Should We Embrace a Remote Workforce? – The Organizational Question of the Decade

This is an interesting time to lead an organization. Because of the pandemic most workers who can are working from home. While this is the safe and right thing to do it poses some interesting challenges for leaders of organizations. One of those challenges is to determine whether this organizational structure should be something more permeant. If you’re considering this as a more permanent option, you need to consider it from a strategic perspective, not from a “fear based” posture many of us are experiencing right now. You need to make this organizational structure part of who you are which means you may have to change your organization’s vision and to some degree ethos if this is how you choose to move forward. Here is an example from higher education where we’ve seen that universities already established as distance education institutions transitioned during the pandemic much easier than those who never thought this would be something they would ever have to do.

My alma mater, Capella University provided me with a very good and effective doctoral education in general psychology. I have no complaints. I can compete with and engage other doctoral learners from similar programs that only have on campus classes. Capella’s mission statement is:

“The mission of Capella University is to extend access to high-quality bachelor’s, master’s, specialist, doctoral, and certificate programs for adults who seek to maximize their personal and professional potential. This mission is fulfilled through innovative programs that are responsive to the needs of adult learners and involve active, engaging, challenging, and relevant learning experiences offered in a variety of delivery modes.”

When their students, professors, and much of their staff had to work remotely in a dispersed organization, they did well. Very little of anything changed regarding how they deliver education, measure learning outcomes, and help students feel they are a part of their organization. From the very conception of who they are, a dispersed organizational structure was at the heart of their existence.

Other universities did not make this transition very well. They struggled to keep students engaged and are finding that their professors, administrators, and staff were not well prepared to make this shift. It’s not because these people aren’t intelligent, it’s because it’s not the “ethos” of the organization and therefore those attending and working there do not see remote education as part of who they are.

The reason I bring this up isn’t to critique one way of doing things over another, but rather to highlight an important aspect of organizational design that may get missed as leaders begin to consider whether their organization should become more dispersed. My advice is for many organizations to not do it. Don’t think you can just turn on a switch and “Poof”, you are now a dispersed organization. This approach won’t work for two reasons.

First, implementing any drastic change is met with resistance even when it’s well communicated. When people suddenly realize they’re now going to be a dispersed workforce in a dispersed organization it’s going to affect what they do. Even if the idea is appealing to the employees, it will impact how they do things which leads to some form of resistance. Much of this is because what an employee does, how they do it, and the results they get are intricately connected psychologically to the vision and mission of an organization. That’s what provides them with the “why” regarding what they do. Think of these statements as the DNA of an organization. Someone asks, “Why do all of you work remotely instead of in an office?” The answer is something like “We find that in order to serve our customers 24/7 at times convenient for the customer we need a nimble workforce that can adjust their hours as needed. In order to do that, working remotely gives our employees a lifestyle that allows them to provide our customers the service we say defines us and still have lives of their own.” That’s an answer intimately connected to the vision of an organization. And that is the second reason just “flipping a switch” to be a dispersed remote organization won’t work.

Take a look at Amazon and compare it to another big retailer, Walmart. Amazon’s ethos is to conveniently provide their customers numerous services remotely and yet in a timely and competitively priced way. The shopping experience is intimately connected to their web presence and the fact you can get most anything you want sent to you within days, sometimes in that day, without much of an issue provides the Amazon experience. Amazon thrives as an online experience because at its core this is who they are. Their organization has been developed around this strategy. Walmart, however, is not. People want low prices and the ability to walk into their store and get what they need now. Walmart has a website. In fact, if you go there, you might find it can compete with Amazon in several ways. However, Walmart is NOT an online shopping experience and therefore they will never do online shopping as effectively as Amazon and likewise, even with Whole Foods as part of their organization, Amazon will never do brick and mortar shopping like Walmart. It’s not that they can’t, rather, it’s that to do so means a complete shift in their vision and mission. That would then lead to a change in strategy and for that to work the organization must shift and change to implement that strategy. Basically, each company would be a different organization than they are now. For some, that’s a good idea, but for others, that might be tragic.

So, if you’re thinking that now is the time to transform your organization into a dispersed organization, think hard. Start with your vision and mission statements and ask yourself “Can these be actualized from within that organizational structure?” If the answer is yes, start rethinking your strategy. If you can develop an effective strategy that requires a dispersed organization, you’re on the right track. If at any point your answer to these questions is “no” think of how you will be able to bring everyone back in the office. Your organization’s “life” will depend on it.

Who Can Help You Be a Great Leader?

