Don’t Quote Me, Part II

This is the second of a two-part series on quotes. Today we look at a few leadership quotes that aren’t as great as they might first appear.

I’ve read Mere Christianity at least three times, and, yes, I’m a fan of almost all things C.S. Lewis. I’m also a habitual collector of quotes. That’s why it was disappointing to discover I had been misquoting the famous author.

The quote in question – “Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less” – is actually by Rick Warren, and I’ve read the book in which he wrote that line (The Purpose Drive Life, Page 339, although it’s worded slightly different). Yet, somewhere along the way I saw it attributed to Mere Christianity, and I began repeating the error. Such is the danger of sourcing quotes in a Google-driven world (see last week’s blog for more on this).

Accurately sourcing quotes is just one of the challenges we face in a world full of oft-repeated quotes. What’s even more important is whether the quotes offer wisdom, regardless of their source. I’ve found that not all quotes are created equal, especially quotes on leadership. Some quotes, like Warren’s line about humility, are rock-solid, foundational axioms upon which you can build your life and leadership. (Exhibit B: “Everywhere is walking distance if you have the time.” – Steven Wright) Others, however, are dangerous because they are sort of true, which, of course, makes them sort of false. And you don’t want to build your life or your leadership around something that’s the slightest bit false.

So, with that in mind, here are five common sayings regarding leadership that need a critical eye before you fully adopt them.

  1. It’s all relative.

This is one of those convenient sayings that’s not really attributed to anyone in particular but that comes up frequently when people want to get out of an argument without admitting defeat. It contains just enough truth to get us through because, in fact, some things are relative.

Noted genius Albert Einstein, who knew a thing or two about relativity, explained it this way: “Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.”

But just because some things are relative doesn’t mean that all things are relative. Strong leaders know that compromise is essential, but compromising on truth is fatal. They know that relativity never trumps truth.

Abraham Lincoln made this point nicely with this short quiz: “How many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg? Four – calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.”

  1. Anything worth doing is worth doing well.

This is another great saying that you probably first heard from dear old mom or dad when you applied lackluster effort to some simple chore around the house. It makes great sense and it gives you a worthy goal of doing great work. But progress often comes by trying and failing. If you only do things you can do well, you end up avoiding a great many things that would make you better. So, the best leaders push themselves and their teams toward perfection, but offer grace – to themselves, as well as to others – when failure gets in the way.

Steven Sample, the former president of the University of Southern California, explained it like this in The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership: “Anything worth doing at all is worth doing poorly. It may be worth more if it’s done well, but it’s worth something if it’s done poorly.”

  1. There are no stupid questions.

Seriously? Of course there are.

But it’s unlikely that you are stupid or that you work with stupid people. More likely, you (or them) are underinformed. If that’s the case, get to the root of the issue. Why are people asking poor questions? There’s probably a problem with your culture, your systems or your processes – or all three.

  1. There are no leadership experts, only experts on their own leadership.

The first time I heard this, I loved it. It felt so counterintuitively on target.

Then I slept. Morning brought clarity.

Yes, leadership experts write and speak and consult from their own experiences. They have biases. But that’s true of all of life. You don’t have to lead with a certain style, however, to become an expert on how that style works. In fact, you’ll benefit if you become an expert on as many leadership styles as possible.

A friend and I wrote a book about grit, which we defined as passionate perseverance toward a goal. We’re experts on our own grit (and lack thereof), but we also did research to become more informed about what grit looks like in anyone. We leaned heavily on another researcher’s work. That researcher is an expert on grit – and not just her grit. And she helped us elevate our understanding.

What’s important is that we each become experts when it comes to our personal leadership style. We can learn from all the experts to help us figure out how we can best lead, and then we can own that style. If we get really good at it, we can write our own book.

  1. We learn more from our failures than our successes.

There are plenty of variations on this.

Actress/activist Jane Fonda said, “You don’t learn from successes; you don’t learn from awards; you don’t learn from celebrity; you only learn from wounds and scars and mistakes and failures. And that’s the truth.”

In its review of The Wisdom of Failure by Laurence Weinzimmer and Jim McConoughey, used this headline: “You Can Learn More From Failure Than Success.”

Samuel Smiles, a Scottish author, said, “We learn wisdom from failure much more than from success.”

Or go with economist Kenneth Boulding: “Nothing fails like success because we don’t learn from it. We learn only from failure.”

There’s no doubting the value of learning from our failures; indeed, they have very little value if we don’t learn from them. The fault lies in making the statement absolute with words like “more from” or “only.”

The truth is, we can learn just as much from our successes as our failures. We often learn more from our failures simply because we spend more time analyzing them, while we only celebrate our successes. If we spent as much time thinking about what we did to succeed, we’d likely learn a great deal.

Adopting the Mindset of Jesus

The daily struggle to grow like Jesus typically begins between our ears. It’s strange how that finite space at times can seem totally empty while at other times feeling overwhelmingly cluttered. But if we want to grow “in favor with man,” as Luke 2:52 advises, then we have to free ourselves of both the clutter and the emptiness. We have to adopt the mindset of Jesus.

