Master Leaders | Notes & Review

Posted on April 23, 2010


George Barna. Master Leaders: Revealing Conversations with 30 Leadership Greats. George Barna and The Church Communication Network, 2009. (230 pages)

1: Unexpected Discoveries

“Leadership is not about one’s position as much as it’s based on who you are as a person and the capabilities you demonstrate.” (4) “Leadership is less about commanding and more about empowering people to live up to their potential by using all of their abilities.” (7)

2: Defining and Evaluating Real Leadership

“The difference between a con man and a leader is that the con man can talk people into pursuing the goals at greater levels of commitment than he has himself.” (12) Leadership is “redefining the possible,” but is “different from governance…because it doesn’t establish the lowest and least that is acceptable, but it inspires people to their highest and best.” (12) It is “the ability to get people with different personalities and different value sets to agree on what is important and move forward. It’s a science, as well as the art of beautiful speech-making.” (13)

Abraham Lincoln said almost anybody can withstand adversity; but to test a man’s character, give him power.” (14)

Leadership involves two key elements: “relationship and task.” (20) It is essentially the who and what of leadership.

3: Vision and Values

“True leadership is embracing the process of what a group is going to go through to get to wherever the group is going.” (25) This kind of envisioning involves identity, purpose, and values. And, “great leaders take the complex and make it simple.” (26) They must also be rank ordered because “life is about value conflicts.” (27)

“You get what you measure.” (29)

“Genuine leadership doesn’t pander to public opinion and attitudes; it shapes it.” (32)

Vision must be “repeated.”

Years ago, somebody wrote to Southwest and said, ‘I’m a long-term customer, and I don’t like the fact that you make jokes during the safety part of the flight.’ Now most companies would write back to say, ‘We value you as a customer, please trust that we care about your safety and we are good at that, but here’s a free flight coupon and we will talk to the gate agents.’ And then they would make a call and tell their people that the humor thing is good but they need to tone it down.”

…But not Southwest. No. They sent the customer a note that said, ‘We will miss you.’ That’s when you know it’s a core value. ‘We will miss you.'”

4: Creating Culture

“What are some of the pitfalls that usher in an unhealthy culture? … inwardly focused…bureaucratic…arrogant…” (41-2) “The way culture develops is that a group of people does something in a certain way and it works. And if it works over a sufficiently long period of time, it seeps into the bloodstream of the organism. … Then the leader has to make sure his or her own behavior is consistent with the desired culture, and that people of influence within the organization pick up those values that are being modeled. And that leader must ensure that the group remains not only consistent in its practices, but persistent in maintaining those values as well.” (42)

“The cultures that are most toxic are those where nobody knows the truth or is talking about it. … There’s something to be said about the legitimacy of doubt and being able, without scaring people, to talk about what we don’t know about the current situation. Openness and transparency are important for the good of the organization. … The indications of an unhealthy internal culture are easy to see if you look, … Turnover, generally toxic relationships between people, not being able to attract good people, losing good people, and a lack of candor and directness in the organization. … One of the things that I’ve found about the cultures that have broken down is that they do not welcome the truth.” (42-43)

“A healthy culture is one where people know they are a round a leader who will lead,… where there’s a team environment, … where there’s no such thing as a bad question.” (45) “That means a leader has to spend time and money in developing people … develop an environment where people can perform at their highest potential.” (46) “Culture drives behavior, and behavior drives habits in an organization. … One way to get a healthy culture is to hire healthy people.” (47) We also have to “define the words” we use and develop our own “metalanguage,” our “tribal wisdom and culture.” (48)

“Communication is a leader’s most important asset.” (49)

“Culture is a socially transmitted way of practices.” (51)

5: Developing Leaders

“Selecting and growing leaders is an art. …When you seek out raw talent to nurture into leaders, you search for two primary elements: a sense of calling to lead and the kind of solid, enviable character that enables the leader to make appropriate choices and to attract people by virtue of who he or she is deep inside.” (54) Look for evidence, because leaders will have exemplified quality characteristics already in their lives.

“Any closed system deteriorates over time.” (59) This is the organizational law of entropy.