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If there is one thing I’ve learned from studying leadership as an academic discipline it’s that leadership is as much an art as it is a science.  It reminds me of my training as a therapist.  When I went to Duquesne University to get my graduate degree in marriage and family therapy, we spent a significant amount of time learning techniques and theories about counseling.  However, you could be the best academic student in the program and still fail miserably as a therapist.  Why?  Because just having head knowledge about how to use numerous therapeutic techniques isn’t enough.  One must apply that knowledge in a way that can’t be explained but rather must be experienced and observed.  It would be like learning to swim from reading an article on the subject and never going into the water.  When I saw my professors work with clients, I could see the things we were taught being used but it was like watching someone paint a portrait.  The artistic nature of what they were doing could be seen when they chose an intervention at just the right time and used it in a way that was beautiful.  Leadership, like counseling, is an art as much as it’s a science.

I’ve noticed that several leaders in organizations I have studied or have done some limited training with don’t understand this very basic concept about leading.  They want an academic like me or a successful consultant to “teach” their people how to be better leaders.  It’s not that consultants and academics can’t help improve someone’s leadership skills, but much of what it means to be a leader comes from constantly being challenged by the situations you’re placed in and evaluating how you did, what worked, and how to do it better.  One must take up the “Craft” of leading as an artist learns to shape the most beautiful table from a hunk of wood found in his or her woodshop.

Now, as I’m writing this, I know several you are saying, “If that’s the case, why should I study leadership or engage consultants to help my organization?”  My answer to you is because it helps.  Leadership consultants and educators are people who have spent a significant amount of time understanding and practicing the craft.  They are the sort of people one might have apprenticed with in the ages past to learn a skill.  Yet, its not just the experience they bring to educating future leaders that matters.  If that were the case, all you need to do is find others who are successful leaders and learn from them.  While that can be tremendously helpful, someone who is a fine leader but doesn’t understand how to convey what they know about leading isn’t very helpful.  My point is good practitioners are not always the best teachers and the best teachers are often lacking in significant leadership practice.  Finally, a good teacher and a good practitioner may not be good researchers who can provide you with a good understanding of what the future will look like and the best way to lead in that future. 

So, what does all this mean for you as someone who wants to improve their leadership skills?  Simply this: don’t just learn from one source, become a master leader by engaging the three streams of leadership wisdom I just mentioned.  Find a good leader who you believe is doing a great job.  Learn from his or her approach to leading.  Appropriate what works for you and your organization and fine tune it.  Learn from some of the best educators in the leadership world.  Find teachers who understand the leadership material and learn from them.  Soak in what they have to say and use it in your leadership efforts.  Finally, read the research.  Read what scholars in the leadership field are saying is going to be important as culture, people, and the context of your industry changes.  These three sources for understanding the practice of leadership are essential and without one of them you find yourself woefully prepared for some aspect of leading.  Good practitioners, excellent teachers, and solid research are the different types of canvases and brushes you will use to paint the portrait of a leader you want to be.

As I said when I started this article, leadership is as much an art as a science.  It’s your job as a leader to create something beautiful.  It’s not just your job, it is your responsibility.  The people that depend on you to do what you do well need someone who isn’t just knowledgeable, but creative.  It’s this creative aspect of leading that allows you to inspire others to be more than a cog in the organizational system.  Your craft reminds people they are connected to a bigger purpose and that their work, and dare I say their life, has meaning and purpose.  Go and create something beautiful, it’s what good leaders do.

Middle Management and the Dark Pit

I just finished reading a book called “It’s Your Ship” by Captain D. Michael Abrashoff.  It’s a great read, particularly for anyone who finds themselves working as a middle manager.  Most people think of middle management in negative terms.  Middle managers are often thought of as people who haven’t been able to achieve executive status. Yet, there are many of us who find middle management a good fit for our gifts and talents.  It’s people like us that are able to “stand in the gap” where executive orders need to be translated into something the average team member can understand and execute in a way that accommodates numerous factors higher-level managers can’t appreciate. As Captain Abrashoff puts it:

“The gray areas, in fact, are one reason we need mid-level managers.  If everything were black and white, organizations would need only chief executives to make the rules and workers to carry them out without questions.  Mid-level managers should be the ones to survey the gray areas and provide direction.”

I want to explore this “gray area” many middle managers function in on a daily basis.  It’s probably one of the most dangerous areas in business one has to navigate and it can make or break how an organization performs.  I was reminded of this perilous space recently while watching a movie called “Grayhound” starring Tom Hanks.  The movie follows a Navy Captain named Ernest Krause (Tom Hanks’ character) and is situated just months after the United States was bombed at Perl Harbor.  Hank’s character is commanding a group of international ships that must cross the Mid-Atlantic Gap also knows as the “Black Pit.”  This area of cross Atlantic travel was exceptionally dangerous because of the number of German U-Boats that harassed ships as they attempted to deliver cargo and men to Europe for the war effort.  In the movie, Hank’s team of international battleships had to protect a convoy carrying troops and supplies to Liverpool England.  The reason this area of trans-Atlantic travel was so dangerous is that the allied forces in Europe and the United States could not provide air support in this stretch of the ocean.  Without air support, the ships were exceptionally vulnerable to submarine attacks by the Germans for at least three days.  As the movie unfolds you see how Hank’s character has to make quick decisions, navigate dangerous water, engage the enemy, and do everything possible to limit the amount of damage the convoy they were protecting sustained.  It is a great movie and it leaves you on the edge of your seat for at least sixty of the ninety minutes you watch.  More importantly, it reminds you of how important it is to have solid people working in the “gray area” of life.

