Dealing with Failure

December 2, 2016 — Leave a comment

Recently, some friends asked if I would provide a keynote address at an organization’s 10-year anniversary. It’s an incredible privilege to receive invitations like this; they offer opportunities for deeper relationships, collaboration, and (hopefully) encouragement. I take these invitations seriously.

In preparation for this event, I thoroughly researched the organization and carefully prepared my remarks. Knowing that this was a major organizational milestone, I wanted to ensure that my comments helped advance the organization’s mission.

The talk went well—or so I thought. As I sat down after the talk, the fleeting glow of a job well done was replaced by horror as I realized that throughout my remarks, I had referred to the organization by the WRONG NAME! It wasn’t that I’d simply fumbled it once or twice—the organization’s name had two words, and I’d consistently switched their order throughout my talk.

In the world of special events, there are few things worse than an external speaker who gets the name of your organization wrong. And to my great embarrassment, that’s precisely what I’d done. Beyond embarrassment, I felt like I’d let the organization down.

How do we respond when we make mistakes?

Unfortunately, I seem to have experienced my fair share of leadership blunders, and know that mistakes can have a dramatic impact on your future effectiveness. They can sideline you. It’s easy to spend so much time obsessing over your failures that you are rendered helpless to accomplish anything else.

If you feel like you’ve failed, you’re in good company here. Welcome! Here’s my simple process for not allowing it to defeat you:

1. Own it.

Don’t try to sugarcoat your mistake. Refuse to blame somebody else or pretend that it didn’t happen. Don’t run from what you’ve done or attempt to cover it up. Acknowledge your mistake, and own it as yours. Go directly to the person you’ve offended, and admit what you’ve done. Cover-ups never work, and pretending that it never happened simply isn’t honest. Running to escape it will keep you at its mercy. Instead, choose to be honest with yourself and others. You may find that it’s a far bigger deal in your own mind! In my instance, the CEO of the organization was deeply gracious when I apologized profusely and helped me see the bigger picture of the event beyond this blunder.

2. Learn from it.

What lessons can you glean from your experience with failure? Moments of weakness can and should be redeemed, bringing deeper wisdom, greater empathy, and better practices. Following my experience, I have made it standard practice to always print the name of the organization at the top of my remarks, just in case. If correct pronunciation is a concern, I write the words down phonetically and practice saying them ahead of time to ensure that I don’t misspeak in the moment.  I sincerely hope that my error was the last time I will ever make a name mistake like that.

3. Get over it.

If you’ve owned your mistake and learned from it, it’s critical that you refuse to let it take you away from the good work that lies ahead of you. Instead of regretfully looking back, look hopefully forward. Welcome the next challenge that comes your way as a new opportunity to learn and grow.

And remember that getting over it doesn’t necessarily mean forgetting it. Use the memory of your experience to more quickly extend grace to others when they find themselves in a similar position. Moments of failure are never easy—but they’re an inevitable part of our shared human experience and serve as one more unifying thread that bonds us together. What a relief to know that we’re not alone in failure and that there is always, always hope on the other side of it!

Getting loaded into the ambulance after my injury on the soccer field

Not a fun moment…

A collision on the soccer field didn’t just shatter my ankle—it shattered the myth of my own importance.

As paramedics hastily carried me off of the field on a stretcher last month, my frantic mind was racing. It seemed like my accident couldn’t have come at a worse time. In only 12 hours, I was scheduled to be on a plane to Dallas, then Houston, then Raleigh. A few days later, I was slated to deliver a talk in Santa Barbara, and then Orange County. With my ankle precariously bent at an angle that the human ankle was never designed to bend, it was instantaneously clear that I was going to miss our largest events of the year.

“Will we have to cancel the events?” I wondered.

Before I had even been discharged from the hospital, my colleagues and friends began responding with thoughtful action. Within a matter of hours, my flights had been canceled, and plans had been set in motion for team members to step in and take my place at each event. With grace and incredible speed, these friends deftly agreed to cover all of my responsibilities.

As the following weeks of events unfolded, while I kept my ankle elevated on the couch, the results exceeded previous years’. Both HOPE International and the rest of the world kept on spinning.

After one event, I received a text that read, “Of course you were missed by those of us who have a personal love for you and your family, but it was evident this morning that others can equally do the job.” In other words, We missed you. But everything went beautifully without you.

Listening to the response from those in attendance at each event, it’s clear that my colleagues didn’t simply do the job; they knocked it out of the park.

My injury turned into one of the most freeing moments of my time at HOPE. I know that our mission would undoubtedly carry on with excellence when the time comes for my transition.

I believe it’s a high compliment a leader could ever receive in the midst of a transition would be if everyone—employees, outgoing CEO, incoming CEO, management, and clients—all thought, This isn’t such a big deal.

Healthy organizations refuse to become dependent on any one person. They build teams with multiple people who are each ready to step up at any moment.

My guess is that, due to a perilous cocktail of pride and lack of planning, few organizations are well-prepared for a leader’s transition. In fact, a 2011 study by CompassPoint reports that “just 17% of organizations have a documented succession plan.” It takes courage and humility for leaders to prepare for the moment when they transition, to ensure that, in a way, their absence is not felt.

