Some thoughts offered to the students of the Honors College at LeTorneau University, 23 February 2017
My wife Karen is studying Spanish, because we’re moving to Colombia in a little bit. She spreads out her grammar books on the table, asks me to explain to her one more time about the difference between a direct and an indirect object, fires up Duolingo on the computer, and declares truths to her laptop like ‘My little dog eats food’ and ‘I am a horse’ with incredible emphasis. I chisel away silently at my work in the next room.
Then she starts her two-hour classes via Skype with Magdalena, her wonderful Spanish teacher in Colombia. Karen turns up the volume on her laptop and—again—speaks at Magdalena on her computer screen with an overflowing passion. Things like …
¡Yo vivo en una casa! (I live in a house!)
¡Yo tengo un esposo! (I have a husband!)
¡Él se llama David! (His name is Dave!)
¡Él también vive en una casa! (He also lives in a house!)
She follows this up with a number of additional transcendent truths, which she speaks with world-changing fervor as though the survival of our human race depended upon these things.
Then, when it’s all over, and Karen and Magdalena have exchanged all the small-talk that the minuscule command of the other’s language that each of these magnificent women manages will allow, my wife closes her laptop and pads into the room where I’m working.
As the kind of attentive husband about whom entire books are written, I ask …
So how did it go?
She always feels like she’s failing …
Because she is.
Let me explain.
But before I do … and some of you are saying to yourselves, How can he talk about his wife that way …?, let me tell you about my friend Matt.
Matt is my personal trainer at the YMCA. When I mentioned to Dr. Liebengood that I might bring this up in my talk, he said to me with that straight face of his and that boyish twinkle in his eye, ‘Oh, Dave … please don’t tell them you work out … you’ll lose all credibility right up front …’
Matt is a hulking, scowling, personal-training phenomenon. I drag myself into the YMCA at regular intervals and submit to Matt’s training regimen. More accurately, I go in there for my ritual butt-kicking. Matt’s favorite lines are …
Shall we put a little more weight on that … ? GOOD! … 5 pounds or 10?
In spite of the torment, Matt has become my friend, though I alternately love him and loathe him as he forces me to do more than I know I can do.
When I was getting used to Matt’s method, I was frustrated that I could never seem to finish the third of three sets on any given lift. I would actually say to Matt, just after he’d kept some brain-crushing amount of weight from falling on my skull or merely—in less extreme cases—taking out all my teeth …
‘Cuz I thought I was supposed to finish all three sets. I mean, What else was I supposed to think?
Then my youngest son came home from the Army for a break and we went to the Y to ‘lift’ together. Now Johnny is also a hulking, speeding, athletic phenomenon. It is my peculiar late-middle-aged torture to be surrounded by such people. Dr. Liebengood was actually Johnny’s youth group leader when he was a young teenager but—happily—my son was able to get on with his life without obvious signs of irremediable damage.
Somewhere along the line John explained to me that working the weights is all about failing. In fact, you ‘work to failure’. It actually has a name!
It’s the only way you can advance. The spotter is there to spot precisely because you’re expected to fail. I had thought the spotter was like a guardrail, just there for safety in the unlikely event that you ran off the road. But you’re actually supposed to need your spotter because you will fail. Your spotter is a normal part of the process, not a margin of safety against the abnormal. Failure is what you work towards, because it’s how you get stronger. It’s the whole point. If you don’t fail, you remain a wimp for life and your survivors write on your tombstone …
‘He was a nice guy, I guess, but what a wimp …’
Just a word about Karen and her Spanish learning: Evaluators of language learning push the student to the point of Linguistic Collapse.
I’m not kidding you. It’s really a thing, and that’s what they call it. It’s a freakin’ technical term. The only reliable way for them to assess how much you’ve achieved is to push you to your point of failure. Then they say, ‘Well done. You’re proficient to level A or B’, or whatever it happens to be.
Do you see my point? Nearly all worthy human pursuits require that we become accustomed to failing … even to failing regularly.