This movie works as a great metaphor for describing the life of middle managers.  The mission created by the executive team is clear when understood in the pristine world of a boardroom or conference room.  I’m not implying executive leadership is naive or unaware that this gray area exists, rather I’m saying no one at that stage of strategic development could possibly account for the numerous ways things need to happen for the objective to be reached.  Middle management’s job is to protect the “convoy” and make sure it arrives in Liverpool England with as little damage as possible.  Middle managers are familiar with receiving these types of orders.  It may not be as sexy as protecting a convoy of ships, but it may be just as important.  The order you receive will most likely sound more like, “We need to cut production costs by 10% but still provide a quality product to our customers with as little damage to our customer satisfaction ratings as possible.”  Middle managers need to make that directive work while continuing to keep their team members motivated, the production line flowing, and handle any issues that pop up.  It’s this gray area that makes people in middle management thrive.  Middle managers must be comfortable with ambiguity, demonstrate moral courage to do what needs to be done when what needs to be done isn’t easily identified, and take the heat when things don’t go well.  You can’t be a coward if you’re going to survive as a middle manager.

Over the next few weeks, I want to spend some time digging into the characteristics and skills necessary for functioning well in the middle level of any organization.  Perhaps you’re like me and find that part of the organization’s structure a place that challenges you in a positive way.  Maybe you’re like Captain Krause in charge of the battleship known as “Grayhound” and you’re willing to bravely go where there is little air cover yet the opportunity to do something good for a greater purpose is ready for a person like you to take command.  If so, you’re in the right spot because together, we can explore what it takes to be a successful middle manager.  I look forward to going into the “dark pit” with you over the next couple of weeks.

Translating Executive Strategy Into Team Member Work – The Task of Middle Management

Emotional intelligence is an important topic in leadership studies.  People who are emotionally intelligent are able to harness the power of human emotion and intuition and inspire their team to stay focused on the organization’s vision and mission.  At the core of emotional intelligence is the ability to understand the perspective of others.  Certainly, there is much more to this complex topic, but the truth is if you can’t see things from other people’s perspectives emotional intelligence will be difficult for you to grasp.  The unfortunate result of being at the top of an organization’s leadership pyramid is that you lose some of the ability to understand the perspective of your lower level team members.  When you’re charged with an organization’s overall strategy and direction you just don’t have the cycles to see things from the everyday team members’ perspective.  You need to contend with the board of directors, future initiatives, strategic direction, and other executive-level responsibilities.  Don’t feel this is something you need to apologize for, it’s just the nature of what you do.  You can still care deeply for those who work for you without having an understanding of what they do on a day to day basis.  Sure, you need to care about them, communicate your interest in their lives, and have a basic understanding of the work they do, but it’s more important you see the organization from a visionary perspective rather than a day to day perspective.  The problem is too many executive leaders don’t acknowledge they’re walking around with this blind spot.  When executive leadership refuses to appreciate their lack of perspective at certain levels or worse, believe it doesn’t matter, the ability for that level of leadership to inspire and influence the organization will die.  How does executive leadership overcome this problem while maintaining the energy and focus they need for the other important aspects of their job?  They recruit and keep good middle level managers.

A key role middle management plays is implementing the strategic directives of executive management and helping the front line team members understand what those directives mean for the work they do.  Additionally, middle management takes the everyday work experience of the team members and incorporates it into the vision and strategy of executive leadership.  To do this well middle managers have to be excellent interpreters of both executive directives and day to day team member life.  Middle management walks in both worlds yet belongs to neither.  They are very much aware of the situation and concerns of executive leadership yet understand the complexities and challenges strategic direction has for the day to day work the team is engaged in every day.  To do this well requires middle managers to be flexible and creative every day and with every task they are required to complete.  If they want to succeed, Middle managers need to take a two-pronged approach to their work.  

One of the best examples of how to manage this balancing act can be found in the book by Captain Abrashoff I have been discussing called “It’s Your Ship.”  In regard to seeing things from the perspective of his sailors he writes:

“My organizing principle was simple: The key to being a successful skipper is to see the ship through the eyes of the crew.  Only then can you find out what’s really wrong and, in so doing, help the sailors empower themselves to fix it.

