I am convinced that out of our crises come some of our most profound values. I had a crisis in one of my organizations that ended up changing my life in many ways. It all started when someone anonymously posted some hand-made posters all over the organization on a Thursday afternoon. The posters were racially inflammatory and made extremely derogatory remarks about some key staff leaders and me. Although the remarks were untrue, they stirred conversation in the organization, and everyone wondered what I would do. We did later discover who made the posters and took corrective action, but the real story involves something that God gave me that evening as I reflected on the entire event, knowing that I had a meeting with the 350-person organization the next day. The meeting was a regularly scheduled event, not instigated in response to the incident, but I knew that I needed to say something to the organization about what had happened.
When I first came to the organization, the morale was extremely low. They did not trust authority based on some past experiences. Many felt used and neglected. My staff leaders and I implemented many things to improve morale, including “all hands” information and recognition meetings, “management by wandering” (I walked through the offices on a regular basis), group visits to my office where I talked to and got to know the people better, and many other helpful initiatives. With all the progress that had been accomplished, the “black Thursday” posters were very troubling to me. I did not want to have progress in the organization halted.
As I thought and prepared for the next day’s meeting, God gave some wonderful wisdom to share with the organization. He led me to write the word “care” and gave me a key word for each of the letters of “care.” Then, for each of these four words, he gave me four supporting principles. When I shared these thoughts with the organization on Friday, there was a standing ovation … not for me but for the principles I had shared. The principles were not new information, but God helped me put it in a format that grabbed people’s hearts. I try to practice the principles, and I encourage my subordinate leaders to do the same. The principles work in secular and Christian organizations. I believe they embody the care that God wants us to give others as their leaders. The four words for each of the letters of “care” are communication, accountability, respect, and expectations.
FOUR COMMUNICATION PRINCIPLES
I listen to understand, not just to speak next. Most of us are not good listeners if we are honest with others and ourselves. Being a good listener takes time and focus … it is hard. I remember a painful incident in my life that drove home the point of how poor a listener I was. When I had eleven years of commissioned service, I was the principal candidate for a job at the Air Force Manpower and Personnel Center. The position entailed responsibility for overseeing or accomplishing the assignments and career development for the 1,600 officers and 1,600 enlisted personnel in my specialty. Obviously anyone selected for the position would have to have good listening skills. The officer making the job selection talked to many who worked with me and who had supervised me. The feedback was excellent from all of them except one other peer. He told the selecting officer that I was not a good listener; I tended to interrupt others before they were done speaking. When asked about this negative feedback, I was at first defensive. Then, after reflecting, I told the selecting official that the feedback was valid. I did tend to interrupt others in mid-sentence. I did this to family and fellow workers. I guess my honesty helped, because I was selected for the job. I also learned to be a better listener. Do I still miss the mark at times? Yes, but it is an area that I work hard to get better and better.
I try to listen from the perspective of the shoes they have walked in. Most of us just listen to the words other say and don’t really understand the perspective from which they speak. Often when I hear just the words, I jump to wrong conclusions. But every time I take a moment to put myself in their shoes, I am more patient, understanding, and caring. I believe most of us have a hard time putting our perspective into the right words. Because of this, we are often misunderstood or wrongly judged. When I just listen to the words of others, I don’t fully understand them. When I put myself in their shoes, I am able to listen with my heart and my mind.
I don’t repeat or listen to rumors … I seek and encourage others to seek the truth. Unfortunately, we are very good at listening to rumors. They are like tasty morsels, fun to digest and feed to others. I have a rule that I try to live by. “If I am not part of the solution, I will not listen to what others try to share with me about a situation or person.” In many organizations, the “rumor mill” is rampant. Leaders ignore it or don’t know what to do. I believe leaders have to run at this problem. We need to communicate, communicate, and communicate with our people. Share as much information you can, have question and answer sessions, put out written memos, establish timely newsletters, encourage your people to bring any rumors they hear to your question and answer sessions, and do everything you can to improve communication in the organization. I have painfully discovered that just because I as a leader understand something, does not mean that everyone else does. I need to find ways creative and multiple ways to get the word out and stop the rumor mill.
I realize that I get half the story when I only hear one side. I have two wonderful grown children. I can remember multiple occasions when they were younger and one of them tattled on the other. If I listened to only the “tattle tale,” I would have taken the wrong action. There are always two sides to every story. I try to never make a decision without hearing from all sides. My strength and weakness is that I am not afraid to make a decision … I tend to make a decision and move on to the next issue. My organizations don’t get bogged down with indecision, but I sometimes I am tempted to decide before I have all the needed information. I have learned the hard way that I should never act based on hearing only one side of the story. I believe this is a good principle for all leaders.
Stu Johnson is the Executive Administrator for Grace International Churches and Ministries, Inc. Stu has extensive ministry experience as a conference speaker, youth pastor, college and career pastor, associate pastor, senior pastor, and district superintendent. He was also an Air Force officer for 30 years, retiring in 1999 as a Colonel. He has led organizations of 5 to 6,000 people. He has been married to Debbe for over 47 years and has 2 children, Andrew, a teacher, and Lisa, a medical doctor.
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