Over the years, I began to feel unworthy. I had trouble resisting temptation and I could not, on my own strength, live a Godly life. I expended tremendous effort trying to overcome these feelings, driving myself from a negative space. At first, I thought I was trying to prove myself to my father. Later, I realized I was trying to prove myself worthy to God.
My spiritual life consisted of rare glimpses of the divine, separated by long periods of feeling spiritually stalled. After the mountaintop, I would spend time walking through the valley, unable to see the path, not knowing how to please God or to find His will for my life. Mostly, I was working out of my own strength to find salvation.
TAKE A MOMENT Think of a season of life that brought great adversity. What did you learn from this experience?
My own thinking contributed to my being stalled. As I continued to fall short of Jesus' example and my own expectations, I kept trying harder and harder, both in my work and my church life. Sadly, the work I did in the church did little to help me grow spiritually. My church did not have a process to help people discern their gifts and calling. Most of my service was life-draining rather than life-giving. I jumped into leadership in the church, but it didn't offer the rewards I'd hoped for. I've come to understand that if you want to burn out a volunteer, have her serve in an area that is not aligned with her gifts and passions.
TAKE A MOMENT Have you ever felt spiritually stalled? What helped you move from that place?
I think the lack of spiritual growth or satisfaction coming from my church work is fairly typical. Willow Creek Church conducted a survey in 2004 called the Reveal Spiritual Life Survey, and it found that church activity does not correlate with spiritual growth. Very few of the activities people engaged in actually helped them grow towards maturity. This was a shocking finding. Willow had invested millions of dollars in programs that hadn't really hit the mark. Their assumption had been that if you get people involved in the life and activities of the church, they would grow. The survey data told them they had made major investments based on an assumption that turned out to be wrong.
Through their research, they discovered our spiritual growth is completely tied to our relationship with Jesus Christ. Only those activities in church that encourage us into deeper practice of the spiritual disciplines actually help Christians grow, by growing our relationship with Jesus.
TAKE A MOMENT What does "relationship with Christ" mean to you? What spiritual disciplines help you grow?
Subsequently, Willow Creek has completely rewritten their play book. There was an article soon after the survey results came out entitled "Bill Hybels Repents." Despite growing one of the largest churches in the country, Lead Pastor Bill Hybels was humble enough to admit publicly that they were wrong. I was part of a church that kept trying to come up with programs to get people involved in some church activity, yet very little of it helped me grow spiritually. I find a broad swath of churches have not yet heard about the Reveal Survey or these important findings, and they persist in building programs rather than disciples.
During this time, I struggled at work as well. Working for my father wasn't easy, but I eventually found my way into a sales territory covering the mountains of North Georgia. I was happy to have the freedom to travel around and to get paid for what I sold. But I still had a restless heart. As I began to understand what a Christian walk looked like, I found it hard to apply the lessons I'd learned to my work. I found great role conflict between my job representing the company and my calling as a Christian charged with sharing my faith. Most of my customers did not share my values. Neither did my father.
TAKE A MOMENT Do you find your role at work conflicts with your call to be a Christian, a husband/wife, a parent? How do you balance the conflicting roles?
The culture of the company was built around my father's values--business first, everything else second. I find this is common in the business world in America. I've seen few leaders at the top of large organizations who haven't had to make tremendous sacrifices to allow a complete focus on their careers. Career is the idol of many a business leader.
When our children were born, I made a commitment that I would not repeat the pattern my father set but would instead be involved in my children's lives and give them the gift of my time and attention. I also committed significant time to my church, taking on various leadership roles. These commitments meant I lived in a constant state of tension, taking heat from my father for seeking balance in my life.
Many of the lessons I learned from my father about leadership and management were of the "what not to do" variety. He came from the school of hard knocks, and he was a master of what I call the "slap and point" management style. He was a perfectionist, and he browbeat people who fell short of his expectations. It got to the point where most people simply told him what he wanted to hear.
My father grew up on the mean streets of Oakland, California during the depression. After his mother died, his father left him and his sisters with their grandmother. My father spent his teen years racing Indian motorcycles and boxing Golden Gloves, and at the start of World War II he enlisted in the army and headed off to the Pacific. He earned a battlefield commission, and by war's end he'd moved up the ranks to Lieutenant Colonel.
My father was used to being the decider. His employees were expected to show up and do as they were told--they weren't expected to bring their brains to work. The company reached a plateau at a volume of business that my father and his partner could handle themselves. My brother and I realized that to grow the business, we needed a management model that delegated decision-making and empowered and equipped others.