Dr. Liebengood might well remark that I’ve become particularly adept at failing, which may explain his strange invitation to come out to LeTorneau and talk with all of you about this topic.
You know what’s extraordinary about this?
Loads of people spend their whole lives working as hard as they can never to fail.
They never dare to dream big. They never imagine things that are not.
They do small things in small ways over and over and, as a result, they become little people.
They never say what they really think. Or they always say what they really think. But, either way, they never enter that dangerous space of actually engaging human beings and shaping the future.
In times when we are all desperate for someone to step up and lead, they never do.
You know why?
Because they might fail!
Well of course they’ll fail. And so will you. And, if you fail on the path to becoming stronger, then as our Australian friends would say, ‘Good onya!’
Because, especially if you ever want to lead anything or anybody, failure is an option. In fact, it’s a requirement. You’d all better get real good at it. It’s often the only evidence that you’ve wisely engaged challenges that are bigger than you are.
And that’s the only way to live.
I’ve done my share of failing, that’s for sure. And here are some things, humbly offered to you today, that I think I’ve learned from my penchant for failing.
√ ONE: DON’T LOOK AWAY
For years, I’ve actually had these three words on a StickyNote on the screen of my laptop so that I’ll see them all the time.
You know why? Because I love to look away.
I usually feel that I want to run from interpersonal conflict, financial shortfalls, underperforming colleagues, political differences, difficult conversations, etc. I am fully in touch with my Inner Coward. Looking Away is my most authentic impulse. It comes from deep within. It requires no encouragement to take control of a situation and quickly resolve it. I am never truer to myself than when I am looking away.
I can tell you that I have done damage to organizations I’ve led and to the human beings within them by Looking Away. It’s one of the ways I’ve failed, mostly because I have not summoned the strength to look the problem square in the eyes and hold it in my gaze until it’s dealt with and put behind us.
One of my all-time favorite movie moments happens in the film Apollo 13. Maybe you remember it.
The Apollo 13 crew never made it to the moon because of that explosion in their craft as they were headed in that direction. Long story short, they and the people down at Mission Control in Houston had to improvise a way to bring them home. Gene Kranz is the storied director of the White Team that worked one of the long shifts at Mission Control during the entire Apollo 13 mission. Kranz orders up a box of all the objects and implements that the astronauts on the stricken craft have available to them. Then he gathers his team leaders in a work room, dumps the box out on a table, and tells them ‘This is what we have to work with. Let’s find a solution.’
All hell breaks lose in that room. Up above, the spacecraft is breaking up. The three astronauts seem sure to die. The sky is falling. People are yelling, arguing, despairing, spinning their wheels.
Kranz (played by Ed Harris) says these phenomenal words:
Let’s work the problem, people.
Everyone calms down and begins to do just that. And somehow, almost unbelievably—except that it really happened—they get those three guys home.
That’s what leaders learn how to do: look unforgivingly at what is real and true, and work the problem in that environment and not in some other more pleasant environment that they can imagine.
Leaders don’t get there overnight. At least I haven’t.
But I’ve learned this from failing: When difficulty strikes, Don’t you dare look away.
√ TWO: MAKE EYE CONTACT
I want to read to you a passage from Rowan Williams’ recently published book, Being Disciples, that I find quite powerful. Williams was the until just a few years ago the Archbishop of Canterbury, and therefore the head of the worldwide Anglican community. He’s now the Master of Magdalene College at the University of Cambridge, an institution to which Dr. Liebengood was not offered admission.
Williams writes that being a disciple of Jesus Christ is at its core a matter of awareness. It’s a matter of being able to pause prayerfully and attentively in the midst of the chaos and ask …
What is God doing right here, right now?
It’s a kind of contextual awareness that only comes with full engagement and usually with the accumulation of years and wisdom.