That’s a very powerful and humble statement to make.  As someone tasked with directing sailors to fulfill the mission given to him by his commanding officers, Captain Abrashoff chooses to set his ego aside and attempts to see what needs done from the perspective of the enlisted.  The enlisted are the ones that must execute the commands.  The everyday sailor is the one who sees the orders being handed down from a bottom up perspective.  Sometimes the perspective closest to the actions needing completed are the most informed and important to listen to and frequently the most ignored.  By empowering his sailors to speak into what needs done he creates a solution focused team of people, not a group of people simply geared toward pointing out problems.  They come to him with more than a list of issues, rather they include potential solutions as well because they know the Captain is able to see things from their perspective and empower them to do their work.

And how does he motivate them to fix what needs to be fixed in order to be a mission-ready ship?  How does he make sure that what he hears from his team is appreciated?

“I began with the idea that there is always a better way to do things, and that, contrary to tradition, the crew’s insights might be more profound than even the captain’s… My second assumption was that the secret to lasting change is to implement processes that people will enjoy carrying out.  To that end, I focused my leadership efforts on encouraging people not only to find better ways to do their jobs but also to have fun as they did them.”

So what we find here is a leader ready to listen to what the day to day work of his team has to say about getting things done.  However, it doesn’t stop there.  Captain Abrashoff had to report to his commanding officers in the Navy.  He couldn’t just do what he wanted, he had to also be mindful of what his leadership required, the strategy they proposed, and the vision and direction they have for the Navy.  In order to incorporate that perspective into what his crew was proposing as necessary changes he writes:

“You have to train yourself in leadership, and you can’t afford to wait until you get promoted to begin the process.  While you’re still an individual contributor, learn to think like your boss, so when the day comes to be a leader, you’re ready to step right in with your game plan in hand.”

Middle managers need to think like their boss.  When you can do that you’re able to anticipate what needs done and take your team’s feedback on how to get it done into an executive level discussion with your boss.  Instead of merely telling executive leadership “Here are our problems and this is what the team needs to overcome them” you can speak about the weaknesses your team identified, the solutions they propose, and indicate how they are a part of the strategic direction and initiatives of executive leadership.  Being able to frame things in a way that executives understand is as important as being able to demonstrate to your team how executive initiatives add value to the work they do.  Middle managers are master translators of business language.

There is indeed a great deal more that middle management does in regard to this part of their work, but for now, think about this and reflect on how you might improve in this area.  Ask yourself how well you see the work your organization does from the perspective of those on the front line.  Then, make sure you understand the strategic initiatives and direction executive management is implementing so you’re well versed in how these two organizational efforts can work in harmony.  If you can master this part of your work, you’re on your way to a successful career.

Silent Moral Courage-Olympic Flashbacks

When thinking about leading it’s not uncommon to think about moral courage. Moral courage is the ability to do the “right” or “moral” thing even when that can cost you significantly. You may need to push back on policies or movements that are popular, supported by authority figures, or encoded in law. It will most likely require you to be a lonely voice that makes those engaged in the immoral and wrong-headed action uncomfortable and sometimes angry. Exhibiting moral courage requires humility. A leader that exercises moral courage isn’t simply pushing their opinions around about what they believe is right, they’re speaking the truth even when doing so might make them uncomfortable. Think of the white leaders during the time of the Jim Crowe south who benefitted from the system yet spoke out against it because, in the end, they knew that to do so was what mattered for justice to prevail.

An example of moral courage that has stayed with me for some time has to do with an Australian man named Peter Norman. Peter Norman isn’t a name most people recognize. In fact, when someone thinks of moral courage they most often think of people like Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and numerous others who suffered for justice. Their fame emerges from the fact they stood up against injustice at great personal cost. Yet, so did Peter Norman. In fact, he not only lost a great deal because of his willingness to stand up against injustice, but he also did so without the recognition and fame his fellow protestors got from protesting the same acts at the very same time. He died without ever being publically acknowledged for his courage or his great accomplishments as an athlete.

At the Olympics in 1968 three men emerged as winners of the 200-meter race. Two of them were black and one of them white. Two of them were from the United States, and one from Australia. Tommy Smith, the first US Athlete won the Gold, and John Carlos the second US athlete took the bronze in the 200-meter race. They knew that they had this small space in time to use their brief fame to make a statement against the rampant racism in the United States and around the world. The third athlete who was not a citizen of the United States nor a black man was told by these two athletes that they intended to make a political statement during the medal ceremony, one of which was to raise their black-gloved hands in the air as a way to protest racism. Peter saw the importance of this moment and knew he could not just stand silent at this important moment and asked how he could show solidarity with his fellow sprinters. All of this occurred only months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr so the whole world was aware of the racial struggles occurring in the United States. Peter also was acutely aware of the racial struggles and discriminating policies of his own country and wanted to give voice to the marginalized people there as well. He was strongly influenced by his religious beliefs (He was a member of the salvation army that believed deeply in the equality and dignity of all people) and felt compelled to be a part of this moment at this time.