The construction industry at the time was a rough-and-tumble good old boys' network. I struggled to live out my values while not offending our customers, who often saw no moral dilemma in chasing women and skirting the letter of the law. During these years, my pastor and my church gave me very little practical guidance in navigating these currents. The impression I got was that if I had a calling from God, the proper response was to quit my job, go to seminary and become a pastor. I lived in a conflict of roles: father, husband, son, employee, Christian.
The more I thought about speaking up and sharing my faith and values, the more I feared the consequences. So, like many, I kept my faith private so as not to offend those whose purchases paid my salary. If there was a way to really live out my faith in that setting, I couldn't figure it out, and I found very little encouragement from church to try. As I began to confront the reality of my values versus how I lived my life, I often found very little overlap. I've spent the last 25 years seeking to push these two circles together.TAKE A MOMENT How big is the overlap between your values and your life?
One of the great benefits of finding a church community is connecting with Christian men and women who model a life worth living and are willing to invest time in those looking for guidance. In this setting I learned one of the great leadership lessons of my life, the value of mentors.
The military term "over-the-horizon radar" aptly describes the value of mentors. In my life, in many and varied ways, mentors have helped me see what was over the horizon. They helped prepare me for the next stage, for what was coming, before I was able to see it. Even more than that, mentors helped me see potential that I did not even recognize in myself.
TAKE A MOMENT Who have been the mentors in your life? Do you currently have a mentor?
I met Richard Kessler when I joined the church. At the time, Richard was the thirty-something CEO of Days Inn, the hand-picked successor to the founder. Richard was heading up the effort to build a new church building and invited me to join him.
For the next 18 months, Richard would land in town about once a month, and the building committee would meet. Controversy and conflict abounded. I observed Richard as he worked with architects and builders, and his intense level of involvement was both inspiring and amazing to watch. As the liaison between the committee and the rest of the congregation, I was tasked with managing strong feelings and strong personalities with very different ideas of the way forward. It was the most stressful experience of my life up to that point.
Over the years, Richard has proven to have an exceptional eye for talent. When Days Inn sold, his top four lieutenants were all in their late twenties and early thirties. Richard himself had become CEO at age 26. Richard modeled for me one of the great traits of Jesus. Ever notice that Jesus seems to always see people as they could be, not as they are today? He saw disciples in ordinary fishermen, saints in sinners. He always elevated people beyond their present circumstances so they could see a future full of potential not visible in their present state. Richard gave me that gift.
When the building project was completed, Richard took me to lunch. I told him that was the hardest thing I had ever done. He said to me, "Gregg, I knew you could do it, and I thought you needed to know you could do it." Then he offered me a job. I turned him down. He approached me a second time after Days Inn was sold and he was launching his next business. He asked me to be his right hand in the new venture. It was an opportunity of a lifetime.
After an excruciating couple of weeks of prayer and fasting, I decided that my path lay with the family business, and I turned him down. Richard had raised my sights and given me great confidence in my potential. Now I had to live it out.
In 1982, Richard invited me to join him for a Christian businessmen's retreat he'd started a few years earlier. That weekend, I entered into fellowship with the most accomplished people I had ever met. Two of my most valued mentors emerged from this group. One was Cecil Johnson, a Georgia Tech professor of Organizational Design.
After my father's death, my brother and I recruited an outside board of directors for our company. I asked Cecil to join this founding board, and he helped us guide the company for several years. According to my father, be it myth or truth, the company had been profitable every year since its founding in 1952. As we approached the end of the first year after my father's death, we were struggling financially. We were looking at ending the year with a loss. At our board meeting, we considered the first layoffs in the company's history. We were anxious about how the banks and suppliers viewed our leadership. This was our first report card, and it would be no better than a D.
Cecil forcefully argued that we not do anything rash. "You've spent years training these people. They are the greatest asset of the business. Layoffs will damage morale. This year-end loss is just one point in time, a blip on the radar. Hang on, you're doing the right thing. It will turn around." We followed his counsel and within six months, things had turned positive. Every year after that, I would drive Cecil down to the coast for the retreat, cherishing the four-hour leadership tutorial that time provided. Until his death in 2009, Cecil continued to be a mentor and dear friend.
I remember two other valuable lessons from Cecil. The first: "Whenever things completely fall apart, you'd better be prepared with a backup plan." Cecil had been a bomber pilot in WWII. He talked about the training he had in the event he was shot down over enemy territory. "The silk liner of our flight suit had a map of the territory we were flying over. If you went down, the map would guide you to safety," he told me. "Go to the edge of the closest village and find the church. Hide in the woods near the church, and when the priest arrives, show yourself, then go back into the woods," he said. "The priest will contact the underground and come get you when it's safe." This was my first introduction to scenario planning, what to do when the winds of change blow you off course.
