I was recently on a panel of business and ministry leaders in Charlotte, N.C., hosted by the Charlotte Christian Chamber of Commerce. The assignment of the panelists was to answer this question: “What is the best advice you ever got?” Here’s an edited transcript of my answer:
Learn to Tell Stories. Great leaders are great storytellers. Mark 4:34 says that “Jesus did not speak to them except in parables.” The songwriter and novelist Andrew Peterson is fond of saying, “If you want someone to hear the truth, tell them. If you want someone to love the truth, tell them a story.” The Greek philosopher Damon of Athens wrote thousands of years ago, “Give me the songs of a people and I care not who writes its laws.” We are wired to respond to story. Great leaders understand that and carefully pick and tell stories to reinforce their leadership messages.
The Universe Rewards Action. When in doubt, do something. Actions produce either RESULTS or DATA. Both are valuable. Some of you may be remembering Stephen Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” about now. The first habit is “Be Proactive.” Covey goes on to define being proactive as “taking responsibility.” When you take responsibility for your own life you are more effective, you are more productive, and you are happier, because you are also taking responsibility for how the bad things in life affect you. A person of action is not sitting around blaming others for the mess he’s in. He’s taking steps to get out of the mess. But it is particularly helpful when you are stuck, or confused. There’s always one more thing that you know you need to do. Do it.
Help Other People Succeed. For those of you who are Christians, this shouldn’t be new advice. The first commandment is to love God, but the second commandment, Jesus tells us, is to love our neighbors. Business gurus tell us that helping others helps us to accumulate “social capital.” In other words, we help others so that one day they might help us in our time of need. That’s not a terrible reason to help others, but it’s not the best reason. The best reason to help others succeed is that “human flourishing” glorifies God, and helping others flourish allows us to actively participate in the work of the Gospel.
Learn to Make Agreements. In this day of Facebook “friends” and Twitter “followers,” it’s easy to forget what it takes to have truly trust-filled relationships. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got about building trust came from my friend Hyler Bracey, who wrote in the book “Managing from the Heart” that the way to build trust is to make and keep agreements with people. But how do you make and keep agreements with someone you’ve met only once? There are all kinds of ways, and you’re probably doing many of them—but likely not in a conscious and systematic way. Let’s take a common interaction: You meet someone at a networking event or conference. You exchange business cards. But do you identify a clear next step in the relationship? If you say, “Let’s do lunch sometime,” the other person, who is polite, will likely say, “Great.” But he also knows you will never call. Say instead: “John, it was great to meet you. May I call or email you tomorrow with some dates I can do lunch? If one of those dates work for you, we’ll set a time.” “Let’s do lunch” is not an agreement. “I’ll call tomorrow and set a time” is. Agreements build trust and advance relationships.
Spend Three Hours a Day on Your Job. This advice comes from Kemmons Wilson, the founder of the Holiday Inn hotel chain. And when I first heard it, I nearly laughed out loud. It was at a time in my life when I was working 60 to 70 hours a week, and not experiencing the kind of success I thought that kind of work should be producing. But Wilson went on to explain that most of what we do every day is not, in fact, focused on those activities that are making valuable and unique contributions to our organizations. We may be away from home for 70 or 80 hours a week, but are we really focused on those activities that only we can do, on those activities that are not merely urgent, but important? The answer for most of us is “no.” He recommended really thinking through what your unique contribution to your organization is, or what your long-term vision for your life is, and making sure you spend time on those activities every day, no matter what else might be interrupting your life.
Schedule Your Dreams. I have written about a dozen books, so I often have people tell me they want to write a book, and they ask me how to get started. Your dream may not be to write a book. It may be to learn to play the piano or the guitar. Or mentor a young person. Or spend more time in prayer and Bible study. Whatever it is, schedule it. And by that I mean literally write it down on your calendar (or enter it in your electronic calendar) as if it were an appointment. If you want to write a book, block out an hour each day for writing and start working on the book. If you write just one or two paragraphs a day, but you stick with that discipline for an entire year, you’ve got a book. It may not be any good. Most rough drafts aren’t. But you now have something you can edit and improve.
Find a Mentor/Be A Mentor. If you go to someone and say “I want you to be my mentor” (or, if you are on the other side of the equation: “I want to mentor you”), you’ll end up with mixed results. But if you approach someone as a potential friend, as someone you want to get to know better and someone you want to help, a mentor/mentee relationship often develops. Start with questions, not advice. And the best opening questions are non-threatening questions, questions people won’t be afraid to answer: What do you do on a day-to-day basis? Tell me about your job. What do you love most about your job? What do you like least about your job? Was there a book that made a difference in your life? A person? What was your biggest failure and what did you learn from it? Once you build trust with someone, you can ask questions that lead to greater transparency and vulnerability, and that’s when the real power of mentoring will become real in both of your lives.
Feedback Is a Gift from the Universe. Encourage feedback from others. The best way to get feedback is simply to ask for it. And when feedback comes to you—no matter how painful it is—treat it as a gift. Do not make excuses, or attempt to explain yourself, or defend yourself, or rationalize. Simply say, “Thank you.”
Image courtesy of UberImages at Thinkstock by Getty Images.
Warren Cole Smith is an investigative journalist and author as well as the Colson Center vice president for mission advancement.