While Carlos and Smith are known for the fact they raised their hands in protest that elicited boos, sneers, and angry insults from the crowd, Norman also was looked down on because he chose to wear the badge for the Olympic Project for Human Rights during the ceremony. After the protest, Smith, and Carlos were rushed from the stadium and removed from the US Olympic team. They went home to the United States, experienced a great backlash for what many believed was a sign of complete disrespect, and received death threats. This indeed is an example of moral courage. Later, both men were re-accepted into the Olympic fold and had significant athletic careers. However, Peter Norman was not so lucky.

Peter Norman was severely punished by the Australian sports establishment. He remained one of Australias greatest runners qualifying over and over again for the Olympics but the establishment would not let him run. Norman suffered from depression, alcoholism, and an addiction to pain medication and died as a forgotten figure in Australian athletics. He never was able to re-establish his career as a sprinter and never participated in sports on any significant level after that one act of protest for justice. It wasn’t until 2012 that the Australian government apologized for how Peter Norman was treated. Peter Norman certainly suffered for standing up for what is right and just. Moral courage cost him a great deal.

I look around today and I see so many public figures beating their chests and saying whatever they need in order to appeal to and be accepted by those in power. Standing for moral principles seems to be less and less popular in a world that finds morality and principles relative to whatever the mood of the nation is. Yet, I take comfort and inspiration knowing that there are always people like Peter Norman who will silently suffer and be ostracised for a cause not directly related to them. People who have the moral courage to stand for what is right and just even if they’re not those suffering from the injustice simply because their principles dictate that they must be a witness to what is just. These are the people that will continue to be the conscious of an organization and a nation. Thank God we have them.

If You Want a Better World, Learn to Love and Be Loved

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More and more I am convinced the heart of all human misery is the result of a fracture in a very important psychological mechanism built into the human heart. We are intended to be creatures that love others and receive love. When we cannot love others in a healthy way or have not been loved in a healthy way we create a world that is fractured, broken, and hurtful. Psychologists have numerous theories that talk about the minutiae of how this mechanism works, but in the end, we struggle to love others and are negatively impacted by those that love us in a broken way. Here are just a few ways that happens.

A very early and significant way we are negatively (or positively) impacted by how we are loved is related to something known in psychology as attachment theory. The manner in which your primary care giver shows you love, meets your needs, provides a sense of safety for you, etc. can impact how you engage the world later in life. The theory was formulated by John Bowlby but explored extensively by Mary Ainsworth. Without going through all the details of the theory and the subsequent research it developed, attachment theory finds that those children who were provided with a caring, loving, responsive environment were more able to adjust to the world around them than those who were not. When this care and love is not provided properly, insecure and anxious attachments develop in people and they exhibit such behaviors and emotions as anxiety, the inability to regulate emotions, difficulty with developing relationships with peers, etc. Later research even demonstrates insecure attachments impact romantic relationships and marriage satisfaction. Taking all this into consideration you can see that when someone is not loved properly they struggle to give and receive love in a healthy way. Then, that gets propagated to others and the world continues to spiral into a broken dysfunctional pit that seems impossible to overcome. When we cannot love or are loved in an unhealthy way we in turn love others in ways that are broken. The cycle is difficult to break.

Taking things further, excessive abuse has been found to certainly have a negative impact on people raised in such a toxic environment. While certainly high levels of abuse create people who deal with physical injury and developmental issues, it also creates psychological damage. First, it can create an internal experience of self-hatred. Many people dealing with this self-hatred and abusive history consider suicide, become addicted to drugs, and deal with depression and anxiety. Post traumatic stress disorder and other trauma related mental health concerns are commonly found in children and later adults who experienced extreme abuse. However, even more disturbing, some research indicates excessive abuse of children during formative developmental ages causes the empathy pathways of the brain to be stunted and underdeveloped causing anti-social behaviors and at its worst, antisocial personality disorder. The most extreme lack or inability to love children being raised in our very homes creates people who’s neurological structures make it exceptionally difficult for them to empathize and love others.

Over the course of the next few posts I want to explore how we can change this trend and learn to love others and receive love in a healthy way. This innate characteristic of being human is essential for living life well and flourishing in the world. Imagine if we could transform the world to be a place where people can learn to love others and be loved in a healthy way. What might it be like if we could help people learn to mitigate against the broken and distorted love they received in order to break the cycle of distorted love? The world could at least be a little better because of the things I want to discuss. Augustine of Hippo, a Christian philosopher and minister in the 5th century often spoke of sin as nothing other than disordered love. Perhaps we need to reconsider that again in our day and age? How is our love disordered and how does it perpetuate a disordered world today? I look forward to sharing thoughts on this with you over the next few posts!

The Spiritual Nature of Sin – Signature Sins

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As many of my readers know I’m a professor of psychology for Regent University as well as a priest in the Continuing Evangelical Episcopal Church. One of the courses I sometimes teach is Abnormal Psychology. Abnormal Psychology focuses on behaviors, cognitions, and emotions considered disordered. One area psychologists explore in regards to abnormal behavior is why particular abnormalities emerge in the first place. In other words, psychologists ask the question, “Why are some people clinically depressed, suffering from clinical anxiety, have schizophrenia, etc., while others seem to go through life without any problem?” A popular model used today to describe the source of abnormal behavior is called the “diathesis stress model.” While the name sounds very technical, it really isn’t that difficult to understand.

