And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself - Well ... How did I get here?
David Byrne, Talking Heads, Once in a Lifetime

My father died suddenly in 1990, at the age of 75. Though he'd had significant health problems for the six months leading up to his death, he was still coming into the office every day, still very much in charge. As my brother and I took the helm, the country was slipping into recession. We were anxious to prove that we could run the business and succeed. The old man was an outsized personality, not known for delegating or empowering, so we hadn't really had the chance to prove ourselves to those who mattered to the company's future. Statistics show that only a quarter of family businesses successfully transition to the second generation. We were intent not just on survival, but on success. We knew major changes were needed, but we had to tread carefully so as not to lose the goodwill of our stakeholders.

The success or failure of the company was now on our shoulders. We could no longer say, "If the old man would just listen to us, things would be better." Accountability, a lesson I learned early in my career, became vital during this time of transition. My 10 years in commission sales taught me accountability. When I lost a sale, the repercussions were painful. My salary of $1,500 a month barely covered the mortgage. A small commission check meant the wife was unhappy when it was time to pay the bills. Failing to reach quotas made the boss unhappy. For a decade, I lived or died by my commission.

TAKE A MOMENT   What does accountability look like in your life? In your work? In your church? Creating an accountable culture in a volunteer organization is difficult. Have you done so?

This form of accountability was, to a major extent, internally driven. The feedback from those who were counting on me created a framework wherein I worked to be more effective each month, each year. I put more and more focus on setting weekly, monthly, quarterly, and yearly goals. I found that setting weekly goals made me much more productive. The satisfaction of meeting them was much more pleasant than the stress of falling short.

After my decade in sales, I moved into sales management. Now, for the first time, I was responsible for creating an environment of accountability for an entire team of people. I had not had hire/fire responsibility before, and now I led a team of the highest paid people in the company.

At one point, talking with my father and brother about our lowest performer, I realized that I had not honestly confronted him with my concerns. It did not feel right to talk about people when I had not given them direct feedback. It dawned on me that I owed it to people to deal honestly with them in regards to their performance, to let them know the consequences of failure. Over the years, I observed many managers who did not want to have the tough conversation, who tended to gloss over the hard truth. I chose to be frank and honest. Otherwise I simply didn't feel right about making tough decisions when they were due.

I vowed that no one would ever be surprised if I got to the end of the road and terminated them. Mike Gross, our Chief Finance Officer and key non-family adviser, helped me see that I wasn't doing people favors by keeping them in jobs that did not match their skill set. A job that does not play on our strengths just burns us out. Many of the people we terminated from positions went on to much greater satisfaction in their next job, either inside or outside the company. Learning accountability was formative in my development as a leader.

TAKE A MOMENT  What would it look like to move from survival to abundance in your life, your career, your organization, your church?

As my brother and I began to lead the business, our first goal was to move past mere survival to success. That required us to move beyond a reactive/responsive leadership model. In other words, it was time to stop putting out fires.

My father was a great problem-solver. A problem would arise, and he'd devise a solution for it. Trouble was, that left us with few coherent policies across the organization. We had an incredible number of procedures that were written to solve a particular problem. Many were not consistent with each other.

When you just keep writing new procedures to address each problem as it arises, you have a bunch of band-aids stuck on top of each other, none of them addressing core issues, so tiny wounds fester. The company had made some strategic decisions over the years, but overall, we just reacted to the circumstances that unfolded, never looking over the horizon to anticipate the future.

In his book The Path of Least Resistance, my friend and mentor Robert Fritz talks about our tendency to live in a zone of "tolerable conflict." When problems simmer just below the surface, we don't pay much attention to them. It's only when a problem escalates, pushing us out of the zone of tolerable conflict, that we address it. However, we rarely solve the problem. We just work on it until it gets a little better, and then when the next problem crops up, our attention moves on. Underlying problems are rarely solved, just tolerated.

The first thing my brother and I did after taking over the company was to put together an annual plan and a budgeting process to support it. In my father's time, we saw no monthly financials. We received an audited statement six months after we closed out the year. So our first step was to create visibility into our current conditions by creating monthly and quarterly statements, and as we went into the next year, we put together an annual budget. Two years in, we did our first visioning process for the company.

It amazed us to see the results of articulating a clear vision and a three- to five-year plan. Within three years, we had doubled the size of the business and achieved the vision we set out. Rooting the organization in a shared vision propelled us off the plateau we'd been on for years. In the ensuing decade, we quadrupled the size of the business, both in volume and number of employees.

TAKE A MOMENT    Have you created a vision for your life? For your career? For your organization?

