Leadership Lessons from Don Quixote

I’ve learned something about leadership from the novel Don Quixote from two unexpected recent events involving leaders I know well.

First was Newell Smith’s retirement address as Superintendent of the Philadelphia District Church of the Nazarene in May.

Early on he mentioned how the novel Don Quixote by the 16thCentury writer Cervantes has been an inspiration since his college days as a literature major.

The fictional knight-errant Don Quixote was a dreamer fighting for justice, civility and chivalry – to right wrongs and punish evil.  In the story some thought he was goofy if not crazy – tilting at windmills of all things.

Near the end of his address, having talked about his personal aspirations and dreams for his post-retirement life, Newell did something that surprised everyone; something he had never done before and no one knew he could do.  He sang a solo – To Dream the Impossible Dream from The Man of La Mancha, a Broadway musical based on the Don Quixote story.

Before the last note the crowd was on its feet in a standing ovation.   Not simply because Newell dared to talk and sing about his own dreams for making this world a better place, but, I think, because all of us were inspired by what our dreams might be if we had the courage to talk and sing about them.

The second event was a Leading To Serve sailing cruise in June off the coast of Spain for 25 Kenyon leaders in a flotilla of four sailboats conducted by captain James Copple, the principle of SAI and Servant-Forge.  This was one of several action learning cruises Jim has organized to mentor young leaders.


Leadership lessons from Don Quixote was the assigned topic for discussions at sea: how imagination and vision help shape our work and our lives.    The world’s problems, they observed, are similar to Cervantes’ time – political corruption, economic despair and hopelessness of the masses.

Jim said that they also talked about Don Quixote’s chivalry.  One of the young men said, ‘I now see that my role is to advocate for and even protect the women in my world.’

 We could use more of that in this @metoo era.

Newell Smith, Jim Copple and these young Kenyan leaders believe there is hope for a better world when men and women begin to follow such dreams.


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And Now Annapolis

Add Annapolis to places of mass shootings – 154 so far in 2018.

We paused in disbelief when it happened on Thursday, June 28, about 10 minutes from my home.  Busy roads were blocked.  An adjacent shopping mall was closed.    In silence we watched a TV view of the crime scene from hovering helicopters.

The first responders arrived within 60 seconds, arrested the shooter, rescued wounded survivors, escorted to safety over 100 employees in the building and finally removed the bodies of five Capital Gazettejournalists killed in this horrific mass murder from gun violence – by a young angry white man.

What is there to say?   The following day the editorial page in the Gazette was blank other than the names of the five journalists – with the words “we are speechless.”

The shooter planned to kill as many as he could in retaliation for a story the Gazette  had printed years ago about a harassment charge to which he pleaded guilty.

Wendi Winters, a prolific journalist and respected community observer was a victim: age 65, mother of four, an active member of a church attended by two of my friends.  The day after the shooting I attended a vigil for Wendi at their church.

It provided a time for her faith community and family, as well as the community to grieve together.

Vigils are important.   Hundreds more marched in Annapolis that evening in a civic vigil.

If we hunker down in fear we tend to become fatalists – thinking that nothing can be done about mass shootings.   We tend to give in and give up.

Together, we know that there are things that can and must be done.

The majority of Americans who don’t own guns along with those who do, favor reasonable gun regulations including effective screening for ownership and making military style automatic weapons illegal.

We can improve our mental health resources including responding to threats of angry, mostly young white males.   The Annapolis shooter had well known mental health issues that should have been addressed.

It seems to me that every faith community would benefit from vigils like the one I attended whether or not one of their own is a victim.

Vigils provide a safe place for people to connect with tears and hugs when there are no words to express grief.    They save us from lonely fatalism giving us the courage to advocate for change and renew our hope for a better world.

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How Growing Older Can Become a Good Thing

How is retirement going?  It’s a question I’m often asked these days.   Since I’m well into my 80thyear I don’t think about it that much.

Retirement was very much on my mind in my 60’s as I neared the end of my institutional employment. I knew it was coming before age 60 when like everyone else at 55 I received an invitation to join AARP, about the time gerontologists suggest we join the ranks of the elderly.

Then in my early 70’s I woke up one morning and found myself unemployed without a pay check, no corporate credit card, dependent upon Social Security and Medicare.   And the familiar work-related phone calls ceased.

I’ve adjusted to all that.   This life without a boss and without having to be a boss seems like the way it should be right now.   It’s a life of freedom, challenge and yes, hope for the future.

I’ve learned much about this time of life from the late Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, (1924-2014) rereading his 1995 book ‘From Age-ing to Sage-ing: A Profound New Vision of Growing Older.’