“All great instructors throughout history have not only known their subject matter but they’ve been inspirational.” (60)

Regarding training, “[the] best leaders always just couldn’t wait to get to the next training program because they knew they were going to get something good out of it.” (61)

Leadership must ultimately be modeled as a “360-degree learning experience” where the leader exemplifies “accessibility, visibility, and vulnerability.” (63) “A good leader shows people what a good day looks like.” (65) “It’s amazing how much a leader can get done if [s/he] doesn’t care who gets the credit.” (66)

6: Hiring the Right People

“We hire their attitude and then we train for skill.” (68) “The problem is that leaders, by definition, oftentimes have the organizational leverage, capacity, resources, and power to fall in love with a psycho.” (71)

When it comes to “ready, aim, fire,” which are you? “Ready, ready, ready…” or “Fire! Ready, aim?”

“Just like parenting, as long as you outline what the expectations are, then you can hold them accountable. You can’t do that if you don’t tell them the boundaries and standards, and you can’t be disciplined if you don’t discipline yourself and if you are not accountable.” (74) “We want to retain the very best people we have. We want the people who are average and mediocre to be the ones to leave, not the very best.” (75)

Ask, “is this person a can’t or a won’t? … We hire people for what they know and fire them for who they are.” (75) Look for “an integrated character (Proverbs 27:6).” (81)

7: Leading Well

“Teach in a way that others can learn. … Articulate vividly with emotional and moral power. … Live it; personify it.” (86) “It’s all about relationships.” (88)

“People who believe that everybody has great worth are likely to be great leaders. … You cannot give people the dignity they deserve unless you believe they have worth; and people will not follow you unless you give them the dignity they need.” (89)

“Good leaders have the ability to be oriented toward truth and reality. … They are able to confront the brutal realities, and at the same time, maintain hope.” (89) “the best leaders are the ones who have a voracious appetite for finding out what that reality is.” (90) “Good leaders have an orientation toward results.” (91) “Good leaders embrace negative reality in a spirit of both grace and truth, what psychologists refer to as having a neutralized tone.” (92) “Good leaders are almost always on an active search to identify what needs to get better.” (93) [VIA: which is identical to “Challenging the Process” of The Leadership Challenge]. “A seasoned leader would never allow a threat or a problem to dictate the mission statement, if you will.” (93) “Leaders make things grow. … and realize it’s not about them; it’s about things larger than they are, things that transcend them. … The leaders who are the problem ones are those who say, ‘I’m not God,’ but if you follow them around they act like they are.” (94)

“To be a great leader, you have to master two things at the same time, and they do not easily coexist. One is you have to be humble … [two] you have to believe your actions and words are more important than those of other people because they are watching you and following you.” (95) Thus, servant leadership.

8: Earning and Maintaining Trust

“The past always influences the future.” (97) [VIA: Which seems to be the opposite of visionary leadership, that the future can influence the present.] “To become more trusted and better followed, some leaders need to close the say-do gap, not by doing more, but by saying less.” (99)

In addition, be an “integrated person,” “an open book,” (99) “vulnerable,” (100) “demonstrate proficiency,” (101) and get to know your people “as they are, not as someone else perceives them to be.” (102)

“Is it possible to restore trust once a leader has destroyed it? … It’s possible, but it’s twice as hard, and I’m not sure that it’s ever given back at the same level as it was the first time. In the back of people’s minds, they always wonder, Will he do it to me again?” (105) [VIA: This is where forgiveness comes in; freeing the victim of the constant enslavement to doubt, distrust, and fear.]

9: Confrontation and Conflict

There are different styles such as “very aggressive,” a “‘moving away’ style” which is avoidant, and a “‘moving toward’ style” which “involves being a peace keeper rather than a peace maker.” “Each of those styles is incomplete because it’s not integrated. Leaders in conflict bring tot he table all of their incompleteness, which is the biblical word for immaturity.” (109)

There are different tools to use in conflict, but “if all I have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail!” (110) So, how do we handle conflict with “wisdom, grace, and truth?” (110)

“‘To confront’ is a very positive word [from the Latin] meaning ‘to face something frontally’ or literally ‘to turn your face toward something.’ … Confrontation just means you’re facing reality, but you’re doing it with grace and truth.” (110)

