Margins and The Art of Saying No

say-no-1310251-1279x772I’m not great at leadership, but I would say that my leadership is growing. And one of the things that has helped me to grow the most are two concepts: margin, and saying no. And both of these are intertwined.

The truth is that many of us live without margin. And this lack of margin can appear in our finances, in our work time, in our family life time, and relationships. So often we are just so busy and so full we live at full-speed all the time without breaks, Sabbath, or rest.

The true thing at least for me is this: my best decisions don’t happen in stress, and busyness can overwhelm importance.

What I mean by this is sometimes we have so little margin that we just need to get things done, that then we don’t have time or space for the non-urgent but really important things of our lives. I also know stress doesn’t bring out my best, and decisions made in a hurry or without space are never going to be my best decisions.

So what I’m been learning is the importance of keeping margin in my life and in my week. Here are some the practical things I do:

  • I try to plan my week only 80% full. This practice has been incredibly helpful. First, it allows me to have space to say yes to the things that may spontaneously happen, or crisis that need to be mananged withtout pushing me “into stress”. Secondly, if the week doesn’t fill up I have 20% of my time to now dedicate to non-urgent but important tasks (like leadership, visioning, or strategic planning). It allows me to move past the day to day to larger items.
  • I have one weekend a month off. What this means for me is that each month I have one weekend where we don’t go out, don’t plan anything, and it’s free. As an introvert I need this. Our lives can become so jammed packed with all sorts of things, that I don’t have the downtime I need. By planning out and booking out one weekend a month where we don’t have any engagements it gives me breathing space.
  • I limit my nights out. What I realized early on in my life ministry is that if I got busy, I just added another night out. And soon that became a habit where I was out more than I was at home. The trouble is that messes up not only my work/life balance, makes my family a lack of priority, but then became expected by those I met with. Almost every issue then became urgent that could be met within a couple of days. In the end the lack of margin wasn’t helpful.

But those are just a few examples, but I mention this because my bet is you need this too. My bet is that you function best with some margin, some breathing room, some space in your life. The trouble is that if we aren’t intentional it doesn’t happen. Events, work, and other pressures will crowd out our space and in the end we aren’t living, just surviving.

So here comes the second thing: learning to say no. I say yes (even now) probably to too many things. To nice things, to good things, but to non-necessary things. And you can define “non-necessary” however you want but my guess is you might know what I’m talking about. Saying yes to that event, that outing, that pressure that isn’t really helping.

What I’ve learned is that to keep margin, to keep healthy, to keep leading well – I need to say no to more things than I say yes to. I need to make sure that I’m saying yes to the best and no, to the good, because rarely do semi-good leaders say yes to the bad. But our schedules and our lives get filled with okay, good, or not bad things that crowd out our space to do the best things.

So all of this is to say one thing: my bet is your life would be better with more margin, and that starts by maybe saying no to some things.

So why not take some time and think that through. How can you structure some space or margin in your life (i.e. plan a week 80% full, or a weekend off, or night off once a week etc)? What do you know you should say no to that you haven’t? How can you free yourself to give yourself to the best things around you?

I think part of the goal of leadership is also to last, and to not burn out. So these are two practices that are helping with that: margin and saying no.

Failing in Leadership, and Why Its Necessary

1133804_47640439If you listen to truly gifted leaders you will almost always hear some paradoxical: they will talk about their failures. 

They will talk about the tough times, and what they learned deeply. The leaders we most respect and follow when they talk about leadership are more likely to point to their failures than their successes.

And of course there are the arrogant leaders, who talk about how they are God’s amazing gift to the world.

But the truly gifted leaders I respect, have a humility, that comes from failure. 

I say that this is paradoxical because we think of the best leaders as the ones who don’t fail, who press forward, and chart their own path. But I think this is the myth of leadership that we create in our minds. True leaders have failed, and more importantly, have learned from their failure.

The beauty of this is that if you have failed it doesn’t exclude you from being a leader. The question then is what can you learn from your failings and falternigs? What has failing, hurting, or going through that tough time given you to offer the world? Because some of our most profound offerings to the world don’t come out of our success but our struggles.

So if you are leading, struggling, and maybe even failing – be encouraged because you might just be on the path to better leadership as long as you keep learning, and keep pressing forward.

The Leadership Principle of “I Don’t Know”

??????????John Cotton Dana once said, “Who dares to teach must never cease to learn.”

I would agree with that, and also say, “Who dares to lead must never cease to learn”. Because the truth is that leading, and teaching require learning at their core. Leadership is nothing you are “born with”, it’s something you are taught. Knowledge is something you gain as you learn. So both teaching and leading flow out of a posture of learning.