What does it mean to have the same mindset as Christ?

Philippians 2:5-8 lays it out for us: “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!”

First of all, Paul is applying this to human relationships. So while it’s also important to have the mindset of Christ in our relationship with the Father, Paul’s advice in this passage is about getting along with people.

Here’s what I unpack from these verses about my mindset when building relationships:

Be humble, not self-righteous.

If anyone had a right to be self-righteous, it was Jesus. He was and is fully righteous. But He lived with a humble spirit that invited others into His life and His heart.

Serve others.

The humble spirit of Jesus gave Him the “nature of a servant.” He took care of the needs of people. He didn’t ask, “What’s in it for me?” He didn’t say, “I’ll help you after you stop sinning.” He didn’t demand the gratitude He deserved. He served out of love, sacrificing Himself for the needs of the world.

Be obedient to God.

Love calls us to service and service requires sacrifice. It’s easy to serve others when we don’t have to go out of our way or give up anything of value. But God often calls us to step out of our comfort zones, especially when dealing with other broken people. Jesus loved the Father and loved us so completely that He was “obedient to death.” Will we be obedient in life?

If our mindset is steeped in humility and reflects service to others and obedience to God that are rooted in love, then we’re on the right track to toward building relationships with “the same mindset as Christ Jesus.”


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Change the World: A true story  (find your own moral)

He was an older gentleman with nicely trimmed white hair and a beard, and he sat comfortably on a milk crate backed against the outer wall of a building along 8th Avenue near Columbus Circle in Manhattan.

He had a cigarette in his mouth, a paperback book in his left hand, and a plastic cup partially filled with change in his left hand. As he read his book, he shook the cup in hopes that someone passing by might take notice and contribute to his cause.

I stood about 30 feet away as I waited for a friend to emerge from the subway station. People passed by in typical New York fashion, each en route somewhere and ignoring the world along the way.

Then a young man emerged from the subway station, tapped my shoulder and asked if I had a quarter. “I only need one quarter,” he added. I told him the truth: “I don’t have a quarter.” And he was moving on before the final word left my lips.

He walked to the next person he saw, a young woman who was lighting a cigarette, and he asked her for a smoke. She handed him the carton in her hand, which had one cigarette remaining. He took it, she lit it for him, and he moved quickly on his way without a word. As he left, he tossed the empty carton against the wall just a few feet from the man on the crate.

The man looked up from his book, glanced at the carton, and then walked over and picked it up.

“There’s a trash can right there,” he said as he walked by me, “and that guy just throws it on the sidewalk.”

I can’t explain exactly why his actions moved me the way they did, but I handed him a dollar bill as he walked back.

“God bless you,” I said, and I meant it.

“Thank you,” he said, and he seemed to mean it, too.

Then he walked to the crate, sat back down, and began reading his book.


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Some bird-brain ideas on fighting sin

My wife and I were on an evening walk through a nearby neighborhood recently when we noticed something different about the front entryways of a few of the homes: Hanging birds.

An owl here, a crow there.

Not real birds, mind you. Fake birds. But at first glance, they looked real, not to mention somewhat gruesome, hanging above the front porches. Their purpose? To scare away other birds.

These are modern homes with brick exteriors and nicely landscaped lawns, but some of them have narrow but tall entry porches. Birds apparently like to nest on the light fixtures, so some homeowners hang the fake birds as a deterrent.James 4_7

That wouldn’t be my solution of choice, but I appreciate that effort. They know that if they don’t take action, the problem won’t likely fly away on its own.

The same is true with sin and temptation. It can start as a nuisance, but if we don’t proactively deal with it, temptation and sin can move in and take up residency in our lives. Before long, we turn a blind eye to it, acting as if it’s not even there. But unlike the birds in the porches, sin and temptation will take over our entire house.

So how do we prevent it? Well, we could try hanging fake birds or cloves of garlic, but those types of options only invite more trouble.

Scripture, of course, is filled with great solutions. I’m drawn to a simple formula found in James 4:1-10 that I can sum up with one word: Humility.

A lack of humility (aka pride) leads to all sorts of trouble and strife, James points out, while God “shows favor to the humble.” Pride draws us toward temptations and into sin. Humility takes us toward the protective wing of God.

To develop humility, we can follow the pattern in James 4:7 – “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”

This is tough advice, at least for me.

First, submit to God. The world tells us to follow our hearts, but God says are hearts are deceitful. If we submit to our hearts or to anything other than God, birds of selfishness begin building their nests. Humility requires a selflessness that’s experienced only when we’re fully surrendered to something outside of ourselves. That something is God. Anything else is an idol.

Second, resist the devil. Even when we’re fully surrendered, the devil will tempt us and we have to actively resist. Paul tells us in Ephesians 6:10-18 to put on the “full armor of God,” and he then advocates truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, the Holy Spirit, the Bible, prayer.

Take a few moments each day to identify the temptations and sins in your life, then take proactive measures to shoo them off your porch. No hanging birds. Just God. “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.” (James 4:10)