a Rhodes…


…but ain’t.


Several years ago we switched to using low wattage tube amps on all our guitar rigs and we needed a way to keep them isolated from the stage and each other. With the help of a great volunteer, we whipped up these isolation boxes that do exactly what we need. Isolate…and I think they look cool (although nobody ever sees them because they’re backstage).


Once or twice a year we do a major redesign of the stage. If you watch any of the award shows or concerts lately, you’ll notice a TON of warm incandescent backlighting. The fixtures are crazy expensive, so we decided to design and build our own approximations. We think they turned out great! And every once in a while, when really needed…they can totally melt your face!



All of these projects were accomplished with very little money. In some cases the trade off was the cost of time. The light towers in particular. In the end though, with a few weekends and some ingenuity, we’re way ahead of where we’d be if we sat around and waited for the “proper resources”.

Creative people are all over – creative parents, creative mechanics, creative cooks, creative accountants (the non-criminal kind). How has necessity inspired creativity in you? I’d love to hear your story!

The art of painting targets

For the past several months my small group has been studying the book “Making Children Mind Without Losing Yours” by Dr. Kevin Leman (Amazon).  On the cover (pun intended), it appears to be a study in developing a more stress-free form of parenting.  And while that may be true, I think it would be better described as a family leadership guide.  Here’s what I mean.  So much of leadership, in or outside the family, comes down to the matter of clarity – clarity of expectations, clarity of systems, clarity of vision.  According to the book, successful parenting is not so much about cajoling/forcing/manipulating/bribing our kids in a certain direction, rather it’s about painting the target and encouraging them (through positive and negative consequences) to shoot for it.

I believe the concept holds just as much weight for leadership outside the family.  This is something I appreciate about my boss.  He’s a painter.  Not in the spirit of Michelangelo, but a painter nonetheless – a target painter.  As an artist and leader of artists, it’s incredibly liberating to fully understand the expectation…and the accompanying boundaries.  If you’re like me, you’ve probably received some “general direction” leadership at some point in your life.  It can seem liberating, but ultimately here’s the problem: while a target has not been communicated, you will be gauged against that unspoken target.  Great leaders are experts at painting targets, but even the worst leaders have expectations.  Bad leaders just don’t communicate and clarify the expectation.  So while looking like freedom and room to run, it ends up being the rope that hangs you.

With this in mind, I’m on a quest to be the “king of clarity”.  My family deserves it, my fellow artists deserve it, and my teams deserve it.  First on the list, clarity in my own head.  Sounds like another blog post…


An Exercise in Listening

Have you ever been asked what sort of music you like.  I’m sure you have.  Maybe it was social small talk, an online conversation, or a first date; but if you’re like me, that question tends to create a bit of an internal dilemma.  You see, I like all sorts of music, but I don’t love many…I really only love a small fraction.  Which struck me as interesting after reading the latest chapter of Blink by Malcolm Gladwell.  He explains that while we are generally very good at identifying what we like (even with just fractional data); we are generally bad at articulating “why”.  Ask someone whether they prefer Coke or Pepsi and they’ll instantly rattle off an answer.  However, ask them to describe in detail why they prefer one over the other and the same person who initially exhibited confidence will likely digress into indecision and vagary.

So I ask myself “Why?”.  Why…exactly…do I bump certain music from the “like” into the “love” category?  What are the common factors that, when combined, create what I consider to be a great piece of music.  So, digging into my subconscious as much as possible, here’s my best crack at it.

Unique vocals – I’m a sucker for a voice that’s immediately recognizable.  If there’s any qualitative justice, Xenia, from NBC’s The Voice, will be the next teenage mega-star.  INCREDIBLE raw vocal talent – and perfectly unique.

Belivability – I need a sense that the singer totally buys what they’re selling.  That’s hard to pull off with stupid/crappy/juvenile/cheap lyrics.  If I’m able to personalize it – all the better.

Lift – at some point the song has to have a WOW moment.  Think: 2nd verse of Say, by John Mayer – 3rd verse of Hillsongs Forever Reign – the ending of Feeling Good by Michael Buble

Hooky Melody – there has to be a line/tune in the song that IMMEDIATELY connects with me – something I like to sing or hum as I’m driving down the road.  Hip-hop is full of ridiculously hooky melodies, although often without substance.

Groove – not necessarily a beat (although I consider myself a pretty accomplished “drivers seat dancer”), but something that connects to my internal rhythm – it makes my head nod and my arms move – internally, I’m tearing up the dance floor.  For me, Red Red Wine by UB40 is a classic groove song.

Lyrically Sophisticated – not high-brow, but something with purpose, meaning, and some creativity.  I mentioned hip-hop, and while it has great beats and hooky melodies, it often SERIOUSLY lacks in the lyrical department.  Before The Throne by Shane & Shane, and almost anything by Jason Mraz are perfect examples of great lyrics.

That pretty much covers it.  I can’t think of any song I “love” that doesn’t have at least 4 of these.  On a side note, I feel incredibly introspective right now…

Mustard Cheesecake

In my line of work, creativity is often placed on a pedestal right alongside the Trinity.  I’m exaggerating of course, but not by much.  It’s not a bad thing, creativity; on the contrary, I consider myself a student and lover of the imaginative – cuisine, architecture, graphic design, music, verbiage, clothing, etc.  However, there is a catch:

Creativity requires a certain degree of quality.

If there’s no underlying quality, the product becomes experimental at best.  Which has it’s place, but that’s not what I’m talking about.  Creativity alone doesn’t carry much weight when it comes to producing a product (music, article, jacket, souffle, etc).  Kind of like mustard cheesecake – it might be creative, but that doesn’t make it good.

In all fairness, the qualitative element of “good” can shift significantly.  What’s good for one might be absolutely atrocious for another.  The point is not to allow ourselves to rest on the laurels of creative success without at least nodding at quality.  Think of the many products pimped on late-night cable now rusting at the bottom of a land fill.  Contrast that with anything made by Apple.  Creativity balanced with quality can change the world.