His life’s work was to change the way we think about aging, and the way we behave as “elders” – a term he prefers to “the elderly.”  An elder for him is ‘a person who is still growing, still a learner, still with potential, still in pursuit of happiness, joy and pleasure.’

He reminded us that age alone does not make one a wise elder.  ‘People don’t automatically become sages,’he wrote, ‘simply by living to a great age.’  We become wise by undertaking the inner work of what he calls ‘spiritual eldering.’

He admits that it is not easy given how we unconsciously internalize the negative images of aging in our youth-oriented society.   He warns that ‘ageism’ is as degrading as sexism and racism.  The inevitability of life’s end can be overwhelming.

I’ve found that the work of ‘spiritual eldering’has given me the tools needed to face my own mortality.   It’s not for the faint of heart.

During my 80thyear I’ve undergone chemo treatment for lymphoma. Thankfully it is now in remission. Which makes me a cancer survivor twice over having survived prostate cancer earlier in life.

This inner work requires commitment.  As Rabbi Zalman wrote, it’s a process during which, ‘our identity comes not from what we do, but from who we are.’  Elders learn that they no longer need to rush around to prove their self-worth by performance in the work world.

From this new identity, moving from “age-ing to sage-ing,” elders continue learning and leading by giving back, or as some now describe it – giving forward, particularly through mentoring younger people and engaging in worthwhile projects that will outlive us.

That’s a good thing!


Posted in Leadership, Serving | 9 Comments

Bright Spots

I had a recent conversation about ‘Bright Spots’ in ministry with Russ Long, pastor for 23 years of the Bel Air Church of the Nazarene in Bel Air, Maryland. He is also the chairman of the Eastern Nazarene College trustees and chair of the search committee for a new ENC president. I have been coaching and mentoring Russ for several years now.

He has a ‘Bright Spots’ journal with over 100 pages of notes about what he calls ‘small victories’ that often are unnoticed in the midst of the challenges that go with leading a congregation and a college board. It’s a counter to the temptation to focus on what isn’t happening.

He wrote in a blog that ‘sometimes I don’t record much for a week or so, and then there seems to be season in which there are quite a few things to enter.’  He looks for ‘bright spots,’ he said, in part for his own mental health.

He begins board meetings at the church and with the ENC board by noting these ‘small victories.’ And he asks board members to talk about the ‘bright spots’ they are seeing around the church or the college. His annual reports include a review of ‘bright spots’ from the past year.

And he now begins his sermons with a projected picture of a ‘bright spot.’ He told me it could be members volunteering at a homeless center, or a wedding. He wants people to see the good things they might have otherwise missed.

Russ got the idea from the book Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work by Chip and Dan Heath. In one of the chapters they cite the leaders of Kaiser
Health who have made it a high priority to study their own internal ‘bright spots.’

Russ began to do the same within his own ministry. ‘Had I not recorded them, I either would have not noticed or I might have forgotten them.’

He has it right. We may fail to remember or even notice good things and small victories if we are not looking for them and taking time to write them down and talk about them.

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How People Become Leaders

As I think about the leaders I’ve known and served with through the years I still wonder – how did they become leaders?

According to Nancy Koehn, in her recent book, Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times, leaders emerge from and are shaped by their struggles.

As an historian at the Harvard Business School she highlights five iconic leaders remembered for their determination, even sacrifice in the face of personal and public crises.

  • Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton,
  • President Abraham Lincoln,
  • Freed slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglas,
  • Nazi resister and clergy martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer
  • Environmental crusader Rachel Carson

Although I knew something about each one of these I learned much more from Koehn’s mini-biographies, especially about their early character development and how they thrived in spite of what seemed to be insurmountable odds.

In their youth, neither they nor those close to them imagined they would become celebrated leaders. They were simply, as Koehn describes them, ‘ordinary people doing extraordinary things.’

Yet each one had character traits that sustained them through their crises.

Character was the necessary foundation for their good leadership.

None of Koehn’s five had what she calls ‘specific endowments’ for leadership.   However, she writes, ‘they worked on themselves: intentionally choosing to make something better of who they were, even in the midst of crisis.’

While leadership in and of itself cannot be taught, character can be.   In his 2015 book, The Road to Character, David Brooks describes some of the virtues that lead to character development in several of the world’s greatest thinkers and inspiring leaders.

Crisis was the context in which their leadership skills were formed or forged.

