Last week I returned home in the cold and the rain and took my dog out to the backyard like we do every time I come home. The backyard was covered in a blanket of wet leaves as it has been for the last week but I noticed lots of white dots covering the leaves. I realized that the young man I had seen pushing a small fertilizer spreader had used it in my backyard. My grass, or sorry excuse for the grass covering my back yard, could really use the fertilizer. However, there it sat on top of the leaves, not doing anything helpful. Actually, I said out loud, “Well, that’s not at all helpful.”
While I don’t blame this guy because it was really cold and really wet, I have to ask, what was the point? What was he supposed to be accomplishing in our yards? What was he trying to do? I think the answer should have been that in order to live up to the “TruGreen” name of the company, the goal should have been trying to get the fertilizer on the recently aerated lawn in order to give it what it needed to make it ready for grass to grow in the spring. Instead, his goal was just to spread the fertilizer. Get rid of it. Take that little spreader and just run it around the neighborhood.
It reminded me of something I learned years ago. I was working as a summer missionary for a church start in New York City. Our goal was to reach out to young professionals on the upper west-side of Manhattan. In order to connect with this population, we would set up a table early in the morning in front of the comedy club where we held worship services and hand out breakfast bars to young professionals headed to the subway. Our goal was to connect with them but also to give visibility to our church. The pastor of the church had ordered a large banner made for this purpose, advertising who we were. Our job was to hang the banner on the building behind our table.
Our first morning, it did not hang as it was supposed to and we decided to just forego the banner. The pastor came by and questioned why the banner was sitting rolled up. Without it, people had to stop and be willing to talk to us to know why we were there. Let’s be honest, there were not many New Yorkers willing to do this and so without an advertisement of who we were, we just looked like crazy people handing out breakfast bars on the street. Our leader asked why we had not tried other methods of hanging the banner, or why we had not visited the hardware store just down the street to find a new method. For heaven’s sake, why had we not just at least gotten some duct tape? Our ultimate goal was to connect and build relationships with young professionals in the area. We had this amazing church community that we wanted them to know about. What we were trying to do to those people was connect with them and connect them to the church community.
The good leaders are the ones who go for the duct tape. They are the ones who recognize what is important and do whatever it takes to follow through. They do not just give up and leave the banner rolled in the corner or smile and say “sorry.” If you want to be a great leader, you must know what is most important. There are many smaller details that a good leader knows can be flexible. They are able to keep from sweating the small stuff. An ineffective leader will wear others out making sure the non-essentials happen just the way they intend or in-vision them happening. A good leader knows what is important, what contributes to the vision and ultimate success for their organization or event. They will do whatever it takes to make sure the vision is not compromised. They keep the most important, most important and will do what ever it takes for success. While success may be held together with duct tape, it is still success.
One of my seminary professors, Dr. Bruce Powers, a leader in effective Christian Education, was famous for teaching us to ask, “What are you trying to do to people?” He wanted us to start with the end goal, the purpose, the vision before any of the planning and the doing. You cannot know if you are effective if you do not know what you are hoping to accomplish.
In terms of our calling in the world, we must take your passions and begin to get specific. What is it you are hoping to accomplish, to change, to impact in the world? What does it mean to help the poor, to develop leaders, to help refugees resettle, to minister to children, to disciple adults.
In order to be effective, begin by learning who else is out there doing it. How can you gain experience, how do you learn from best practices. How do you come alongside others? Learn what are the right questions, what is the root question or problem that needs to be addressed and answered.
Keep going back to the question, “what are you trying to do to people?” Are you just get rid of the fertilizer? Just giving out breakfast on the street to young professionals? Or are you working towards what really matters.
We have enough folks who feel like showing up is enough. Once when I was doing leadership training around effectiveness and appropriateness of age graded work with children, I had a volunteer comment, “you should be happy you have people volunteering at all and not be concerned with how we do it.” But it does matter if you are leading in a way that is not effective. Living into your potential takes more than just showing up, putting something on the calendar, giving out food or clothing, teach the class.
People who live into their potential get the duct tape, they move the leaves before they fertilize, they learn how to communicate better with the children. They think about giving to the poor in a way that is redeeming and doing more to change the larger systems. They find the root of the problems for women on the margins and they seek to create change. They start with the question, “What are you trying to do to people?” and then make plans appropriately, focusing on the details that really matter for the ultimate vision and passion.
So….”what are you trying to do to people?”