“You get what you tolerate.” (111)

“Make conflict normal, ASAP. … And as a leader, stay neutral in conflict…consider everybody a good guy. If you do that, then you become the disinfectant for all the bad things people are feeling toward each other.” (112) “If you’re a leader, you cannot tolerate the discontinuity between what someone says and what that person does, if the two don’t match. … I think leadership is about bringing the danger with you.” (115) “Leaders make people uncomfortable.” (116)

“Insight therapy is where you get the conflicting parties to analyze why they feel the way they do and get them to understand that perhaps there are different avenues for resolving this conflict than the confrontation they have chosen.” (116) “Some people look at conflict as having to win a fight versus wanting to fix a problem.” (117)

“In negotiation, one of the things that we often fail to do is to engage in the requisite research before we actually negotiate.” (117) “Strive for a win-win scenario. … Too many of us engage in dichotomous thinking and we are not aware of the multiplicity of nuances.” (118)

10: Character

“Who you are will determine how successful you are over time.” (122) “Think about it: a person can learn the industry in months, but if that person doesn’t have the character, you are going to have to hire the local minister and priest and Dr. Phil for twelve years of therapy! Don’t you think you need to look first at character?” (123)

“Character is essentially the set of abilities you need to meet the demands of life. In the Greek language, character means your experiences. … Character is also about how you deal with failure.” (123) “The best definition of character is that it is those qualities that make you the person you are when nobody else is looking. So character is that which causes you to make the same decision in public that you would make in private.” (124)

Some “characteristics,” then. “listening,” “a high respect for people–all people,” (125) “love humility,” “who recognizes that it’s not about me,” has a “dimension beyond yourself,” (126) “has a very keep sense of self-awareness,” taking into account “how they are perceived by others, how their words are received by others,” (127) “a high sense of responsibility over their lives,” “zero tolerance for blaming and zero tolerance for excuses,” “good at being clearly defined,” (128) “enabled to take risks, to be creative, and to learn,” “integrity…based on a code of internal honor,” (129) …

“Unfortunately many leaders who lack integrity compensate by using fear.” (130) “You see, it’s one thing to be a boss, but it’s another thing to be a leader.” (131)

“Wisdom is something you have to allow to come to you. You cannot acquire it.” (132)

Much of this is “birthed or grated out of an absolute willingness to submit…and be patient.” (133) “When you’re in a position of making those kinds of decisions, sometimes your desire to be the primary leader is not granted. Sometimes you’re an oarsman, sometimes you’re on the lookout, and sometimes you’re the captain. Submission is vital.” (133)

11: Following

“Leadership is a tough job and can become a lonely occupation.” (135) “Let’s teach people to be followers.” (136) “A wise leader is able to craft mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive relationships across his or her team.” (137) “People become better teammates when they feel as if they belong on the team an dare accepted by the leaders as being a vital part of the team.” (139)

“If a leader can turn the tables in his or her interaction with a direct report or a peer or whomever and think, What would I need if I was talking to me right now? then it helps the leader to realize that the person he or she is talking to might need a lot of truth and feedback, yes, but what that person really needs is somebody to simply say, ‘I’m on your team.'” (140) “I’ve found the most effective way to have good followers is to inform them about where things stand.” (140) “…they know clearly what is expected of them and who are resourced specifically to meet those expectations. They are happy because they have structure. So to help people become better followers means letting them know, not in some vague way but in a very specific, direct way, what is expected and required of them, and to resource them with the time, money, and training that they need to do those things.” (141)

“Re-languaging is a big part of what a leader must do when he or she works with followers. In general, leaders are more abstract than concrete and followers are more concrete than abstract. A leader can often be both, but a follower can usually operate only at a concrete level. The danger is that the more education leaders get, the more their language disconnects from their followers. It’s only natural: they are reading at a different level, communicating with other leaders at a different level, and writing at a different level every day. Bu they must remember when they go into a meeting with their followers to communicate at a level that connects with those people.” (141)

“Leaders who surround themselves with adoring acolytes and believe their own press clippings lose touch with reality. So surround yourself with followers who are willing to challenge…invite people to that.” (142) “There is no punishment for failure. … Empowerment. People need leaders to turn them loose without fear of reprisal.” (143)