The diathesis stress model simply states everyone has within them the potential to experience a psychological disorder of some sort. We’re all vulnerable to particular disorders. We may not know what they are, but given our genetic make-up, life choices, and the circumstances in which we live any one of us could have a psychological disorder just waiting to emerge. This risk factor is called a “diathesis.” What causes the disorder to emerge is the fact environmental stressors impress themselves on the individual and trigger the start of the problem. This model is no different than how we explain certain physical disorders. We may have the genetic predisposition for diabetes, but because we exercise, eat right, and maintain a healthy lifestyle our body never experiences the stress of unhealthy living which causes diabetes to emerge. The key is to mitigate the disposition toward the disorder by keeping our environmental stressors low and practice healthy living. We may have a disposition for depression but if we make sure we have down time, coping mechanisms in place, and a support system available we may never experience depression at a clinical level. The key to maintaining physical as well as mental health is to be sure we understand our vulnerabilities and maintain a healthy set of coping mechanisms to keep us from experiencing problems at a high level

This model is very helpful for understanding how we develop physical ailments and psychological ailments. It also translates nicely for understanding our spiritual ailments. First, we must all recognize because we’re born into a fallen world we have a fallen nature. This fallen nature creates in us a proclivity toward sin. All of us have a sin nature, not a nature of virtue and holiness. While I recognize there are a number of theological positions regarding the state of the soul, I think most Christian can agree the natural state of the human spirit when born into this world is broken and fallen. Additionally, each of us carries within us a proclivity toward a certain sin, or pattern of sins, something called “Signature sins.” Michael Mangis wrote a book called, “Signature Sins, Taming Our Wayward Hearts” in which he explains what these particular proclivities toward abnormal spiritual behaviors are. He writes the following:

“My life, like my home, carries unique markers of my own experiences, relationships, likes, dislikes, gifts and vices. My life displays patterns, consistencies and habits. Even spontaneity occurs within boundaries. My sin is similarly patterned. I can predict my temptations by the choices that have enticed me before. Other temptations may afflict my neighbor but cause me no struggle at all. My patterns of sin are unique to me.”

Like having the risk factors that could lead to a psychological disorder, we all have risk factors that can lead us to display spiritual abnormalities. All it takes is the appropriate environmental stressor to have them kick in. A man may be susceptible to lust and all it takes is watching a sexually explicit movie and he finds himself lusting after women and thinking about them as if they are mere objects of his desire. Having a particular proclivity toward a configuration of sins and living in a world that provides a number of opportunities to experience those sins can lead us to be spiritually disordered. In the end, we’re people struggling with the potential breakdown of not just our bodies, minds, emotions, and relationships, but our spirits as well.

If we truly want to grow spiritually we need to make ourselves aware of our signature sins. These risk factors have the potential to lead us down a path of destruction. They need to be identified as well as the environmental factors causing us stress and in the end, activating our sin pattern. Working with a good spiritual director, practicing spiritual disciplines, and being connected to a great community support system is the first step for growing in the life of grace. In the end, our natural proclivity toward sin can only be transformed by the supernatural life of grace coming from a relationship with Christ. Begin your new life in him by finding ways to destroy the old life in you.

How One Human Life Matters

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Some days we wake up, we go through our routines, and are reminded that life is just one repeating event that happens day after day. We think there is little we’ve done that matters and realize we will never be on television or have articles written about us in some well known newspaper. We most likely will never write a great novel and no matter what we’re told by the well meaning people in our lives we cannot be whatever we want because we have to be what we need to be for the people depending on us. Most of us are mothers who care for our families and fathers who provide for those depending on us. We work jobs that make money so we can pay our bills and we have to maintain our homes through tedious tasks such as doing laundry, cutting grass, shoveling snow, and fixing those simple devices meant to make our lives easier. Life goes on like a ship headed out to sea and we simply stand on the shore and watch it move further and further away from us. Certainly there are moments of joy and happiness among these routines, but there are also days of mere repetitive necessary tasks. For many people it leaves them with the impression that their life, while important, really doesn’t matter to that many people. And it is that belief that is woefully wrong.

I’ve often quoted a friend of mine who was a Roman Catholic priest. He was an only child and while close to his cousins, he had little family that he associated with. As a Roman Catholic priest he couldn’t marry so he had no children and no wife to share his life with. He once told me that many men in his situation say “There is nothing more dead than a dead priest” to capture the life they live. He believed no one really remembers them because they have no one to carry on their memory. Yet this man has had a continual impact on my life as well as my whole family, He was so wrong about the impact he had on me and mine; he was a friend and I loved him very much.

