Two Words That Made Me Angry

First appeared at DennisGingerich.com on December 7

Up until a few weeks ago, two words have ignited very angry emotions inside of me.  This has been going on for the last ten years.  It all peaked at a recent funeral for a long-time pastor friend of mine.  At least three times that day, long-time acquaintances asked a variation of those two words, “How’s retirement?”  Earlier that week, a local business leader asked the same question at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon.  It’s been a regular question for years.  But, four times in one week?  I was internally seething with anger by the week’s end!  As I was reflecting, I became aware of all the red flashing lights and the dangerously peaked gauges on my emotional dashboard. Getting ready for church on Sunday morning, I made a decision.

That next week, I scheduled an appointment with a psychologist friend who leads a counseling and consulting team connected to our church.  I needed to explore why those two words kept on detonating an emotional bomb inside of me?  Two words that were most likely intended by the questioner to show an interest in my life, were causing me deep distress.  Why this internal over-reaction to another person’s innocent interest in my well-being?  For a few decades, I’ve known that I should always question a disproportionate reaction to an event, activity or words.  That’s true when observing the reaction of others and it’s also true of myself. 

Unpacking this volatile internal emotional response to a simple inquiry of “How’s retirement?” has led me to five observations about myself and my inner values:

  • I Dislike Assumptions.  While I did carefully plan and orchestrate a leadership succession plan, I’ve never retired. I’m still working full time.  People assumed that changing my role from Senior Pastor to Founding Pastor and calling a young successor to be the Lead Pastor at Cape Christian ten years ago meant I had retired.  Few asked me for clarity on my current role.  They assumed.  A mentor told me years ago to just divide the word assume into three parts:  Ass-U-Me.  That’s what happens when you or I assume.  It makes both of us look like donkeys. 
  • I Dislike Gossip.  I’ve spent the last decade responding to the hated two-word question with, “Where did you hear that I retired?”  In most cases, the response was “someone told me you did.”  No one asked me.  No one checked out the facts.  They just passed on an untruth.  That was a part of my anger. 
  • I Dislike Mediocrity.  I have always been drawn to visionary out-of-the-box leadership. Long-sighted leadership that plans for a preferred future is one of my strengths.  Not thinking ahead and defaulting to “whatever happens” is less than what God has designed us for.  Middle-of-the-road average leadership always disappoints me.  In my way of thinking, developing a succession plan for the organization that you birthed should just be a normal part of growing toward level five leadership.    
  • I Devalue Retirement.  I have come to realize my thoughts are counter-cultural.  Most every working American looks forward to the day they can sit and do nothing.  Not me.  Fishing, boating or golfing doesn’t appeal to me.  Even my hobby of photography doesn’t look good as a full-time option.  I guess I’ve watched too many retirees move to Florida and get super depressed.  In fact, as a police chaplain, I know the inside story.  Every year, dozens of retirees in our city commit suicide.  No purpose.  No meaning.  No hope.  Nothing to get out of bed for in the morning.  In contrast, I love what I do.  I love seeing the transformation of lives.  I love helping the team take new territory.  When someone thinks I’ve retired, that isn’t a positive step for me.  I’ve watched as people obsess about their retirement date—count it down on their smartphones; talk about it every single day to every person they meet; and they let up on the accelerator, put it in neutral and slowly coast to a stop.  Now, I plan to slow down and decrease the amount of time I spend in the office a few years from now.  But for someone to think that I retired at age 55 when I implemented the succession plan by moving out of the driver’s seat and taking another seat on the bus, goes completely against my values—because I don’t value retirement as my ultimate goal.
  • I Discovered That Few Understand the Cost.  As I reflected with my counselor, I realized that a significant part of my internal anger at the “How’s retirement?” question had to do with something I hadn’t verbalized publically.  I was angry that people potentially thought that I was so well-positioned with my financial resources that I could just choose not to work anymore and be set for the rest of my life.  That bothered me more than I was aware.  Quite the opposite.  By giving up the highest-paid position in the organization, I’ve significantly sacrificed financial security.  And there have been plenty of other less measurable costs to my ego by giving up control and taking a much less visible role in the organization I founded.  But I’m still convinced it was the right decision.  I have absolutely no regrets.  And the organization has prospered greatly because of the implementation of a succession plan.  

So, I’m doing better these days.  People continue to ask about “my retirement.”  But now, I don’t feel the rage rising up in the way that it use to.  In fact, I smile (I put on a fake smile before) and ask them where they heard that I retired?  I joke that “you can’t believe everything you hear.”  And I share that I’ve never retired and the truth is I’m still working full-time and I’m loving my role at this season of life.  I explain to them that I intentionally developed a succession plan for the well-being of the church that I started and it’s one of the very best leadership decisions that I’ve ever made.  And I encourage them to go to this Successful Successions blog and read more about it if they want to know the Why behind the What.  And some have.

