Questioning Authority

Here’s a question my brother Aaron asked via social media today.

“I’d suggest that rather than questioning authority we might do better to think about authority. Where does it come from? What is it for? Do you know anyone who wields it productively? What are the limits of obedience to authority? Why? What is the difference between authority and power? But don’t take my word for it…ask a question of your own!”

Aaron, great job starting a discussion on a very interesting topic.

I called him and we talked about it together particularly in light of my March 15 blog titled Family Values in which, as I told Aaron, “I excommunicated roughly half of the North American church.”

“Really? You did?” He said. “Under what authority?”

“Are you questioning my authority?” I said.

“No, I’m just asking a question,” he said. Ha ha, we laughed.

I explained the core concept of the blog to Aaron in a little more depth and then posed the question back to him, “where do you think I got the authority?” To which he replied, “your authority came from a revelation from God.”

Well, that means it is prophecy. As I begin now to exercise a prophetic voice more often, I was asking myself these questions, too.

I’d like to start out the discussion by saying I’m not an expert on authority, but my basic observation is that authority, in general (I’m not talking about spiritual authority) comes in one of two basic ways: via a vetting process or via a personality cult. In the above conversation with Aaron, there’s a particular vetting happening when someone else verifies “your revelation came from God.” Vetting is a HUGE part of the process of becoming an authority on something.

Aaron said, “Well, all those vying for president right now haven’t been vetted,” and I said, “No, they don’t have any authority yet. Authority goes in stages, from one stage to the next you’re vetted. For example, Kasich has the authority of the Governor of Ohio, so hes asking us as a nation to vet him to the next level.”

For another example, my authority in the field of life coaching was vetted from a third-party perspective at CCNI and they decided that the quality of my work deserves the credential (authority) at the CPCC level. This was a more stringent vetting process than simply earning a certificate from a training school. It took me seven years to get from the certificate to the credential. The next credential (Master Coach) might take another 10 years.

The flip side of vetting is the WRONG way to get authority. These guys are the political demagogues and personality-driven church leaders. Typically (if they attain any amount of authority that puts them in the public eye) they have a certain and very rare personal charisma. They can stay small and out of the public eye, leading a group of just a few hundred people, and yet even then when their downfall comes about often times the leader of even a group of only a dozen will end up in the public eye as their abuses come to light. When the authority comes from personal charisma, nobody’s holding you accountable to integrity.

Think about how Donald Trump got where he is today, asking the country to vet him in the election process. What political authority has he had before? None. His vetting process up to this point has been based on a personality cult he’s carefully constructed with a great deal of personal charisma and it has no particular basis in terms of integrity; based on all that, he’s very close now to getting a nomination (which still isn’t the authority of the Presidency). Kasich is pretty disgusted with this whole thing; he’s the governor of Ohio, he’s the candidate on the GOP side who’s held the most authority in a position similar to President. Why isn’t he the obvious next candidate for authority on the GOP side? An entertainment-driven society has deceived people into thinking that personal charisma is a reasonable way to become authoritative.

You see the same thing with Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side. Like his message or not, it’s been the same for 30 years and that means he’s speaking with integrity. When Hillary Clinton says “Where was he in 1993?” His campaign retorts “He was literally right behind you.” Clinton doesn’t look good when she tries attacking Sanders on issues of integrity. Let’s leave politics behind. I’m not an authority on politics. Ha ha.

What is the key characteristic that typically motivates those in authority over others to vet them up to the same level? I submit that it’s integrity. Promises fulfilled. When you’re given a certain level of authority and you fulfill your commitments and live a life of quiet integrity, people see there’s authority in that and they elevate you to the next level.

In a sense, it’s not terribly different from power, in the sense that Margaret Thatcher famously said, “Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell someone that you are, you probably aren’t.” But there are differences, too.