My father had a reputation for trying to make a "silk purse out of a sow's ear." In other words, he wanted good people but did not pay well. We wanted to grow the business and knew we needed a strong team to be able to empower and delegate. As we worked to transform the old equipment business, hiring talented people and creating a meritocracy with career paths to more responsibility, we also started an equipment rental business.

With a clear vision and a new culture, the rental venture, after a slow and difficult start, grew like wildfire. The new creation flourished, while the old core business struggled to break out of its old form and find success in a new era. Change was wrenchingly painful in the old culture, while being accepted as the norm in the new.

I was talking once with my friend and mentor Harvey Cheatham about the eternal struggle between form and spirit. The creative spark, whether it is a vision for a new business or a new ministry, comes to us from the ethereal. It has no form. As we slowly begin to articulate this vision, it takes on form so that it can function in the world. No matter how inspired this vision might be, even if it is a revelation from God, it will take shape based on how we think the world works. We build the form and structures using our own mental maps.

Sadly, people begin to cling to the forms, the traditions, and the structures they know. Our father built a business where he made all the decisions, and a disempowered bureauracracy grew. When forms no longer fit the context and the times, entropy sets in, and an organization plateaus and begins its decline. Unless those old forms crack apart and allow the spirit to find an appropriate form and expression for the age, they eventually die.

General Motors is a perfect example of this. Henry Ford's idea to build a car for everyone led to the creation of the assembly line, which spawned a form of organization now called the machine bureaucracy. In this design, jobs were rigidly structured in sequential order along the assembly line. Employees did not need to bring their brains to work; they were expected to function like little tops spinning each in its own place. Managers had a small span of control, and whenever one of the tops began to wobble, they rushed to the scene to get it spinning smoothly again. The sad story of General Motors today is the story of clinging to old forms, old structures, old mental models, long after they have ceased to be effective.

Our business followed this model, and by the mid-1980s this model had begun to fail us. My brother and I spent the decade of the '90s working to transform the company from a machine bureaucracy into a learning organization. Peter Senge describes this movement in his book The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. The learning organization is a model based on empowerment and trust rather than fear. It takes a more organic form, unlike the rigid machine worldview.

The keys to a successful learning organization are:

  • Valuing the gifts of your people
  • Respecting one another
  • Setting stretch goals
  • Holding each other accountable

It is a low-control, high-accountability model. Our move from a fire-fighting bureaucracy to a vision-led learning organization allowed us to escape decline, and we began to thrive.

But transformation is hard work. When the company's board of directors once asked me how the transformation of the old culture was going, I told them, "It takes a long time to turn a big ship." One of them replied, "Yes, it does, but sometimes you find out the wheelhouse isn't connected to the rudder."

That was an "a-ha" moment for me. I spent the rest of my time at the company working for alignment throughout our organization, connecting the wheelhouse to the rudder. I told my management team, "You are the universal joints, connecting the organization to our vision and plans. Don't let me find a disconnect." The challenge is finding a shared vision that everyone will energetically work towards, building success on success, growing as individuals and as a team.

Despite our efforts, none of the managers who had come up in the machine model successfully made the transition. Though we'd invested in retooling their skills, their responsibilities grew faster than they could. They would not surround themselves with the best people because they felt insecure and threatened, and they clung to old ways.

Changing people's mindset proved to be a stumbling block in more ways than one. As we attempted to move away from top-down decision-making and toward empowered teams in the workplace, we implemented monthly, quarterly and annual bonuses for achieving team goals. We also redesigned work processes to let those closest to the work have a stake in improving workflows.

But where we hoped these changes would energize our workforce, for some people it seemed to do the opposite. Upon exploring this issue, we found that a significant number of our people did not believe anything they did could affect the outcome. They weren't motivated by bonuses tied to achieving team goals, because they didn't see how their actions could have an impact.

One of my EMBA professors called these folks "lunchbox employees." They just want to come to work, punch in and have someone tell them what to do, put in their eight hours, and go home. They do not want to assume the risk of making decisions, and they do not cherish the concept of empowerment. They didn't thrive in the new organization.

This intrigued me. Why do people conclude they have no power to chart their future?

Upon becoming Christians, we are asked to "live for others" and to "give your life away" in service. But this isn't possible if you live your life reacting and responding to the circumstances you encounter. How can you give away something you have no control over?

Many people see themselves as victims of circumstances, tossed like the disciples on the rough seas before Jesus came to calm the waters. They see the power as outside of themselves: The power is in the circumstances. They are blown back and forth and simply do not believe they have any control over their lives.

TAKE A MOMENT    Do you find yourself reacting and responding to the winds of change in your life, or are you charting a course and correcting for winds and currents? Where is that course headed?