My father was also taken from us unexpectedly when he died in his sleep. He had dinner with me and my family, went home with my mom, kissed her goodnight, went to bed, and then died of a major heart attack in his sleep. My dad never thought he was anything special. He was a retired police officer who died believing that he simply did his duty as a father and husband, nothing more. He never believed he did anything more than what a good dad and husband needed to do and took pride in the fact he was a simple officer of the law for a city he loved.

Both these men were very important to me but more than that, I don’t think they ever realized how much their lives mattered, even though they lived these lives in the simplest and most ordinary way. Every life matters because it impacts the lives of others in ways the one who lives it never imagines. The simplest courtesy can unburden a desperate soul looking for one act of kindness. The kindest smile can give someone that one glimpse of what is good in humanity they needed to experience that day. Your life matters and you should live that life as if it does. No matter what you do for a living or how you spend your time throughout the day when you live it being reminded how much it matters you impact people in ways you could never imagine or may never know.

My fear is that most of us living today are living as if what we say, do, or how we live doesn’t matter. Don’t do that. Choose your words wisely, be mindful of what you do and how you treat others, and take care that the work you complete is done in the most excellent way you can do it. By living that way you may inspire the next great leader of the nation, show a person love when they feel most unloved, and keep someone from taking their life because they despaired that no one cares for them. Those men I spoke of earlier died. Their death has left my life emptier than when they were in it. However, my life is also much better and fuller in many ways because they lived the most ordinary lives in the most inspiring ways and shared their lives with me. My friend the priest has helped me understand the importance of faith in human living and that service to my fellow human beings is a noble cause. My father inspired me to care for my family and sacrifice my wants, desires, and needs so that they may flourish. He taught me that happiness in a family isn’t getting everything I want from those in it, but rather seeing those in the family find success and reach their dreams and goals because you are willing to sacrifice some of your own. Neither of these men will ever have a movie made about them and like most, after about three or four generations their name may be nothing more than a carving on a gravestone. But that’s not what matters. They have touched and inspired me to be a better man than I would have ever been if I never knew them, and hopefully I have given that same experience to others, and so on, and so on. One life really does matter, choose to live yours in a way that impacts the world in a positive inspirational way through the most ordinary and mundane tasks. Be that pebble that strikes the still water of human existence and sends ripples through it that make the world a little better than if you were never in it. Your life matters, believe it.

Finding Meaning and Purpose In Life

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In the last BLOG, I indicated that the key to maintaining good habits has to do with connecting those habits and goals to your meaning and purpose in life. While that’s a great way to stay focused and committed to things that are difficult, a number of my readers and workshop attendees often say, “How do I know what my purpose in life is?” Let’s explore that a little and see if I can give you some insight into how to discover what that might be. Please be patient with yourself as you go through this process, it can take time and requires some real reflection on your part. However, If you take the time to understand what this is, you’ll be greatly rewarded!

One of the first things to consider when trying to discover your life’s meaning and purpose is to think about the things and activities you’re passionate about. A good place to start is often with your hobbies. Too often we think of our hobbies as simple diversions that allow us to escape from the world. More often than not, your hobby is a reflection of your deepest passion. For example, you may really enjoy spending time buying old furniture and using it to create a modified version of its original look. An old mirror might be transformed into a more modern and exotic piece of furniture that captures everyone’s attention. You like being creative and taking something that someone gave away and turn it into something new, inspirational, and valuable. While you may not make this type of work your job, there is something about it that touches the very center of who you are. What you need to do is spend time thinking about what exactly it is that draws you in and motivates you to spend time refabricating old furniture and turning it into a valuable product. It may not be what you’re “actually” doing, it may be the process or some aspect and characteristic of the work that draws you in totally unrelated to the actual furniture.

I grew up performing magic shows and I became quite a proficient ventriloquist. I would put on shows in my garage, invite the whole neighborhood, and was a frequent guest at numerous birthday parties. I went from performing magic tricks to playing the guitar and learning every Beatles’ song I could get my hands on. I found I loved being in front of people and performing even though I was a very shy kid. From magic to music I later found myself employed as an IT consultant, then a therapist, minister, and now a college professor. How are any of these things related to one another? It took me a long time to see the thread that tied them together, but I believe it is something obvious once you think about it. First, I like the mystery involved in knowing something that others are straining to understand. The magic tricks and ventriloquism were a mystery to my friends and family and when I could make that mystery interesting to them I loved it. Also, all these activities involve engaging people and helping them find something more from life. Sure, ventriloquism isn’t some profound art that assists people to find greater meaning and purpose but it did give them some joy and entertainment so their life was a little better. Being an IT consultant allowed me to take something that was mysterious to many business owners and show them how it could empower them to be more profitable and help their customers. Being a therapist allowed me to help people with the mysteries of everyday life through the power of psychology and being a minister allowed me to walk with people in the ultimate mystery of life found in the divine experience. Lastly, as a college professor, I help young people engage in the mysteries of their educational pursuits so they are empowered to do great things in the world after they leave our university. My hobbies and interest led me to see a common meaning and purpose in my life (By the way, I still love magic but my wife won’t let me pick up the ventriloquist dummy again).