Rowan Williams combines this awareness with expectancy. This what he writes:
And for us today, trying to be Christ’s disciples, awareness and expectancy are still central. We are not precisely where those first disciples were. We are post-resurrection believers and we ought to understand a little more than Christ’s first disciples in the gospels did. In theory at least. We have the Holy Spirit to direct and inform, to energize our awareness, to kindle our expectancy. Like those first disciples, we look as well as listen. We watch with expectancy the world in which live. We listen for the word to come alive for us in scripture. We look at the great self-identifying actions of the Church in the sacraments, asking the Spirit to make the connection come alive.
But not only that; we look at one another as Christians with expectancy—an aspect of discipleship that is not aways easy to hold to. Yet it can’t be said too often, the first thing we ought to think of when we are in the presence of another Christian individual or Christian community is: what is Christ giving me through this person, this group? Given that we may not always see eye to eye with other Christians we mix with, that can be hard work (and no doubt it’s at least equally hard work for them looking at us). Nonetheless, Jesus has brought us together precisely so that we approach one another with that degree of expectancy. It doesn’t mean that you will agree with everything the other Christian says; simply that you begin by asking, ‘What is Jesus Christ giving me here and now?’ Never mind the politics, the hidden agenda, or anything else of that kind, just ask that question and it will move you forward a tiny bit in discipleship. Can we live in a Church characterized by expectancy towards one another of that kind? It would be a very deeply biblical and gospel-shaped experience of the Church if we could.
I love that: awareness and expectancy.
I am learning through failing at leadership and—more generally—through the ongoing process of maturing in leadership, that these qualities of discipleship require the discipline of making eye contact. You really need to engage with your world and with other human beings and with other Christians in a way that subjugates the tyranny of the urgent as well as your passion for your own projects in order to receive from the world and from those around you all that Jesus Christ has to give to you through them.
May I get a little practical?
I have the bad habit of waking up in the morning dreading some of the encounters that are on my schedule for that day. I’ve discovered that many bad habits respond to early prayer, and this is one of them. I try to discipline my heart and mind to begin the day by thanking God for what this person and that person and my 3:30 appointment will bring to me … that is, what Jesus Christ will give to me through that person. Sometimes I know a confrontation is brewing. Sometimes I know the conversation is unlikely to be aesthetically pleasing. But I am learning that in almost every encounter of that kind, if I truly make eye contact and engage, there is a gift for me waiting to be received.
I am learning to live and to lead with awareness and expectancy. This has taken me a long time, and I can’t say I’m very far across the border on this one.
Leaders who make eye contact are too scarce in our world. Our culture prizes the powerful man or woman who is capable of imposing his or her will on others and, in those venerable words that are our culture’s own Scripture, getting things done.
Such leaders are seldom loved and their output often fails to endure.
It is, rather, leaders who make eye contact who shift our world in one direction or another in enduring ways that become part of the fabric of our shared life.
I dare to hope that among you there are some leaders like that.
√ THREE: NOTHING IS WASTED
You have come of age in a pragmatic culture that insists on measuring the Return on Investment (ROI) of everything you choose to do and then on predicting what will be worthwhile for you based on those measures.
While you swim in that tsunami of culture-based instruction, let me be for the moment a lonely voice with a different message. I happen to think it’s good news.
I’ll abbreviate it in this way:
Nothing gets wasted.
Now like all attempts to cram truth into an aphorism, this one can be exaggerated and even misdirected until it means the opposite of what I want to communicate. So let me unpack those three words—nothing gets wasted—just a little.
If you engage God’s world with zest and curiosity and delight and discipline, you will be amazed at how much of what you learn comes round to help you out in practical ways when you least expect it. I can’t explain why this should be, other than to say that I suspect the Lord of Creation honors our honoring of his world by making it pay off in ways we could not predict. That’s a theological hunch, but I stand by it.
Now why do I say that this claim comes from a lonely voice?
Because a whole generation of self-designated experts on what education is for will tell you that, especially as adult learners, you know exactly what you want to learn and that what you want to learn is what you should learn.
I beg to differ.