Robert Fritz has spent 25 years studying the structures in our lives and organizations. In his book, Your Life as Art, Fritz poses an alternative to this reactive/responsive orientation. When you live in the creative mode, you navigate the many crossroads of life by making intentional choices, and you take responsibility for those choices. Fritz advocates personal mastery as a means of living your life in the creative mode.

Personal mastery, which I outlined in Chapter 1, is a practice of constantly clarifying what matters most to you in the form of a personal vision. From there, you seek a clear understanding of your current reality vis-à-vis the vision. This requires a brutal honesty about the starting point. Misdiagnosing the reality of your starting point can be a fatal error.

Once you've established a vision and clearly understand your current reality, this will create a tension in your life that is only resolved by moving toward your vision. This practice will help you organize your actions for the purpose of achieving your vision.

To get a glimpse of this practice, close your eyes and envision living as a disciple of Jesus, exemplifying the life He models in scripture. Then, shift to a look at your current life, your work, your family. See the contrast, and feel the tension generated by it. This is called structural tension, and it is a tool that can change your life.

What transformed the disciples from a timid, fearful band of men to the Apostles who changed the world? The Holy Spirit. And it can empower us today as it empowered the Apostles in the first century. We can't be victims of circumstances if we believe God has a purpose for our lives. Many times, that purpose is worked out in trials and suffering. But God has provided each of us with spiritual gifts and the power of the Holy Spirit to achieve what we never could alone.

A journey of transformation begins with committing to a deeper spiritual walk with Jesus. As we go deeper, we seek to discern our gifts, since our calling and purpose are rooted in the gifts God has given us. The church's role is to support our deeper spiritual journey and equip us to find and fully utilize our spiritual gifts. Learning to live in what Fritz and Senge call the creative orientation is a tool that can empower believers to change course and live out their purpose and calling.

The Journey from Manager to Leader

In the early '90s, I was invited to participate in a leadership development program offered by Ingersoll-Rand, a multi-billion dollar company and our largest equipment supplier. As a public company, Ingersoll-Rand had a system in place to identify and groom people with high potential to be future leaders. In most organizations, natural leaders are viewed as a valuable asset. But the gift of leadership doesn't come with an instruction manual. Leaders must be equipped to lead.

Ingersoll-Rand recruited a class of 25 each year into the program. Hoping to improve the quality of leadership in their partner organizations, they opened the course to their independent distributors. My brother Travis went through the program, and the next year I joined. The program began with a 360-degree review of my skills in 10 areas of management. My manager, peers and direct reports completed an anonymous survey, and their answers were compared with my own responses. Then, our scores were compared against the scores of thousands of other managers who had taken the survey. This was intense feedback, and some of it was hard to hear. But after the initial shock wore off, I realized how valuable this information was.

Over the course of the year, participants honed their leadership skills and built relationships with others on the track. The survey was repeated at the end of the year, and you could literally measure your growth in the 10 skills covered in the curriculum.

After this experience, we began using 360-degree surveys across our management and sales teams as a tool to help people grow. I noticed an interesting phenomenon when we began this practice. Some people were open to learning from the feedback, and others had a visceral response and tended to deny the reality of the feedback. Over time, those unwilling to move through the painful feedback to mine the learning all plateaued, and many of them failed in their management roles.

TAKE A MOMENT    How do you react when presented with criticism? How willing are you to look at painful aspects of your self in order that you may learn and grow? Can you think of a learning experience that came out of deep pain? Are you glad for the wisdom that came from this pain?

I gained a tremendous insight into these differing responses some years later, when I read Ken Blanchard's book Servant Leader. Blanchard examines our leadership motivation with some penetrating questions.

Are we servants first, or leaders first? Where is our primary focus: being a servant or being a leader?
Are we self-serving or servant leaders? Look at how people take feedback. This is a quick way to tell the difference, because one of the biggest fears of the self-serving leader is losing their position.

Self-serving leaders spend most of their time protecting their status. Give them feedback, and they usually respond negatively. Servant leaders look at leadership as an act of service. They embrace and welcome feedback (even if it is painful) as a source of useful information on how they can better accomplish the mission.

Finally, are we coaching and equipping others? Self-serving leaders are addicted to power and recognition and are afraid of losing their position, so they are not likely to spend any time or effort training their replacements.

The program engendered a growing self-awareness among the participants. One of the dimensions of this learning was the differing conflict and negotiating styles that people use. Like the Myers-Briggs personality type indicator, this instrument was very helpful with team dynamics. Once you realize these differences, you can see them at work in teams.

