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PODCAST: A two-part conversation on all things leadership

By: Dean Dorton | February 24, 2021

Guest Will Witherington, a pastor of ministry and expansion, has more than two decades of leadership development experience. Tune in to learn Will’s recipe to create a flourishing leader, the types of leaders with whom he surrounds himself, and why feedback is one of the most underused developmental tools.

Unhinged Podcast

Episode 18

Episode 19

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Transcription

Justin Hubbard:

All right today I am thrilled to have Will Witherington on the podcast. Will is a pastor of ministry and expansion at Tates Creek Presbyterian Church here in Lexington, Kentucky. He’s a veteran of 25 years and change and so he is in a very unique position after a lot of years in ministry working with people to dissect the topic before us and we’re going to talk about leadership. Today is all things leader and I have anytime Will Witherington starts talking whether it be a church or a board meeting there’s always a nugget so he always wakes me from my stupor. So Will welcome to the show.

Will Witherington:

Thanks for having me. Looking forward to being unhinged.

Justin:

Here we go, get unhinged. I’ve had a list of people I wanted to talk to on this and a list of targets and we’ve been doing this for almost a year now and you were on the early list and I was always like, “I want to get Will on it but he’s got important things to do. I want to get Will on it but he’s got important things to do.” We’d interact, have breakfast or whatever I’m like, “That was so good. He needs to get that out more and more.” Finally, executive producer Carrie said, “Who is this Will guy on your list and why don’t you bring him in?” “Because he’s got bigger problems to fix than me.” So, glad you accepted the invite and glad Carrie called me out on it. So by way of introduction, let’s just do some high-level get to know Will Witherington.

Will:

Okay.

Justin:

I know you’ve traveled, you’ve lived all over the states, traveled abroad for various projects so top three favorite places to travel.

Will:

Well, absolutely number one is Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. I hiked the Tetons for years, I actually climbed and summited Grand Teton a few years ago. That was my 40th birthday present. That was an incredible experience. So the Tetons for sure and then as a sub anything that has to do with mountains. To me to anywhere that’s the, black mountain out there in Eastern Kentucky or the Tetons I love it. So I had this goal that one of my daughters made me a map that has it to get to the highest point in whatever city or state or nation I’m in. So I’ve got eight states and three countries so I’ve got Japan, Togo, West Africa, Scotland, and then I’ve get eight states so.

Justin:

Wow.

Will:

That’s a pretty good goal.

Justin:

What’s the highest you’ve been?

Will:

Mount Fuji was just under 13 and Grand Teton is just under 13 so.

Justin:

Wow. That’s very cool.

Will:

Yeah it’s cool.

Justin:

All right. Best concert you’ve ever been to?

Will:

Personally Rush, R40 a few years ago. So I’ve been a two or three Rush concerts but I took my wife to one, it was hysterical. My wife’s not a rocker. But then a few years later, I took her to Metallica, Volbeat and Avenged Sevenfold at the Atlanta Braves stadium in Georgia and she actually loved that one. She didn’t like the Rush ones because she kept getting a secondary high from all the people that were sitting around us so she didn’t like that too much.

Justin:

Your sweet wife.

Will:

But then in return favor the third on our list would have been we went to Ed Sheeran in Nashville a few years ago and she loves Ed Sheeran. And it was without question one of the best shows I’ve been to, he’s just so talented so.

Justin:

Yeah, for sure.

Will:

But I grew up, I started playing the violin when I was three and so I’m classically trained in Suzuki violin all the way to my son’s favorite rapper is Lil Baby. And so it’s like I listen to everything in between. So from Mozart to Pop Smoke that’s what I’m listening to these days so. But my genre of choice is metal.

Justin:

All right. It’s true to your roots.

Will:

Yes that’s my jam.

Justin:

We could dissect that music theory.

Will:

Oh, I love it.

Justin:

In another discussion for sure.

Will:

I love it. Let’s do it and come back. I used to do this weekend retreat series called Behind the Music where I would take young people through music and show the deeper meanings behind it. Because it’s like in this neck of the woods you grew up if you play your music backwards you’re going to get the devil and all this crazy stuff. It’s like, “No man, the music is there because it’s a reflection of culture.” I love talking about music and its impact.

Justin:

That’s cool. All right. I know you’re an avid reader, you brought me your own library today or a new library. So in the past 12 months what’s the best book you’ve read?