Another gem I learned from Cecil: "We are only separated from the animals by the thin veneer of civilization. When I enter a room, I look around to see who's alpha. If no one is obviously leading, I step up." This advice has led me to look for leadership voids and step into them.
Over many years, as I looked at the church, I came to the conclusion that the leverage for overcoming problems lay with strong leadership. After exiting the family business, I devoted a decade of my second career to equipping Lutheran pastors with the skills of leadership. Until I entered into it, I had no idea of the size and depth of the leadership void in the institutional church.
Another mentor and friend from the Christian businessmen's retreat is Harvey Cheatham. Harvey likes to say he was invited to join so there would be at least one sinner in the group. He is on a truly unique spiritual journey. For many years Harvey studied Eastern spirituality. These days, he casts himself as a Christ follower who studies esoteric spirituality. Harvey's great contribution to my life has been a richer understanding of an intentional spiritual journey.
Harvey also introduced me to meditation as a spiritual discipline. To this day, daily meditation continues to be my most powerful source of connection, inspiration, revelation and discernment of the leading of the Spirit. Through meditating I quench my deep thirst for peace of the soul. God's faint path has emerged as shapes in the mist during my times of meditation. The insights don't come very often, but when they do, what they reveal is enough to guide me for months, even years.
When beginning meditation, it's helpful to find a scripture verse to repeat. This was mine.
"Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid." -John 14:27
As I inhaled, I would say, "Peace I leave with you." As I exhaled, I would say, "Jesus, give me your peace."
Since that first retreat weekend in 1982, I have only missed it two times, both during the hectic days of my executive MBA. When I started attending, I was 31 and one of the youngest participants. In the early years, I would prepare my presentations for this group like I was preparing for a final exam. As they say in the South, "If you can't run with the big dogs, don't even get off the porch." I was intent on being good enough. They pushed me to grow and learn, to stretch myself and to give an account for my life each year as we gathered. They provided the challenge that was missing from my church experience or culture.
In those early days, as Genie and I struggled to make a life and raise our children, friends we made at church were an invaluable source of guidance and inspiration. Genie belonged to a small group of young mothers, each dealing with the stress of young children. I had a men's group that met weekly for serious introspection and support. We were in a shepherding group of young couples that grew close by meeting regularly and going camping together with our families a couple of times a year.
TAKE A MOMENT Who is your support system? Who do you turn to for guidance, spiritual or otherwise? Where can you be vulnerable and share your private side?
I stumbled upon another valuable life lesson around this time. While mentors were coaching me and helping me see the path forward, I began to run into challenges that came from my own rough edges. I aspired to grow as a manager, but I hadn't really thought much about leadership at that stage. I began to get an inkling that not everyone saw me as I saw myself. There was a side of me that was hidden, a blind side that others could see and I could not. I began to notice that others at work seemed to handle decision-making differently than I did. This was an unpleasant realization. Self-awareness was dawning, but it was a painful, slow process.
A friend from church, Susan Wise, offered a class on personality styles, and this class opened the door to growing awareness. It was my first encounter with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. As Susan took the class through the different styles--extrovert versus introvert, intuitor versus sensor, thinker versus feeler, judger versus perceiver--I was amazed. As she taught, she would divide the class and sort us by each of the factors. I found myself on the opposite side of the room from Genie on three of the four.
I realized that most of the disagreements Genie and I had had in our marriage came down to the fact that I am a strong thinker and Genie is a strong feeler. Thankfully, we share the judger dimension. The judger-perceiver dimension dictates how we live our lives, and it can be a source of great friction in close working or family relationships. The thinker-feeler dimension determines how we make decisions. Thinkers make decisions around what is logical and just, what is fair. Feelers make decisions based on the impact on other people, and default to mercy over justice.
Genie and I struggled over our different approaches to a decision, and after taking this course, I understood why. Slowly, I came to see that these personality styles are not right or wrong, just different. I became less likely to snap to judgment of others once I realized that we just operated out of differing styles.
This knowledge became very important to my career as a salesman. In my early days at the company, I had little respect for salesmen who seemed to play exclusively on relationships. I looked down on back-slapping good old boys and prided myself on using logic to make a sale. I communicated the costs and benefits just the way I would want to consume information and make decisions, rooted in my thinker style. I was confounded when others did not respond to the compelling nature of my arguments. I started to notice that certain customers seemed turned off by my approach.