Each of the five she spotlights knew they were in the midst of a ‘profound personal crisis not of his or her own making.’   Recognizing that ‘they couldn’t give up.’ ‘Rather,’ she writes, ‘each resolutely navigated through the storm and was transformed,’ and the people around them were given hope for a better world.

None of Koehn’s leaders would have wished for the crises that disrupted their lives.   Yet none of them would have become the leaders we remember had it not been for the turbulence they and their followers experienced.

Leadership happens when good people do extraordinary things for others during difficult times. It is never easy.

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10 Books That Kept Me Awake in 2017

A suggested remedy for insomnia is to read a book. That may be a better way to fall asleep than watching TV, a computer or other devices with screens that may disrupt sleep.

But I want books that keep me awake. I have no problem nodding off if a book isn’t interesting.   If I start reading a good book in the middle of the night I may lose a lot of sleep.

Years ago while waiting for a flight home I was so caught up reading Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose that I missed my flight.   Even though I was only a few feet from the gate I was so into the story of the Lewis and Clark expedition to the American West that I was unaware that the plane was boarding. When I eventually looked around I was alone.   Few books are that engaging, but at least I want them to keep my attention.

So here are 10 page-turners from 2017 that kept me awake.


Overload: Finding Truth in Today’s Deluge of News, by Bob Schieffer

Recommendations for getting accurate, dependable news in familiar and unfamiliar            places from a veteran journalist.

Grant, by Ron Chernow

Ulysses S. Grant, Civil War hero and 18th President – the most popular man in America at the end of the Civil War – comes alive and in Chernow’s opinion belongs among the first tier of American presidents.

Leonardo Da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson

The story of the ultimate Renaissance Man driven by curiosity of all things scientific and artistic.   Isaacson’s final chapter with his ‘eighteen lessons from Leonardo’ should be read first. On art quality paper with the Mona Lisa and other drawings and paintings.

An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story, by Jeremy L. Sabella

As a companion to the film by Martin Doblmeier about America’s mid-20th century ‘public theologian’ of which there are few if any remaining. 

Whatever Happened to Evangelicalism? edited by Al Truesdale

Following his introduction Truesdale edits an anthology of theological essays with views on how evangelicals can return to their historic roots.


A Man Called Ove, by Blackman

A suicidal curmudgeon finally finds the will to live and embrace his neighbors after the love of his life dies in a vehicle accident.

 The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead

A clear-eyed view of how slavery affected the lives of whites as well as black slaves in the American South.

 A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles

In post revolutionary Russia a former Czarist lives under house arrest in a luxury Moscow hotel.

 The Sheriff of Nottingham, by Richard Kluger

The story of a singular character striving to act honorably in Medieval 13th century England during the days of Robin Hood and the Magna Carta.

The Circle, by Dave Eggers

A dystopian future when everything we have done, are doing and will be doing is known and controlled by an unseen information technology network.

What books kept your interest during the year?

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Are Leaders Born, Made – or Neither?

While reading Grant, Ron Chernow’s best selling biography of Ulysses S. Grant, I came across Amy Cunningham’s blog The Leadership Triangle, in which she asks if leaders are made, born or neither.

She suggests that we need to change our paradigm about leaders who, she claims, emerge more by context than either natural ability or training.

Ulysses Grant is an example.   Like Abraham Lincoln, who chose Grant as his senior general to lead the Union army to victory in the Civil War, he came from humble beginnings in frontier Kentucky, Missouri and Illinois.   Neither Lincoln nor Grant had the formal education and elite influences of the first Presidents.   Both had their share of young life failures.

Grant, whom Chernow describes as the most popular man in America following the Civil War, was not a natural born leader nor did he have the training required for senior military service or the political experience to become, until then, the youngest President, elected for two terms.   Chernow believes he deserves more credit as a leader for uniting and preserving the Union while implementing the Emancipation Proclamation and Reconstruction.

He seems to have had what Amy Cunningham describes as the Leadership Triangle of “competence, confidence, and commitment” to “ jump in with both feet because there is simply no other choice but to lead.”

Grant didn’t present himself as a war hero and never campaigned for the Presidency.   But he took charge when the times required it.

Near the end of his life, with help from Mark Twain he wrote what is still considered to be one the best presidential memoirs: interestingly enough recounting his war years without mention of his Presidency.

I concluded some years ago that the best leadership lessons are learned from biographies.   This is one of the best. Chernow helps us get acquainted with Grant as a devoted husband and father as well as a soldier and politician with all his flaws and disappointments.

While there is much to be said for talent and training, leadership happens when ordinary people are met with extraordinary circumstances.