12: Team Building

“Teams are a superior approach to solo leadership. A team always outperforms an individual; it’s a simple mathematical principle. … It’s amazing how much you can get done if you don’t care who gets the credit.” (146)

“How much time shoudl be invested in shoring up weaknesses rather than exercising strengths.” (147)

“teams should be smaller rather than larger. When you have more than eight people, the team breaks down. … in order to communicate effectively, you have to have two kinds of communication: advocacy and inquiry. When you get more than seven or eight people at a meeting, they stop inquiring and it’s more likely you’ll just have people advocating a certain position. … And every team needs a leader, even if it’s a team made up of leaders. There needs to be someone who is the ultimate tiebraker, but if that person is doing a good job, he or she rarely has to exercise that authority. I’m not a believer in self-managed teams. When I work on teams where nobody is in charge–we are all equal–that’s a recipe for the freeloader effect, where people can claim it wasn’t their job.” (147)

Should teams be created “by intentional design” or should such teams “emerge organically? My own studies had shown that it is best when the teams are purposefully orchestrated. … Chemistry is much less important than complementary skills if the individuals passionately share the same vision.” (151) [VIA: An interesting contrast to the need for chemistry–teams working well together]

13: Faith and Morals

“Napoleon once said the moral is to the physical as the three is to one.” (153) “Power is inherently a part of management and leadership. The issue there is using it with intelligence and respect for others, with some sense of moral direction. … Leaders operate with kind of a generic moral philosophy of what life is all about.” (154) “Aristotle refers to it as ethos, and he’s talking about an individual who is ethically congruent, whose rhetoric is backed by his or her actions.” (155)

“One of the big challenges for many Christians who get involved in political issues is they want to transfer the purity of theology into political practice. Theology is pure; heaven, hell, light, dark, the devil. It’s easy to be real black-and-white with theology.” [VIA: I disagree with this premise, though the forthcoming sentimental conclusion I agree with] “But politics is the art of doable, so if we want to lead a pro-life cause, well how pro-life is it? If we advance the ball and get some restrictions on the practice of abortion, that’s what’s doable for right now. I would like to see all human life protected. We can’t do that right now, but we can help the ball move down the field…We succeeded in getting done what we could get done. Sometimes the legislation won’t be just like we want it to be, but if we have advanced and haven’t given up, that’s the part we have to accept. … the exercise of moral authority is not always an all-or-nothing proposition.” (156-7)

“You can have conviction and believe in yourself as a leader, but you have to have an even greater faith in God.” (157)

“Power without meaning is nihilism.” (159)

14: Power

“Influence is a result of power” And there are different forms. “coercive having the power to control the means to your satisfaction, … reference power from a person identifying with a leader and adopting his goals and feeling inspired, … expert power from a person who is an ‘expert’ at a particular subject/topic, … and network or access power from someone who can ‘open doors.” (166)

“The servant leader model…is a transformative model, because you are not trying to build loyalty so that people will improve your position. You commit your loyalty to those around you, and the result of that is that they will elevate you to a higher level than you could ever elevate yourself to reach. … True servant leadership is all about getting a handle on our own selfishness.” (169)

“Sheep follow a shepherd because they come to realize that he cares enough about them to do what is best for them. Isn’t that the kind of leader we all want to be: someone whom others can depend upon to look out for their best interests and deliver whatever they need to ensure their best outcomes?” )(172)

15: Criticism and Pressure

“…the dogs may bark, but the caravan moves on.” (176) “The only thing that’s going to change…where we are today to where we’ll be five years from now is the books we read, teh people we meet, and the dreams we dream.” (177)

“Pressure is when you have to do something you aren’t prepared to do.” (178) “You have to accept the fact that if you’re going to be a defining leader, by definition the people you program against are going to be mad at you.” (180)

“Pressure comes from conflicting desires, and if your only desire is to please God, then the pressure is not from the outside–it’s really the internal pressure.” (180) “A leader who signs up for the job must normalize pressure and expect it rather than hoping it doesn’t happen. … The expectation helps, but you also need resourcing to handle the pressure.” (181)