Here’s my reminders for the holidays:  Life is too short to be angry.  Pay attention to your inner self.  Self-awareness is a treasured leadership skill.  Seek the counsel of professionals.  Have fun.  Humility is necessary for emotional health.  Let the Prince of Peace give you His peace.  Merry Christmas!

What areas of your emotional health do you need to be in tune with these days? What is your next step in getting healthier? I’d love to hear more!

10 Things I’ve Learned About Succession

It has been 10 year since I made one of my best-ever leadership choices. In 2009, I implemented a succession plan for the organization I founded in 1986. It’s a plan that was 5 years in the making.  Very close to committing myself to follow Jesus, marrying my wife and starting Cape Christian, this decision has been in my top 5 all-time best.  Earlier this year, I wrote an extended version of these reflections on the last decade (if you remember them, skip to number 6)

1. Intentional Legacy-Leaving is Rewarding – Tom Mullins, author of Passing the Leadership Baton wrote, “A transition will be one of the greatest tests of your leadership, but it will also serve as one of the greatest rewards and testimonies of your legacy.”  Real. Truth 

2. Level-Five Leadership is the Pinnacle – Jim CollinsJohn Maxwell and others speak of the pyramid of leadership that peaks at level 5 where you serve others, empower those under you, give away leadership, hand credit to the team, take responsibility for failures and demonstrate deep humility.  I’ve diligently pursued the quest to climb to the top. Level 5 leadership is worth the climb.

3. Long-Term Success is Superior to Short-Term Wins – 20 years into starting and leading a church, I dreamed of building an organization that would outlive me.  I dreamed of a church that would go faster and farther after I was out of the driver’s seat than when I was in it. Now, 10 years and three successors beyond the plan implementation, I can actually attest to the fact that those first two decades of many small wins have been far surpassed by the long-term success of an organization that is now ready for the long-haul.  I am absolutely sure, if I died today, Cape Christian would continue to accelerate in its growth and impact for many more decades to come.  My dream is now reality.

4. The Mission is Bigger Than Me – I could have said and meant it early in my leadership journey.  But it’s different to finally and completely grasp it.  To start something and lead something that is much bigger than me, is incredible. There’s nothing more humbling and fulfilling.

5. My Fruit Tastes Better on the Trees of Others – I have always loved Bob Buford’s desire to have his “fruit to grow on other people’s trees.”  Seeing the results of leadership development and the establishment of a culture of an intentional mission and purpose doesn’t just look nice on the trees of others, it even tastes better.  I especially love the fruit of what I’ve planted when I see it coming off the trees of my successors and bringing nourishment and joy to thousands.  That is even more satisfying than when they used to feast on what I produced. 

And now, a few more months of reflections have added a second five to those first five:

6. Succession is Rare—I knew it but didn’t know it.  I had trouble finding good models before I developed a succession plan. But I thought I just wasn’t discovering them.  10 years later, I’m amazed at how many people have never ever heard of anyone doing what we’ve done, especially in a church setting.  When they hear the Cape Christian succession story, they often tell me they have never met anyone who has successfully done what we’ve done.

7. Succession is Misunderstood —The repeated assumption is that I retired early at 55 and turned over the organization to another leader. Peers, friends, acquaintances and even extended family have asked me, “How is retirement going?”  So many have difficulty grasping that I stayed on the team, but I no longer lead the team.  Or to put it in Jim Collins language, “I stayed on the bus, but I’m no longer in the driver’s seat.” Because it is so rare, I’m guessing people don’t have a slot in their brain to put a strategically developed and implemented leadership succession plan.  To me, that needs to change.

8. Succession is Challenging – If it was easy, more people would do it.  There’s no comfort in growth and no growth in comfort.  There are many challenges: ego, finances, clearly defined roles, comparison, potential conflicts, triangulation and more.  I say, “Pull up your big-boy pants and face the challenges.” Every persevering, maturing, and healthy leader should be able to navigate the tests that come.

9. Succession-Planning Takes Time – Many overwhelmed leaders think they can’t add one more thing to their schedule. It does take time.  It took me five years to put a plan in place.  Lots of reading, conversations, prayer, intensive internal reflection, and consultation with others was important.  Many leaders I know just won’t make it a priority of time and energy.  But as always, the best things in life take intentionality and effort. You can’t coast and climb to the top of the mountain.