  • The person who refuses to learn, refuses to grow.
  • The person who refuses to learn, refuses to improve.
  • The person who refuses to learn, stops moving forward and will soon move backward.

I think that’s all pretty straightforward, but here is the leadership or learning principle that flows from this that is hard. To be a good leader and a good teacher requires learning. This also means it requires saying, “I don’t know”. And this is what is hard for teachers and leaders.

They are used to being looked up to as the person with answers, with direction, with knowledge and skill. It is hard when you are in that position to say “I don’t know”. But being able to say, “I don’t know” is the fundamental posture of a learner. It is required to learn, to admit you need to learn. So here is the paradox or difficulty: to be a good leader means being a learner, which means admitting you don’t know things.

And this is hard, because we have somehow built up the expectation that our leaders and teachers would “know everything”. That if they were to admit that they don’t know we see them as an example of weakness rather than strength. But saying “I don’t know” isn’t a weakness; it’s a requirement to be a good leader and teacher. It requires self-awareness to know what you know, and know what you don’t. It requires courage to admit the limits of who you are. It requires humility to continue to look to others as well for direction, support, and growth.

The point is that if we want to be good leaders and teachers, it means being a great learner. And that means we need to get good at saying, “I don’t know”.

Learning to Eat Frogs

1059950_13941892I don’t know where I heard this analogy but I often think of it. And by often I mean all the time. I actually have a list called “Frogs to Eat” on the top of my monthly goals. And that heading will make sense in a moment.

But here is the idea. Leadership is like eating frogs.

There are things each of us has to do to be an effective leader that we might not want to do. And this changes for each person in each role. The point is that leadership entails doing things that we might rather not do. For example we might need to make a tough phone call, to do that admin we’ve been procrastinating on, to take that leap whatever. We all have things we need to do that we don’t want to do, that’s eating frogs.

Frogs are the weekly tasks that for whatever reason seem annoying, distasteful, or unwanted – but are needed to be done. And that’s key.

So here is how it works: Each week you have a certain number of frogs you need to eat to move forward. If you don’t the next week, the number of frogs you have to eat just multiply, and the frogs grow bigger as well. Time never makes a hard decision easier. Each time you delay doing that thing you need to do, the number and size of the frogs grow.

So leadership is learning to eat the frogs before they grow and multiply too much. That’s the idea.

Each month then I line up and think through what are the frogs I need to eat. Things I’d rather not do, but that are crucial to do; things I’d rather delay than decide on. Then I try to eat those frogs. It’s not the fun part of leadership, but it a crucial part of it.

So here is my question for you today: what frog do you need to eat?

Jesus, Missional, and Cultural Influence

In current Christian circles there is a buzz word called “missional”. It’s the new word. A few years ago it was “emerging” and “postmodern” now it’s missional. And in a few years it will be something different.

I have no problem with the word, concept, or theology. In fact, I think it’s necessary and I even wrote my thesis on it. The basic idea is that Christians need to be partnering with God in making disciples, changing the world, and being a blessing to those around us. God is already active in the world, and we are called to join him in his activity. This is all good stuff, true stuff, and stuff that I preach consistently.

My worry is that all this good theology gets mixed with a bad economy and worldview of our culture. What happens is our cultural worldview of economics of production, exportation, and efficiency starts to influence our theology and activity. All of a sudden the missional work of the church can be co-opted by the consumeristic economy around us. We start up missional programs to ensure we’re making disciples and cutting edge. We start seeking how to most efficiently impact the community around us, taking our cues from books, conferences, and even blog posts. What can subtly happen is that, while we talk about being missional, we end up focusing on efficiency, metrics, individual decisions, and products.

Again, in general, none of these things are wrong, but when combined with theology they move against the grain of God.

The rhythm of God isn’t primarily about efficiency but faithfulness;

it isn’t about business metrics but Kingdom ethics;

it isn’t about getting people to make decisions about Christ but to be transformed into disciples of Christ;

it isn’t about products but people loved by God

So I’m in no way against leadership, business, and the seven habits of highly effective people. I read all of this type of thing, have been positively influenced by it. I just want to make sure that theology is dictating our business, leadership, and systems, not the other way around. I just want to ensure that while we are talking about being on mission and making disciples we are into it for the long haul and not for a flash in the pan. Because making disciples isn’t about efficiency it is about commitment and longevity. Jesus took three years to make 12 disciples. He lived life with them, he listened to them, cared for them, saw them fail and falter, and even saw one turn his back and leave him. This is the way we make disciples and are missional: in messy, convoluted, long, sometimes in-efficient, relationships where God is moving and working.

So yes be efficient, be missional, make disciples. Just make sure that how you do is influenced more by Jesus than anything else.