So, where your authority comes from is not how you lead into a discussion. You state what you have to say. Jesus did this. “He spoke as one with authority.” Then, if people ask “where did you get your authority” (and they will) you can tell them. I don’t start a coaching pitch by saying, “I’ve got a CPCC with CCNI” partly because people are going to say “so what” (not because CCNI isn’t an authoritative body, but because they may not have ever heard of it). That won’t work partly because that’s a weak opening statement compared with, say, for example, asking a great coaching question that shows I’m a lady … um, wait, I mean, shows I know what I’m doing as a coach. A powerful use of authority assumes you have it.

The thing about questioning authority, then, is really asking “Does this authority have the integrity needed to maintain their authority?” and sometimes the answer is NO!

Should we question authority? Sure, we should. Aaron did it to me. He said he wasn’t, but really in his question “what authority do you have to excommunicate half the church?” is implied that we need to know where the authority comes from, we want to know if you have the integrity to carry that authority, and we want to keep checking in on that from time to time.

A really good leader doesn’t need to be questioned too often. Follow 90% and question 10% seems to be a rule of thumb that comes to my head. The whole political discussion isn’t to pick sides here, it’s really to illustrate what needs to happen in our churches (that’s the realm I have a lot more authority to speak to) which is this: once we’ve decided to put someone in a position of authority, we need to follow them. We get to expect that they are accountable, and we do not have to be their accountability partner, coach or mentor or overseer. In fact, it is best if we are not functioning in that role if they are also our pastor.

Does that mean we should never question their decisions? Or their integrity? Or their authority? Of course not. But why would we put someone in a position of authority if we didn’t vet them for a measure of integrity in the first place?



Intentional Community #5

A blog reader asked me to comment on the topic of Slackers in your intentional community.

You’re trying to engage your community with purpose and intent for accountability and growth, and you run into slackers. It doesn’t matter what your format or system is for intentional community. They will be there, sitting at the table, waiting to eat.

Someone asked me recently if I could push a big RED button and something in the world would change, I said that for me, it would be that everyone in the world would have at least one good friend.

Slackers are a bit like the monkeys on Monkey Island in Thailand. A guy named Tim and I kayaked out with half a loaf of bread and fed these wild monkeys. First of all, we figured out quickly who was the Alpha male. (No females even showed up for the handouts. Not sure why.) We had to work to get bread to the others. The Alpha was a little bolder, willing to brave water up to his knees. He was ready to chase anyone off, baring his teeth and screeching. Tim and I made sure to stay far enough out that we couldn’t get bitten. A bite from one of these guys would be bad news. One of the monkeys climbed up on Tim’s kayak and found his water bottle. The little dude punched a hole with his teeth and sucked out the fresh water. The monkeys lost interest in us when we ran out of bread. It seems they could tell the handout session was over. Perhaps they saw that our hands were empty, maybe they just knew by experience, or maybe they could even smell that we didn’t have any left in our pockets or bags, but they left pretty quickly.

It seems kind of mean to compare slackers with monkeys, but remember, my personal vision statement is that everyone would have at least one friend. Even monkeys. Even Slackers. The point isn’t to be mean, it’s to be frank.

Principle number one: You are the only person responsible for the depth of community you experience. You do not get to blame it on others if people don’t show up and you therefore don’t get to have community. As I’ve mentioned in an earlier blog, you need to build in redundancy to combat the fact that other people are typically not as concerned about building community with you, specifically, than you are concerned about it for yourself, and therefore for others by extension of your involvement.

Principle number two: we are called to share our bread, even with monkeys. Bread is of course analogous to money, but it can also easily mean time, emotional energy, or whatever else you give to relationships.

Principle number three: Your bread isn’t limitless. If people aren’t reciprocating in your relationships, you’re going to run out. When that happens the monkeys will leave or you will get in your kayak and paddle away. No harm, no foul, monkeys are used to this pattern. They may act offended, but they’re really just pushing to see if you don’t have a few crumbs left.

My hope and belief is that everyone has the ability to grow and mature, to become a leader (not analogous to the Alpha male, who is more like a bully) and steward the gifts God has given them, but the stark reality of the world is that while everyone shares that potential, some do and some don’t. That takes us back to the first question, will you be one who does? Who shows up? Who makes community a priority?