10. Succession Takes the Wisdom of Others – Our succession plan at Cape Christian wouldn’t be the success story that it is without a lot of help from a lot of people.  Lloyd Reeb of Half-time coached, encouraged and inspired me.  My friend, Greg Kappas, listened to me and my successee as we processed the possibilities.  His feedback and connection to one leader in California who had done it was helpful.  My “Monday Morning” local pastor’s group that I’ve done life with for over 23 years gave invaluable wisdom.  Our church board engaged in the process with their counsel, adjusting our bylaws and risked the future of the church by moving into uncharted territory.  I learned from the leaders and books mentioned earlier in this blog.  My wife, Linda, gave incredible support during the planning and over the years since.  Don’t try it alone.  Outside perspectives are priceless.  

I believe this.  Forward-thinking leaders plan for both their future and for the future of the business, non-profit or church they lead.  

NOTE: If you need any assistance in planning, let me know and I’ll do my best to point you in the right direction!  My email address is Dennis@SuccessfulSuccessions.comif you want to reach out.

Are You Cutting the Tall Poppies?

NOTE: An earlier version of this blog was posted on my www.DennisGingerich.com blog on July 5, 2019.

A while back, I read about a phenomenon called the “tall poppy syndrome.” Evidently, it used to be a common Australian farming practice to cut off any poppy that grows above the rest. Regrettably, this practice is not limited to just poppy farms. It’s a common practice most everywhere.  I’ve seen it in workplaces, politics, families, communities and churches.  

It seems to me, our shifting cultural climate toward boldly posting our unabashed opinions and rants on about any topic, has increased this phenomenon. I see a growing trend to attack, criticize, and resent anyone who has talent or achievements that sets them apart from others. This tendency extends to those who resent the efforts of leaders who challenge the status quo. Opponents of change initiatives often attempt to marginalize leaders by attacking their character and questioning their motives. If the messenger is flawed, then the message and vision they offer cannot be trusted. As disappointing as it is, these challenges come with the territory of leadership.

To be totally fair, this isn’t a brand new practice.  Apostle Paul of the first century was very familiar with this kind of character assault. He frequently encountered mean-spirited opposition from those who questioned his motive and his methods. We get a sense of the content and the intensity of these attacks from his response to those accusations in a letter he wrote to the Jesus-followers in the Greek city of Thessaloniki:  “For our exhortation does not come from error or impurity or by way of deceit; but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not as pleasing men, but God who examines our hearts.  For we never came with flattering speech, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed–God is witness–nor did we seek glory from men, either from you or from others, even though as apostles of Christ we might have asserted our authority.”(1 Thessalonians 2:3-6).

The list of culpabilites against Paul was quite extensive and severe: error, sexual impurity, deceit, flattery, and greed. I don’t have space here to go into these allegations and how the Apostle responded to each one.  But a careful study of the scriptural text reveals that Paul persevered amidst these attacks and demonstrated the purity of the motives that guided his leadership.

Let’s bring it home.  Have you ever been “the tall poppy” at school, on a team, in the community, in your family, or at work? Did others try to “cut you down” because of your talent, idea, vision or position?  How did you respond? I wrote about one of my “tall poppy” experiences in another blog post. It was very uncomfortable.  It still makes me think twice before taking risks because I wonder how I’ll be perceived by my peers and colleagues.  At the very least, I’m still sometimes hesitant to share with others any of my bold ideas or plans.  How about you?  How have you responded?  How have those experiences tempered your audacious decisions and actions?

And finally, be brutally honest.  Have you ever been so filled with jealousy that you tried to cut the tallest poppy in your field? Maybe you pointed out that person’s flaws and failings to others.  Maybe you derided their idea or decision as ill-advised or just plain ridiculous.  Maybe you dug your heels in and refused to join the vision.  I’ve been there and done that.  I’ve learned you don’t make the world brighter by blowing out someone else’s candle.  And, I am also learning that the more I grow in my emotional and spiritual health, the easier I can celebrate the successes of others. 

A pivotal part of my leadership journey toward leaving a lasting legacy was to develop and implement a succession plan in the organization I founded. (That’s what this entire website is about: successful successions in business, non-profits and churches). I can now look back and see that the five years during the planning process and the ten years since the implementation of that succession plan has been a testing-ground experience for me to make significant progress in weeding out the tall-poppy syndrome from my first and foremost reaction reservoir.  

These days, I’m much more grateful for the beauty of tall poppies.  It adds such dimension and splendor to the field. 

QUESTION:  As you consider either your response to being the target of others attacks or your own resentment of others achievements, what is God nudging you about in your attitudes and motives? What adjustments is He prompting you to make?

If you are okay with it, you are welcome to share more in the comment section below.