“Nothing worth creating comes without paying a price. For a leader, part of the price is enduring the emotional roller coaster of being on the receiving end of complaints and challenges, and the physical hardship of feeling the pressure to live up to expectations, even if it’s only your own. (184)

16: Skills and Discipline

“What skill is perhaps most necessary to be an effective leader? Listening. … Tony Robbins gave me a great concept one time. He said there are two kinds of listening. One is sorting by self and the other is sorting by others. People who are lousy listeners sort by self. If you say to them, ‘It’s a beautiful day,’ they’ll say, ‘Yeah, but you should have seen the weather in Michigan where I was yesterday.’ They take the conversation away from you. They sort by self. People who sort by others keep the ball in the other person’s court. If you say to them, ‘Isn’t it a beautiful day?” people who sort by others would respond, ‘What does a beautiful day do for you?’ If you reply, ‘Well, it just gives me energy,’ then they’d ask, ‘What happens when you get that kind of energy?'” (186-7)

“Listen with the attitude that you could have your mind changed. … and know the difference between listening and deciding.” (187) This is called “leading with your ears.” (188) “A helpful acrostic: SOLER =  Sit squarely; Open posture; Leaning forward; Eye contact; Rephrasing.” (191) “You must not only hear what people are saying, but you must also learn to hear what they aren’t saying.” (192) “Sometimes leaders feel so comfortable in their roles that they lose sight of how others feel in their presence.” (193)

“Focus on personal growth … fitness in the physical, intellectual, and spiritual areas. …this is ‘integration,’ meaning that God designed us to have different parts or aspects that should be working together smoothly.” (194) “One of the primary functions of leaders is to understand reality.” Also, “wait on God.” (195) And, “the most effective leaders are good at constantly pushing away the things that consume them but that are not adding value at the end of the day.” (196)

“Leaders should not manipulate people’s emotions, but they should be sufficiently transparent to show empathy, compassion, righteous anger, and passion for the common cause to tap into the human emotions experienced by the team they lead.” (198)

Next Steps

Barna then summarized the sixteen dimensions discussed:

  1. Defining leadership and what makes somebody a leader
  2. Defining leadership success
  3. Knowing how to identify, communicate, and get commitment to vision as well as determining core values
  4. Using core values to establish a viable organizational culture
  5. Identifying people who are leaders and implementing practices that nurture their development
  6. Figuring out whom to hire, how to set them up for success and protect myself from harm, and when and how to part ways with them
  7. Finding touchstones for leading effectively: knowing what to look for an dhow to measure performance
  8. Earning and maintaining people’s trust
  9. Engaging in positive confrontation, resolving conflict, and negotiating appropriately
  10. Developing character traits that honor God, serve people, and empower self
  11. Building up followers so they can be effective in collaborating with other leaders and with other followers
  12. Creating teams of leaders whose gifts and abilities complement those of the other team members
  13. Establishing and retaining the moral authority to lead, as well as integrating one’s faith and faith-based principles into leadership decisions and practices
  14. Knowing how power is derived and how to use it appropriately
  15. Expecting, adapting to, and making the most of criticism and pressure
  16. Identifying and honing the skills and disciplines required to perform at a high level of leadership

“Every living organism is in one of two states: growth or decay. There is no such thing as maintenance; standing still is equivalent to decay.” (203)

— VIA —

The strength of Barna’s writing is his persuasiveness and accessibility. I’m always looking for good material on leadership, management, and insights that can be learned about human behavior. While there was nothing in here that could not be found in other, more “potent” (shall I say?) books, Barna brings his narrative style and presents the material with very little excess. For those who are new to these concepts, this is a good place to start, and a recommendation I would make for those interested in getting started at understanding leadership. One co-worker, to whom I gave a copy, caught me the very next day saying, “Oh, this stuff is good. What a great book.”

The weakness of this book is its lack of systematization which can leave the reader without a sense of how each of these principles/dimensions truly work with each other, and in some ways against each other. Because the style feels a bit more like a piecemeal approach, various concepts are given great statements that can be taken away, but with little follow up and fleshing out for the various ways and diverse situations in which those principles work and don’t work.

Thanks to CCN for their discounted copies, and the accompanying DVD.