The second thing is that because you’ve made this a priority, you’ll make sacrifices. You’ll give sometimes and get nothing in return. This WILL deplete you. You’ll have to retreat, gather new resources, rest your aching heart, and try again, make another investment. I suspect a combined approach is healthiest:

Reach out to some of the monkeys who took your bread. Maybe next time around they’ll get it. Also, reach out to new people, because this helps build redundancy. You may find some new monkeys, but you may also find some people who will stick with you. Somebody else is looking for this. I am, and I have plenty of friends who do. Intentional community is a real possibility for your life.

Finally, keep investing. It’s a bit like the stock market. Sometimes you buy stocks and they fall for a while, but if you keep them, they can come roaring back. Sometimes you buy in with a high-flying stock and it crashes. But any financial adviser will tell you this: keep investing, even when the market is down. Especially then.

You’ve got to find someone who needs one good friend. Then go be it. They may be a long-term monkey, or they may just be a stock that’s down at the moment. Either way, you’ve done something good for humanity.

Remember this: if you stop investing, you may not realize it, but you just became the monkey.



Guns in America: A metaphor for your organization’s culture

I watched all 12+ minutes of President Obama’s speech on the shooting in Oregon. The only thing I disagree with (and this is a nuance) is that it’s a “political choice”. Nope. It’s a cultural choice. One of my favorite quotes is “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” (Peter Drucker). Politics — using the strategy of changing laws to attempt to deliver a desired result — will ONLY be driven by a change in culture. I think he addressed that in a roundabout way, and his evident emotion and sickness at heart push us toward a question: do we desire cultural change in this area? I have to say this is the best speech I’ve ever heard him give. It’s been a long time since he really inspired me. Thanks, Obama. No… wait. Seriously. Thank you, Mr. President Obama, for reminding us that we should be upset by this, that we should not accept it as routine. (Why has it become routine that when we thank our President the initial assumption is that we’re being sarcastic? — Er, that’s for another blog another day.)

I don’t have answers for gun laws. I hope that people want change. Strategy could go through a variety of iterations before we get it right, but we won’t even really begin to try until there’s a fundamental, tectonic shift in the culture, where the geological plates in the culture shift away from conflict, and instead of those plates shoving against each other, one side shoving guns and violence up on a pedestal high as the Rockies, they shift back (so that “Every mountain shall be made low”) to a great, smooth plains, a place of reasoning together whether we own a gun or not. We have allowed something to sell us an idea of liberty in the place of safety, and we have eaten the meal and the after-dinner mint is … sour.

We all have things in the culture of our organization/workplace/field which have become routine but aren’t right. Thank God they don’t have literal, physical casualties. However, they can have pretty long-lasting impact on a lot of people, they can end up sending people away, leaving them spiritually or emotionally battered and bloody, and why? Because we want to hang on to some old way of thinking, some pattern that is getting justified the same way some say “well, we need more guns to protect us from bad guys with guns!” (We have forgotten that Jesus said “only God is good” and so in our cultural mindset we are ALWAYS the good guys).

For myself, this came to a head in a particular area in the culture of my family. Seven years of lean thinking put us in a position where we have the same issue and struggle every few months. Like the President said, unless something changes, history tells him he’s going to have to go make a similar statement about grieving families before his tenure is up. Same thing in our culture.

Change the rules all you want: if the culture doesn’t change at a more fundamental level, you’re just shifting stuff around, shifting blame, most likely.

So with our situation, we went outside and placed stones of remembrance in the yard. We marked those seven years of lean thinking and prayed. We drew a line in the sand in some way, spiritually, culturally, and I am ready to make changes so that I don’t have to go back to the podium again and say, well, 2016 has been the 8th lean year … No. It’s time for a fat one. It’s time to recognize that the issue has been cultural, and at least in this family I set 50% of the cultural tone. I’m the one who gets to change. I’m the one who has to step back and allow the valleys to be exulted and the hills made low, so that the Glory of the Lord can shine among us.