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A Night of Hope

During its annual Night Of Hope on Thursday, October 12, the Community of Hope in Washington, D.C., raised over $400,000 – celebrating “Hope Across the City.”

Bob Sloan, for 25 years the CEO of Sibley Hospital, pictured here between me and Kelly Sweeney McShane, the C/H director for the past 17 years, received the annual Tom Nees Award for Exceptional Service. Bob was the founding board chairman in 1980 and has remained an engaged supporter in the years since.   He joined with me and others to start this faith-based ministry among the city’s neediest residents.

The Community of Hope has become one of Washington’s most respected full-service charities – during the past year providing transitional housing to over 1,000 homeless families and health care to 10,000 patients at several locations all across the city.

With the right kind of intervention it is possible to break the cycle of poverty for individuals, families and neighborhoods.  But it takes more than money and programs, as important as those are, to bring about personal and social transformation.

Faith communities bring hope without which little changes for the better.   Servant leaders like Bob Sloan, director Kelly Sweeney McShane and the entire Community of Hope family of staff, volunteers and generous contributors are the difference makers.

I am honored for this annual Exceptional Service award to be offered in my name.   May this legacy continue to give hope to the needy and inspire others to serve where needed.

Posted in Leadership | 5 Comments

‘The Pastoral Role’

There came a moment when reading “When Breathe Becomes Air” (66 weeks now on the NY Times best seller list) that I put the book aside to reflect.   It wasn’t just that it is a heartbreaking memoir of a physician who received a diagnosis of Stage IV lung cancer and died at age 37.   I knew the ending before I started

I was struck by why Paul Kalanithi became a neurosurgeon.   It was, he wrote: ‘to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.’

And then the sentence that gave me pause –

‘Had I been more religious in my youth, I might have become a pastor, for it was the pastoral role I’d sought.’

He anticipated a ‘pastoral role,’ to ‘forge relationships with the suffering,’ doing more than simply treating physical problems. He sought for compassionate relationships with his patients.

For over a year now since I first read the book I’ve been wondering: do most parish pastors, priests, and rabbis understand the ‘pastoral role’ this way?

Or are they expected to pay more attention to metrics of attendance, membership and money, than forging ‘relationships with the suffering.’ As rewarding as it may be, congregational leadership can be a painstaking, frustrating job unless motivated by a calling to stand with those who suffer.

Dr Paul Kalanithi knew that that at the end of life, if not sooner, we all will endure suffering and will need a ‘pastoral figure.’

He wrote his brief memoir knowing that he did not have long to live.   Shortly before the end he lamented:

‘One chapter of my life seemed to have ended: perhaps the whole book was closing. Instead of being the pastoral figure aiding in life transition, I found myself the sheep, lost and confused. Severe illness wasn’t life-altering, it was life-shattering.’

Fortunately, the doctor during his final days became the ‘pastoral figure’ he needed and wanted to be.  I think he wrote so that any of us may be that for someone, sometime.



Posted in Reviews, Serving | 2 Comments

Is America Racist?

A friend sent me a WSJ article by Shelby Steele: “Why The Left Can’t Let Go of Racism.” It begins with a question, “Is America racist?’’

In the wake of Charlottesville he wanted to know what I think of the article and question.

I responded that even though racism exists in structures as well as individuals I wouldn’t describe America as racist. That is not a helpful generalization.

I prefer the word “racialized,’ used by Emerson and Smith in their book “Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America.” They describe America as a “racialized society” since “race matters profoundly for differences in life experiences, life opportunities, and social relationships.”

Given our history of slavery, segregation and discrimination they argue that our culture continues to “allocate economic, political and social rewards to individuals and groups along racial lines.”  

We form opinions, often unconsciously, about people by racial categories before we know them.   Thus there remains among us a tendency to pre-judge people by racial stereotypes regardless of their character or abilities.   That leads to prejudice, racism and injustice.

People of color, by internalizing these stereotypes may be as much influenced by these categories as the dominant white population.

None of us can escape the influence of our racialized culture.   The best we can do is recognize and resist its effects in ourselves as well as in the public square.

I don’t care for Shelby Steele’s stereotyping people as being left or right, liberal or conservative on racial issues.   Labeling one another with a single political identity ignores the complexity of each individual.

I have ideas that some would consider liberal, others that might be characterized as conservative.   This is true with almost everyone.   Few of us are single-minded ideologues.

In his book “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion,” Jonathan Haidt cites research demonstrating that we all want one thing: to be treated fairly.

Working for racial fairness is neither liberal nor conservative, or perhaps it is both.


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