Leadership Shelf-Life

When I go to visit my 86 year old mother in Oregon, I love to step into her pantry just off her kitchen. The shelves are always filled with lots of canned goods and all the stuff I don’t usually eat at home:  Double-Stuffed Oreo’s, Ranch-flavored Dorito Chips, Famous Amos Chocolate-Chip Cookies and much more. The grand and greatgrand kids love grandma’s pantry. But there is an inside secret that all the family knows. Always check the expiration date. And it’s the same with everything in her refrigerator. Check the “Sell by” or “Expiration” date. There’s a pretty good chance that a few of those appealing goodies I’m tempted to taste (because “I’m on vacation,”) may have passed its shelf-life. 

Carey Nieuwhof got my attention earlier this week with a blog, Why Most Leaders Have a Ten Year Run.”  Nieuwhof has a theory that we leaders usually have a shelf-life of about a decade before we need to reinvent ourselves or possibly move to a new role or a new location.  And if you don’t change, you or the organization you lead will pay a big price.  It’s an interesting theory that I think has lots of validity. As I reflect on my own 40 years of leadership experience, I can see the patterns of 7-10 year seasons.

For me, it was serving for seven years at the first church I pastored after seven years of preparation in college and seminary.  After that first seven years of pastoral ministry in Elmira, NY, I was ready to get on with what my wife and I sensed was our life calling—starting a church from the ground up. 

After moving 1500 miles south from New York to Florida, the next seven to ten years was all about laying the ground-work, launching, establishing and building the culture of Cape Christian.  We grew from a small church of 65 to a medium-sized church of 400 during that first ten years.  We transitioned from small-church thinking (congregational decision-making included business meetings to vote on budgets) to become a staff-led leadership team with board oversight. I reinvented my leadership style from being the facilitator of the congregation’s vision (which was what I was trained for in seminary) to becoming a bold visionary leader who led staff, board and congregation through influence and vision casting. 

The next ten-year segment of my ministry was characterized by understanding and respecting my own giftings and leaning into my strengths as a pastoral leader.  I became super intentional about growing and leveraging my entrepreneurial leadership style by wrapping up a 10 year project of purchasing 48 individual pieces of property and assembling them it into one 14 acre property so we could built our first multi-purpose worship facility and move out of renting the public schools for weekend worship.  I trained a team of lay pastors who led small groups and I let them do much of the pastoral care so I could be free to lead.  I reinvented myself and started being a leader of leaders.  I developed a leadership succession plan.  During this decade, we went from two to three worship services with an average weekend attendance that grew from 400 to 1,000. 

At the three-decade mark of my full pastoral leadership journey, I passed the leadership baton of my church plant on to a younger leader I had been mentoring for five years.  I executed the succession plan and changed my title from Senior Pastor to Founding Pastor, with a new title of Lead Pastor for my successor.  Again, reinventing my own leadership style, I began leading from the second chair.  My long-term successes and influence helped to propel a young leader forward in his first role as a lead pastor.  The church grew from 1,000 to 2,000 over the next five years.  As of 2019, my fourth decade of leadership, there have been two more successors.  The church has not only survived those two leadership transitions but, continues to thrive with health and growth to five weekend worship services for and average of 3,000 in attendance. 

Church Life Cycle

As I reflect on Carey’s theory of the 10 year shelf-life of leaders and I study the findings of innovative church consultants like Tony Morgan, I’m incredibly grateful that I’ve had frequent nudges from God to be both courageous and intentional about making leadership shifts and transitions that have thrust the church I founded beyond the normal life-cycles of growth, peak, stagnation and decline. We’ve avoided the staleness and burnout of being past our expiration date.  We’ve continued to flourish, be fruitful and be relevant.  And I’ve personally never felt more alive and excited for the future. The best is yet to come!

Top Level Leadership

 

It didn’t matter who, what, when or where.  A Sunday afternoon Monopoly game with my brother and cousin.  A six-man flag football game at my three-room country school. The 50-yard dash in the state-wide Junior Olympics.  High-school basketball. Hiking to the top of an Oregon butte, a sand dune or a Pacific Ocean overlook. I love to get to the top of the mountain for the first view. I grew up with a love to win.  Continue reading “Top Level Leadership”

Level 5 Leadership

 

Over three decades ago, I heard one of my earliest leadership mentors, Dr. John Maxwell, speak about the five levels of leadership. He described them this way:

1) POSITION (Rights) People follow you because they have to.

2) PERMISSION (Relationships) People follow you because they want to.

3) PRODUCTION (Results) People follow because of what you have done for the organization.

4) PEOPLE DEVELOPMENT (Reproduction) People follow because of what you have done for them.

5) PINNACLE (Respect) People follow because of who you are and what you represent.

As a young 30-something church planter, I set my sights on Level 5. Continue reading “Level 5 Leadership”