Leadership: Calm Under Fire

In 1964, a missionary-pilot named Burleigh A. Law flew a rescue mission to Wembo Nyama. (I know this story because I lived in Wembo Nyama in ’87-’88.) An eastern Congolese rebel group called the Simbas (Swahili for “lions”) had captured the town; they had been killing Congolese and foreigners alike, raping nuns, and allegedly even cannibalizing their victims on some occasions as they swept across eastern and central Congo. Law knew that other missionaries on the ground were in very real danger and he hoped to evacuate them, so he flew overhead and dropped a note. “Stand if it’s not safe to land,” he said, “Sit down if it is safe to land.”  The missionaries who retrieved the note stood as he flew over again. It is not safe to land. Law landed his plane anyway. He was shot and killed by one of the rebel fighters before he could even turn off the plane’s engine.

A friend of mine who is chief of police in a rural township told me once that the reason firemen are often killed is not for lack of training—it’s usually for lack of respect for that training, fueled by a desire to be a hero. His men are often factory workers and farmhands with little other chances at glory (their high school football days behind them) and he worries that they’ll ignore their training precisely because they hope to be that hero. Their odds are low at heroism: for every fireman who emerges a hero from a situation they shouldn’t have gone into, many more lose their lives for the same reason. Risks are calculated for a reason.

“You know, you send people into war zones, you send people into dangerous situations and into riots, and you worry that they are going to get hurt. … You send somebody out to do a story on tourism and — how can you expect something like this to happen?” Jeff Marks, Station Manager, WDBJ, Roanoke, VA, quoted in an article on by Elliott C. McLaughlin and Catherine E. Shoichet, 8/27/15.

Marks said this in response to the shooting that killed two journalists, Alison Parker and Adam Ward, just yesterday (this article was drafted 8/27/15).

In his book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, Nassim Nicholas Taleb identifies a key issue for leaders that Jeff Marks is today all too aware of: you simply cannot expect the unexpected. You can make all kinds of plans for any number of contingencies, and that’s important, but the fact that something is unexpected and improbable is precisely the reason that it’s impactful.

A friend of mine runs a business that trains emergency personnel and police in deescalating violence. His consulting firm worked with Newton, CT, before the tragic shooting there, and in the wake of their tragedy, the responders won national recognition for their excellent work during the tragedy. Perhaps they saved lives. It’s always hard to say. His firm has been working with Ferguson, MO, police since the resignation of Chief Thomas Jackson in March of this year. Jackson stepped down after a particularly incriminating report from the Justice Department which found that “Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs. This emphasis on revenue has compromised the institutional character of Ferguson’s police department, contributing to a pattern of unconstitutional policing…” (report, p.2.)

Let’s talk about leadership. God willing you’ll never be under fire in any physical sense. But, whether large or small, unexpected things are bound to happen to your business or organization. You won’t really know the nature of your own ability to remain calm under fire until they happen.

  • From Burleigh Law’s death, we can learn to be prepared to listen to the warning signs. Ask your people for signals, and listen to them. “We should not buy this machine, we can’t afford the debt” or “we must take care of this customer no matter what it costs, they are threatening to take their discontent to the internet.” There’s a fine line between courage and stupidity. Know where the line is, and respect it; listen, listen to your people on the ground. That line is the line of humility, and it preserves you.
  • From the deaths of Parker and Ward, we are only reminded that unexpected means just that. You won’t be able to avoid the unexpected. You can prepare and train your staff for contingencies, but not for everything. “Expect the unexpected” is a nonsensical lesson. Be prepared for what you can reasonably prevent, then be prepared to offer kindness to victims of tragedy around you. (How will you treat your employees if your primary buyer goes out of business?)
  • From Chief Thomas’ story, I can only say, be just; it’s the best way to prepare for a moment when you need to de-escalate violence. On the far side of injustice you’ll only find disgrace.

An ancient book tells us what is good: to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. That doesn’t mean you’ll be able to dodge evil, or even the unexpected snafu. But the courage to do those three basic things under fire will make you a great leader. The impact of the improbable can be a good thing, too, when the impact is positive – so go be improbably great, and you’ll make an impact to the positive that has longer lasting power and touch more people for the good than any of these negative events I mentioned will ever accomplish for the sake of evil.