Doing simple personality and conflict style inventories is a good way to help build a team, since you begin to understand each other in a much deeper way. We have a tendency to think of differences in personality and conflict style as issues of right and wrong. Doing this work together helps us to understand that others are just different, without attaching negative descriptors.

We learned that there are five methods of resolving conflict, and everyone has a preferred style. The methods are Competing, Avoiding, Accommodating, Compromising, and Collaborating.

If you map it on a grid, it looks like this:

Competing. This is a win/lose style of negotiating that is both assertive and uncooperative. "I'm going to take care of me, you worry about yourself."

Avoiding. This is a lose/lose style of negotiating that is both unassertive and uncooperative. "Sweep it under the rug. If I act like it doesn't exist, maybe it will go away."

Accommodating. This is a lose/win style of negotiating that is unassertive and cooperative. A friend of mine with this style described it this way. "I'll let him have his way this time and collect a chit for later use." My question was, "Do you ever cash in those chits?"

Compromising. With this style, you hope both can win, but often each side keeps giving up things they want until neither side is satisfied with the outcome. A story from the Bible best illustrates this. King Solomon ordered, "Bring me a sword." The king then said, "Cut the living child in two, and give half to one and half to the other."

Collaborating. This is a win/win style of negotiating that is both assertive and cooperative. The idea is that if we can't come up with a solution that we can both be happy with, then no deal.

Though each of us has a preferred style of negotiating, we are not locked into that style. We can learn to use other styles. Up until that point, my negotiating style mainly consisted of beating people over the head with my opinion. I wasn't sensitive to the feelings or opinions of others.

I began to realize that the only healthy way to resolve conflict was to negotiate using a collaborative style. If there's a motto for the collaborative style, it's this: win/win or no deal. If we can't both get to a win here, let's just go get a cup of coffee and realize we are not going to come together. I studied and practiced, and I began suggesting at the beginning of each negotiation that I hoped we could find a win/win solution, and that if we couldn't, it might be best if we both walked away.

I was amazed at how much better this approach worked. If you're being mugged or shopping in a new car salesroom, collaboration might not get you where you want to be. But in most situations, collaboration is key to an outcome that makes both parties happy.

TAKE A MOMENT    Think about a time in your life when you dealt with conflict. How did you resolve it? What is your preferred negotiating style?

I benefited tremendously from the year I spent in Ingersoll-Rand's program. The 360 helped me understand my strengths and weaknesses as a leader. I rated myself higher on some skills than others did, and in other areas my peers rated me higher than I rated myself. Finding this out at the beginning helped me to hone in on the skills that needed the most improvement. The learning environment was experiential, utilizing role-playing and exercises to move us to a deeper level of learning.

The relationships I built during the year were just as valuable as the learning. Besides being given tools of management and the opportunity to use them, I also developed a network of friends who were considered among the best and the brightest. For the next decade, many of us stayed in touch, sharing best practices, encouraging each other, and building long-term friendships.

While public companies often have processes like this one in place to groom future leaders, most family businesses do not. For this reason, most family businesses die with the founder. My father illustrated this point. He had a very serious illness 10 years before he died, spending three weeks in intensive care.

After he recovered, my brother and I made a very intentional effort for a couple of years to schedule monthly meetings with our father to better understand his vision and strategy, and to prepare ourselves to lead after him. He enjoyed these meetings as much as a root canal. He thought we were trying to take something away from him. Finally, we gave up in frustration.

What About Personal Transformation?

Though I had been hard at work transforming my business, I had not taken any steps to act on my personal vision from years earlier--the vision of leaving the company for a new start at age 45. The busyness of work and family were all-consuming. What little time I invested elsewhere was put into my church. Years rolled by, and I didn't hear much of anything from God. My spiritual life felt empty most of the time. Occasional breakthroughs were followed by long stretches on the plateau.

I found my pastors weren't much help to me in dealing with the ethical and moral challenges I faced in the business world. For the most part, they did not understand the marketplace environment. I did not see them as helpful counselors in my struggles to live out my faith and not compromise my ethics in the give and take of secular business.

No one had helped me unpack the idea of vocation as calling. The idea that I could live out my calling as a Christian within my business never took hold. Instead, I was left with the sense that the only way to truly respond to a calling was to quit my job, go to seminary and become a pastor. As I began to articulate the values I held dear, I found very little overlap with how I spent my time and money, and the values I said were truly important.

TAKE A MOMENT    Since the essence of time management is to prioritize our time and energy around our highest values and most important goals, have you articulated and ranked your the values that are important to you?  If you haven't done so, make a prioritized list of your values. How well does your use of time and money today reflect those things you rank as your highest values?