Let’s get back to the individual who loves working with old furniture. It may not be that their meaning and purpose in life is to create new and interesting pieces of furniture (Of course it may be that, but it doesn’t have to be). They may be the type of person who finds meaning and purpose by taking what many people believe to be a “throwaway” item, experience, idea, or God forbid, person and work with them to be something interesting, better, and polished. Maybe this person can find meaning and purpose working with school kids that no one else wants to work with. They can take these souls the school system has thrown away and turned them into empowered, accomplished, educated people. It doesn’t matter what you do, what matters is why you do it. That why is the most powerful motivating force in your life.

Let me close this post with this final homework assignment that I want you to work on. Look at the things you’re passionate about and ask yourself what the root of that activity or idea is that motivates you? What is the unconscious experience in your hobby that speaks to the meaning and purpose in your life? If you can do that, in the next post I will show you how to discern that passion in a holistic healthy way.

Why You Can’t Maintain Good Habits!

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In the last post, I indicated that we really need to take a hard look at ourselves in a holistic way and start setting goals that make us healthier. I proposed we set goals that help us take better care of our bodies, our minds, emotions, relationships, and spiritual lives. This is the best approach to healthy living because each of these five spheres of human life encompasses much of who we are and are completely integrated with each other. If you take care of your mind, your body becomes more healthy and if you take care of your emotions you can think more clearly, etc., you get the idea. That means you should set at least five goals, or at least be mindful of five important practices related to your physical health, your emotional life, your mental life, your relationships, and your spiritual life. That might mean you set the proverbial weight loss goal but you should also attempt to spend quality time with each of your family members throughout the week. Perhaps you can enjoy dinner out with your spouse, playing cards with your children, or taking time to call a friend you haven’t talked with for some time. When you focus on all five of these areas you’re looking at your life holistically and each goal and habit you start for each area will help you in the others.

One of the toughest things about setting goals and developing habits is we seldom follow through with them. We feel inspired to lose that 10 pounds but after about five days we start ignoring the diet, the exercise, and the new gym equipment we got for Christmas. Other goals and habits are just as easily ignored. I know a number of my friends who got tablets for Christmas because they were going to start reading more ebooks this year… Mostly they are binging Netflix shows on them and haven’t even purchased their first ebook. Why is it so hard to get started on building new healthy habits? Being healthy is important to me so why can’t I do it!

The main reason you can’t maintain (or start) good habits and complete your goals is that they have no connection to what you believe your meaning and purpose in life is. Even worse, you may not know what your purpose in life might be! You may be one of those kind souls drifting from one thing to another, functioning well enough, enjoying parts of your life, but not living life with purpose. When you either have no purpose or can’t connect your goals and habits to that purpose, you fail. What we do has to matter and I mean “really” matter. If it doesn’t connect to what you believe is your purpose, it just won’t matter. In fact, you may simply be adopting a goal or habit because it just seems like something people ought to do. Remember, something you ought to do is not something you will pursue with any real energy and is almost as bad as something you should do or need to do from a motivational perspective. You want your habits and goals to be something you do because it allows you to fulfill your life’s purpose. For example, I hate to eat right and I hate to exercise. I would love it if I could maintain a decent looking midsection while eating cake and reading my favorite book. Sugar and reading are two of my greatest addictions! The problem is when I do that I look fat and can’t keep up with my family who likes to travel, hike, and do so many physically exerting activities. Yet, even though I hate these things, I eat fairly well, limiting my sugar and I exercise at least three to five times a week. How is it I can consistently participate in something I hate? First, it’s important to me to be a father who can participate in all my family’s activities. I want to make memories with my family and to do that I have to be able to travel with them and participate in all the activities they enjoy. Secondly, I’m a college professor and speaker. I’m frequently in front of groups of people which means my physical appearance is part of my message. Nothing will distract more from my teaching than a physical appearance that doesn’t reflect healthy living and temperance that I speak about as an essential part of living well. I can’t let my addiction to sugar and sedentary activity keep me from fulfilling my purpose which is to help empower people to be the best they can be. Because of that, I exercise and watch my food intake so that I can fulfill my life purpose.

What I want all of you to do as you start thinking about your next set of goals and habits is to ask yourself, “Does this really help me accomplish my life mission? Will this help me fulfill my purpose?” If it doesn’t, don’t pretend you’re going to continue pursuing that activity, it will fall short. If you really think it’s important, you need to connect it to that life mission if it’s going to be something you do consistently. If you don’t know what your life mission or purpose is, stay tuned, next week we will look at how to develop that. See you then!