I don’t think we know what we should learn. I think that biblical wisdom and popular wisdom and grandparents and Great Books curricula and professors of Latin and math teachers and great magazines (The Atlantic, First Things, The Economist, the late, great Books & Culture …), and all sorts of other sources know that there are things we would never pursue if left to our own devices because the frontiers where our ignorance meets the world are simply unmarked.
A quick decision that ‘I don’t need to learn that!—sometimes articulated with dangerous arrogance as ‘What do I need to learn that for?!’—very easily cuts off our organic development as human beings who lead.
And, please, may I beg you to avoid one stupid statement that you will be tempted to make in your first five years out of LeTorneau University?:
They never taught me how to do this at LeTorneau!
The statement assumes that this university’s job is to teach you how to face every challenge that you will confront five, ten, and thirty years down the road. No competent educator at LeTorneau would ever buy that vision for this school.
Nor should you.
The principal reason for universities like this one is to shape you as a human being who will continue to learn through what may well be a turbulent lifetime with vigor, discipline, and delight.
Now if this all sounds very earnest and maybe a little harsh, let me turn myself around and engage this matter from a different direction, a positive direction:
For some bizarre reason, almost nothing gets wasted.
If you truly learn, if you expose your heart and mind to areas of human endeavor that may or may not hold intrinsic interest for you, I promise you—I’m way out on a limb here, but aware of my environs—that almost every bit of it will come back around to you as a gift or a tool.
Your math class will give you entree into a conversation with a businessman with whom you are seeking common cause. You probings at psychology will provide you a place to stand when a friend has entrusted to you that she has thoughts of taking her own life. Your Latin class will set you up for a life of delighting in the sheer, extraordinary gift of words. Your summers spent scraping out the bottom of industrial barrels will mean you’ll never underestimate the battle of a 61-year-old working man who has only ever done that.
Your encounters with your own ignorance, your own crossing of cultural boundaries will help you feel … help you actually feel … something of what it means to be an immigrant or a refugee in a land as strange as this land. Your memorization of Scripture—sure, you could just look it up on your smartphone—will provide you with a reservoir of reality that bubbles up from inside you by day and by night.
And so on … and so forth … for a lifetime.
It’s the strangest thing:
Nothing gets wasted.
And, frankly, no one wants to be led by somebody who has only ever learned one thing, somebody who only knows one thing.
I don’t. You don’t. Nobody does.
The world is full of people who only know … one thing … people who never imagined that nothing gets wasted. People who are deeply, sadly un-curious.
I have had to lead some of them. You will have to lead some of your own.
But you don’t have to be one.
So don’t test out of that math test if you’re borderline on numbers. Sign up for Latin. Take that literature elective. Learn how to lay bricks or plant trees or fix a Harley.
Then when you fail at leadership, as you will, you’ll have all manner of resources to sustain your heart and your mind as you bounce back. You’ll be a happier person, a less cynical person, too.
√ FOUR: YOU BETTER BECOME RESILIENT
Speaking of bouncing back … I’d like to talk with you about being resilient.
You’re going to need to be resilient.
Failing profitably at leadership only happens when the leader himself or herself is resilient.
The important thing is not really how badly you feel on the day …
√ you bomb that exam.
√ your students hate you.
√ your business goes bankrupt.
√ your board of directors beats you up.
√ your employer lays you off.
√ your spouse walks out on you.
What really matters is who you are the next morning.
I think I’ve learned this over the years, and I hope you’ll hear me out on it.
I’m almost tempted to say, in the light of the provocative title I’ve forced upon you today, that resilience is everything. I won’t say it, because it would be an exaggeration. But not a very big exaggeration. It would almost be true. Resilience really is almost everything.
For those of us who attempt to engage life from the angle of faith in Jesus Christ, resilience is the power of God in us. The Scriptures teach us that God is strong and that he does not hoard his strength, but apportions it to us. More often than not, I have become convinced, we experience God’s strength as what we would call resilience.
We are often knocked down: Karen speaks all the Spanish she knows and cannot come out with another word. I flame out half-way through the third set of Matt’s training regimen. Or much harder blows than these are landed upon is. It almost crushes us, but somehow it does not crush us.