Still, we kept our dream alive. When the kids were six and nine, we made our first family trip out west to the Rockies. After that, we saved money and traveled out west every three years. Getting back to the mountains where God had first revealed himself to me was deeply inspiring, and I always returned to civilization reluctantly. We spent a lot of time camping in the north Georgia mountains, and at the lake.

Every chance we got, we spent time in God's creation, honing our camping and wilderness skills. By the time the kids were in high school, sports and school activities made it much harder to get away for these weekends, but we found the kids could relax and enjoy family time out in the woods. All the peer pressure and the uncoolness of hanging out with parents dissipated when we were off camping. These interludes helped us keep the kids talking to us through the teenage years, which is an accomplishment these days.

I did continue to serve my church, but I found that most of the things I participated in drained energy away. There was little life-giving about serving on church council or committees. I found little energy or passion in any of those endeavors, and had little guidance in discerning my gifts and the calling that lay therein.

At the time, it felt like I was mostly plodding along. I had a few spiritual mountaintop experiences, but the great majority of the time, I was walking in the valley, just putting one foot ahead of the other.

In later years, I realized that by staying the course, God had used the experiences of family and business to equip me with the skills and experiences needed to live out my purpose and calling. I was learning management and then leadership at the sharp end of the stick, with failure never more than a few steps away.

Our business was racking up debt, and by 1999 it reached $50 million. It was like a snowball rolling downhill. If I didn't stay a step ahead, I would be run over, and the business would crash and burn. Every bit of family equity was tied up in the business, so if it crashed, we were in deep trouble personally.

Even in my time off, my mind would continuously turn to one business challenge or another, constantly working problems over in my head, looking for the path forward. Stress and sleep deprivation went hand in hand through the decade as the business grew.

I spent long months and sometimes years feeling stalled spiritually. I was still holding onto the levers of control in my life, and obedience was a faint response. Reading about spiritual giants who had also spent time wandering in the spiritual desert, enduring the dark night of the soul, gave me some solace that at least I was in good company. So I kept going through the motions of my church life, even when it left me dry and parched.

TAKE A MOMENT    Have you spent time in the spiritual desert? Felt stalled spiritually? What helped you move beyond that phase, to get unstuck? In what ways do you struggle with obedience and submission to God's will?

In the early years of my spiritual journey, I was part of a weekly prayer group of four or five men. This was the time of greatest accountability in my entire spiritual life. We actually talked about real struggles and encouraged each other in difficult times. When people moved away or moved on, the group ceased to exist, and I found it more difficult to maintain my edge.

As I have learned more about discipleship, I find most serious efforts at discipleship are conducted in gender-based groups. Genie and I became part of various couples' small groups as time passed, but none brought with them the accountability I experienced in this early men's group. Small groups are where we have experienced authentic community, being inspired and inspiring each other. But it is hard to be brutally honest, especially about sexual temptation and fidelity issues, in mixed gender groups.

Looking back, I find discipleship and any significant leadership position in the business world to be almost incompatible. Most executive jobs I have seen require a level of commitment of time and energy that leave little left over for any other pursuits. Overlay family responsibilities, and few have the time or energy to really listen for God, to immerse themselves in the scripture and prayer, or serve in meaningful ways that help expand the Kingdom. Even though I maintained a discipline of regular meditation, the quiet moments it brought were too little to really bring my heart to a place where obedience to God was a primary focus.

I was multi-tasking from dawn to dark. I would listen to inspirational music or teaching on the radio while commuting or traveling for business. I would juggle the phone, email, and often someone in my office at the same time. I went from business meetings to church meetings.

A couple of weeks of vacation a year were not enough to let me decompress and really listen for God's leading. I now look at some of my friends who are Christian business leaders and think of the incredible things God could do with those gifts and talents if they were focused on listening and obeying, and not spending 60+ hours at work each week.

TAKE A MOMENT    Is your career track sustainable?  Will you have to revision your career midstream, or will your current skills and experience continue to provide a rewarding opportunity into your future?

As I observed the church, a sense of deep dysfunction emerged in my consciousness. I studied what was going on in effective churches, and I began to wonder where the leverage was to change the stuck and broken nature of many of the churches I saw. Slowly it dawned upon me that the leverage was leadership, and I began to wonder about our process of preparing pastors to lead the church. These inklings would later take root and emerge as a calling, but not until I entered my decompression phase and could really seek God and listen with my whole heart.

Further reading:

Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator

Learn Your Conflict Resolution Style

Get Control of your Life so You can Give it Away

Values and Goals Circa 1995

Spiritual Reflection: This is what the Lord says, "Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls."- Jeremiah 6;16a