When I learned about personality style, things began to make sense. Feelers must first build a relationship before doing business. My approach of skipping that phase and getting right down to business was off-putting to feelers. In my early sales days, I offended many a buyer by trying to move right to business before building a relationship.
I later had the pleasure of leading a number of people who were much more naturally gifted at sales than I ever was. My sheer determination, organization and hard work had taken me to the top of our sales team, but applying more balanced skills would have made my path much easier.
Years later, when I took my son to buy a used car, this lesson was again demonstrated to me. Andy, like his mother, is a feeler. He had worked all summer to earn money, and we were looking at used cars. One evening, we drove a car owned by a college student. The thing was a real clunker. We test drove with the owner in the car. When we got back into our car and drove away, I asked Andy, "What did you think?" He responded, "He was a pretty nice guy." Exasperated, I said, "I'm not talking about him, I'm talking about the car. We'll never see him again." Andy's response perfectly punctuated the point: "Well, if he isn't a nice guy, I'm not going to buy his car."
Working a sales territory, I learned the value of goal-setting, planning and time management. Base salary accounted for well less than half the earnings of our salespeople. If you didn't get better and better, you would starve. I called it the sliding scale of unemployment. I had a job, but if I didn't sell something, I didn't make any money. I studied time management and made it a passion.
I worked harder, made more sales calls and closed more deals, and despite my one-sided approach to a sales pitch, I eventually became our leading salesman. The organizational skills I used to compensate for my lopsided approach became very important as I moved up into increasingly complex management positions. These skills played to my strengths, and I succeeded by mastering what I could do, since my relational side (my blind side) was atrophied.
For the skill of time management to be really helpful, you first need clarity about your short and long-term goals. Being terribly efficient is not helpful if that effort is not directed at accomplishing important goals. As I drilled deeper into time management, I learned about the hierarchy of goals. I was good at setting tactical goals--to make more sales calls and close more deals. The priority was making enough money to support my family.
As I learned more, I began to understand that goals should flow from our deepest sense of purpose and values. I was challenged to articulate my deeper sense of purpose and my values. From there, I began to articulate over-arching goals, which would then spawn both strategic and tactical goals to support my purpose and values.
This exercise continued over many years, and it became critical when I got serious about articulating a vision for my second career in the mid-1990s. The discipline that came from this practice was the means by which I started reshaping my life to better reflect my values.
TAKE A MOMENT What are your values? Take some time to list them. To what extent does your life reflect your values?
My brother Travis is also a strong thinker, as was my father. The more Travis and I learned about personality styles, the more we realized we needed feelers among our close advisers. We both shared the same blind spot in our decision-making style and would fall into the same pit together. Over time, we built a team of very diverse styles. They told us things we did not want to hear and made sure we understood how our decisions would be received by the organization.
This learning, like all subsequent personal growth, didn't come easily. Realizing others do not see you as you see yourself can be a painful experience. I would have happily gone my way, never having to confront my blind side or even acknowledge its existence. Yet my ambition to become a better manager and leader compelled me to push through the pain in service of a larger goal. I wanted to prove myself worthy to the people who had faith in me.
For 15 years, until my father's death in 1990, my father, brother and I worked together. My father was an impatient man. He was very intelligent, a perfectionist with a quick temper, and he intimidated people with his reasoning. I heard him say, "I don't get ulcers, I give 'em." Dealing with him could be like walking through a minefield. I got to know where most of the triggers were. He'd be sitting in my office, and someone would come in and start a conversation. I would hear the click as they stepped on a trigger, and I'd just duck as he exploded.
His line of questioning felt like the Inquisition. He had a knack for asking the one question you were unprepared to answer. I learned to prepare the answers to a hundred questions before taking a recommendation to my father, so I could answer the five questions he would ask. This discipline of examining all facets of an issue to see reality clearly became another useful skill, painfully learned.
My father also forced my brother and me to learn the value of collaboration. The old man (as we called him) could find any seam between us. If we were not fully in agreement, we could not hope to persuade the old man. So, Travis and I learned to hash things out, to reach agreement between ourselves, before ever approaching our father. This partnership, forged against the anvil of our father's strong will, would allow us to prosper in the decade after my father's death.
I realize now that the persistence and perseverance I learned from working with my father kept me going for 10 years as I lived out my calling in a church that didn't always appreciate what I was trying to do. Did I enjoy the process of learning persistence and perseverance? No. Am I glad I have it now? Absolutely. I've found very little learning comes without pain. As Mike Copeland, my VP of sales at the company, said many times, "If you're gonna be dumb, you gotta be tough."