We bounce back. We face another day. We wake up stronger. We re-enter the arena.
I once gave a back-of-the-envelope talk to a group of South Asian pastors on this very topic. I called it ‘9 things I’ve learned about resilience’.
This is what I shared with them:
- Resilience does not require super-human strength.
- Resilience is a symptom of God’s own strength in us.
- We can train ourselves to expect resilience.
- Resilience comes in small doses.
- The night-time must precede the morning.
- We don’t always need to ‘show our work’.
- Worship postures us for resilience.
- People will mistake resilience for high spirituality, special strength, or immunity to pain.
- It’s not smart to tempt resilience.
As I look back on that somewhat impromptu talk from the angle of today’s topic, I think I learned those things by failing at leadership. By exhausting my own capacity over and over again, by suffering deep loss and then coming back the next day to start over.
I hope you have become resilient, too. Or, if you have not, that you will.
√ FIVE: YOU ARE A TRANSLATOR AND THERE’S NO ESCAPE
When you lead, you translate 24/7. The non-leader has the luxury of speaking in, listening in, and mastering a single dialect, a single way of speaking, a single way of thinking, a single vocabulary.
After failing at getting people to understand his or her native dialect, the leader renounces this luxury and takes up the task of being an always-on translator.
Let me see whether I can explain what I mean.
When in 2004 I moved back to the USA after sixteen years of working in and eventually leading a seminary in Costa Rica, I did so in order to take the position of President & CEO of Overseas Council (OC). OC is an organization that works very effectively at building capacity in about 300 theological seminaries in the Majority World.
A major part of my responsibility was to get to know businessmen and women who showed an interest in Overseas Council and to make the case that they should become or remain donors to this cause. Although I generally love meeting new people, I often came away from these meetings with a full stomach and a vague sense of irritation. ‘They just don’t get it’, I thought.
I felt as though I was failing to connect, and that this failure was caused in the main by the inability of my conversation partners to ‘get’ how riveting a thing training Christian leaders is in the parts of the world where the church is experiencing explosive growth.
I managed to discover enough resilience to keep it up, to keep engaging these conversations. Some of them were fun and productive, others were not.
Eventually, I came to understand I was not failing as a friend or as a persuader. I was failing as a translator, and my foremost task was essentially that: the duty of a translator. I learned, over time, to speak the language of the business professional, the vocabulary of the entrepreneur, the jargon of the theological educator, and the patois of the pastor.
Now here’s where the key learning was for me: in learning to speak the same truth in these different dialects, I was not becoming a traitor to myself or to my cause. I was simply coming to understand the inevitable reality that the leader must learn to speak his or her truth to many kinds of people, including to his bosses and to those who answer to him.
It’s hard work. It takes extraordinary patience and constantly growing prowess.
About the time I was beginning to understand this, I sought some mentoring from a retired U.S. seminary president. He shared with me that experience of giving up or at least putting on hold his academic work in order to serve an institution as its chief executive. I lamented to him the fact that I was ‘no longer teaching’.
He didn’t let me get away with it for a second. He said, ‘Oh, but you haven’t given up your life as an educator. You are an educator in every moment. When you’re with your staff, you’re educating them. When you’re in the boardroom, you’re educating your trustees. When you’re having lunch with a donor, you’re educating your donor. You are always and everywhere still an educator.’
He could have been saying ‘translator’ instead of ‘educator’ and he’d have been just as right as he was.
I learned this truth by failing. I could never have learned it otherwise.
* * *
I hate to think of you as people destined for failure. But you are. Hallelujah, you will fail!
And in the failing, you will grow strong, wise, resilient, and fruitful.
You will learn so many things from failing at leadership that these little home truths I’ve stumbled upon will soon be in your rear view mirror.
It doesn’t matter, my friends, how you feel at the end of a brutal day, or a brutal semester, or a brutal year, or a brutal decade.
It matters who you are in the morning.