Perhaps part of the reason that we don’t plan for what comes next is that we like to be needed. The idea that we are somehow indispensable to the mission feels good. Yet it is critical that we grapple with the fact that placing our egos over the mission inevitably sabotages long-term organizational impact.

If we deeply care about the mission of our organization, we will care deeply about what will happen when we’re suddenly out of the game. Perhaps one of the healthiest things we could do as leaders would be to shatter the illusion of our own importance.

(And to my coworkers, I hope to continue serving with you for years to come . . . but when it’s time to transition, there is no question in my mind that HOPE’s mission will continue! What an honor it is to serve with you.)

Empathy > Judgement

November 8, 2016 — 2 Comments

“Dad, is that you?” my daughter joked, hearing the click-clunk from my crutches as I walked towards her. Everywhere I go, I announce my presence with the sound of crutches banging on the floor. It feels like a major accomplishment to make it to the next room and a cause for celebration when I’m able to hop up a flight of stairs. Last month, while playing soccer in an over-40 league, I collided with the goalie. He won the ball, and I lost my ankle, as it bent into a horribly unnatural position. The result is a cast, some crutches, and a temporary end to my independence.

As I’ve hobbled along over the past few weeks, I’m suddenly noticing that not all buildings are friendly to people with crutches. In some places, there aren’t ramps or elevators, and some restrooms have such low sinks that they require a one-footed Pilates position to use. Other walkways are like obstacle courses, cluttered with hazards eager to make you sprawl awkwardly on the floor.

I’ve never thought much about buildings and disability access—until now. In fact, years ago I served on a church building committee. Due to a building code, we were required to install a ramp, and I distinctly remember wondering, “Is this really necessary?” when seeing the additional expense.

With disturbing ease, I would have unintentionally put up an obstacle to someone with a physical challenge entering a building and (even worse) a place of worship. Why? Because the issue didn’t directly impact me or anyone I knew. The deeper issue, I was severely lacking in empathy.

Empathy for others with physical challenges is growing as quickly as the callouses on my hands. Not that there is ever perfect understanding; the fact that I should be back on my feet in six weeks makes my situation pointedly different from friends who have longer-term challenges. But I hope that my current situation affords me a short-term glimpse of the world, and long-term empathy as a result.

In our fractured world, what might happen if we all started with a little more empathy? If we slowed down to try to understand before rushing to judgment? If we truly listened to others, especially those with whom we disagree? If we forcefully muzzled our critique and actively opened ourselves up to understanding?

James, the half-brother of Jesus, encouraged, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak…”

If we took time to imagine what it’s like to walk in another person’s shoes (or with their crutches), I’m convinced the world would be a much more gracious place. And as I’m learning, that’s where true healing begins.

Photo courtesy of CNN

Photo courtesy of CNN

A couple days ago, I received a call from Port Salut, Haiti. My friend Ralph was clearly shaken as he shared about the devastating effects of the recent hurricane. “There is no place to sleep,” he reported. “Our homes have been absolutely destroyed. If we do sleep, we sleep standing up.”

He added that the bridge on a major road had also been leveled, meaning that no one—and no aid—could get in or out.

My heart once again broke at the reality of devastation in Haiti left in the wake of Hurricane Matthew. Recent reports about rebuilding efforts following the 2010 earthquake had been encouraging, but we are coming to the sobering realization that the new devastation in Haiti’s southwest will inevitably cause massive setbacks. There are troubling reports about cholera, food supply, and more.

I work for a nonprofit, HOPE International, which serves in Haiti. I’m committed to the nation of Haiti and its people—friends like Ralph mean my connection to the country is not only professional, but also personal. Further, we have been and will continue to be fully devoted to the long-term rebuilding process there.

But what will you not see right now is a fundraising appeal from HOPE to raise support for Haiti, and I want to tell you why.

1. Relief is necessary—but it’s not our area of expertise.

As Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett point out in When Helping Hurts, there is a difference between relief work and development. At HOPE, we specialize in Church-strengthening microenterprise development; we simply do not have the expertise to lead relief efforts. That’s not to say we aren’t remaining involved. Our country director in Haiti, Lesly Jules, is working with churches to coordinate efforts on the ground. We are committed to praying for those affected by the storm. But as an organization, relief is not our area of focus.

2. We want to partner with those who do specialize in relief work.

After having the eye-opening experience of serving in a refugee camp during a crisis situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo, I can tell you, relief work is a different skill set, mindset, and approach from long-term rebuilding. I am so thankful for the Church in Haiti, as well as our friends at 410 Bridge, World ReliefWorld VisionFood for the Hungry, and other organizations with dedicated teams that are experts in strategic relief efforts. Already, these groups have all mobilized to provide food, water, clothing, and shelter in response to the hurricane. We want to point people to these groups as they use their God-given gifts to bring comfort and care to our Haitian friends.

3. We want to remain focused on what we do, so that when the time comes, we’re ready to step back in.

The outpouring of generosity that flows into hurting communities that have experienced a disaster can easily entice well-meaning organizations to step into areas of need that they’re simply not equipped to meet. These well-intentioned efforts often leads to long-term damage, and it’s never been our approach. Instead, we remain focused on the future. The long-term work of rebuilding in Haiti is going to begin again—and when it does, we will be there. Until then, we remain committed to standing with our Haitian brothers and sisters and our church partners, as well as to pointing people to the organizations equipped to meet the immense immediate needs in affected communities.