Will:

Yeah. So, I keep a stack of probably seven or eight going at a time just the way my mind works. I don’t know if it’s boredom with one but the one that I would say I’ve gotten the most mileage out of and I’m still getting mileage is called Canoeing the Mountains. And I brought you a copy of it but it’s the conflation of two books which are both highly recommended to you. One is Steven Ambrose’s really good historical anthology on the Lewis and Clark expedition. And then Ed Friedman’s psychology book I guess it is called A Failure of Nerve. I can’t recommend either of those any more. So a Failure of Nerve is a dense read but it’s prophetic. I’m sure we’ll get into some of that as we go. And then Stephen Ambrose is just a great writer and the thing on Lewis and Clark is great. And basically Canoeing the Mountains basically it said… You want me to unpack what it says?

Justin:

Sure.

Will:

Why it’s been so impacting…

Justin:

You’re going to talk to me about it later I’m sure.

Will:

Yeah I mean it’s going to come up because it’s relevant to our days. I mean, I don’t know if you guys in some of your leadership stuff listen to Andy Crouch.

Justin:

Some.

Will:

So, he did a thing on snow storm, blizzard, ice age, and he would propose we’re in an ice age where you’ve got to really start rethinking the way you did things. Your past is the snow snowstorm, even a bad blizzard, we’re in an ice age. Canoeing the Mountains is similar, Thomas Jefferson tapped Meriwether Lewis and Will Clark to go across the United States on a water passageway. So they get to St. Louis, they start canoeing. Well, they get to the Bitterroot Mountains there’s no water. The only way around is over the mountains. So they had a choice, they go back and tell Jefferson, “Hey, we can’t do it. You need to hire some mountaineers, we’re boatmen. We can’t do it.” Or they’ve got to adapt and change and obviously history tells us they adapted and changed. They portaged, they hired the Indians, they got horses. The boatmen and water navigators became mountaineers and snow Alpineists and they crossed their at Lolo Pass and then they get to the Columbia river and they go on from there.

Will:

And so, what he says is for years, maybe a couple of hundred, people in America have been canoeing water and now we’re at some mountains culturally, politically, philosophically, religious, all kind of mountains. And the type leaders that are going to take us over those mountains are going to be those that are still principled but learn to adapt their principles to an ever-changing landscape. And so man, to think about that as a leader is you’re facing mountains how are we going to go over them is pretty exciting to be honest to think, “I’ve got to change the way I did things. I’m not going to change my principles. The goal is still the same to get to the west coast with a water passage.” I think organizations across the board are going to have to revisit their vision, their mission, their values, not change them but how they apply to a new generation, a new demographic, a new culture. There’s a million ways we can dissect that.

Justin:

Yeah. It’s funny that reminds me of this morning so it’s cold out, ice is pelting down and I was just thinking about, “What do I need to do to prepare my home for this?” As I was leaving my family to come to work but it just dawned on me like, “How soft am I in that my biggest concern is that I lose power for a few hours. That’s the worst thing that could happen.” And I’m like, “Wow.” They use the term canoeing like wow we’ve gotten so soft or I’ve gotten so soft as a leader of my family and of the organization that these privileges and the loss of these privileges become the main concern.

Will:

Well, I don’t want to take away your conviction on soft but maybe I’ll ease the burden a little bit on it, I don’t know if it’s much soft as it is routine. We’ve just assumed these things are why we are where we are. And I think part of what he says is recapturing the principles, the pioneering spirit that got us to where we are so that we don’t just assume, “Oh, the electric is going to come on. Oh, there’s going to be warmth.” That has made us maybe dull a little bit but I think what it’s done is it’s dampened people’s creativity, willingness to step out of their comfort zones.

Will:

So even when you asked me about travel I said the mountains but the second answer I would have given to that was anywhere in Africa or Southeast Asia. I’ve traveled there extensively. And when I take my family, I’ve tried to take my family several times, one of the things I say to them when we go is, “The reason we’re going to these cultures is I want you to understand what it’s like to be a minority. When you step off the plane you’re immediately a minority.” What that feels like is important for you as a human because you get get lulled into your culture wherever you are and this is true for all cultures. But the second thing I tell them is, “I want you to understand that different isn’t always wrong. And so by traveling and seeing the world you see okay they do things differently. It’s not wrong.”

Will:

So for example, we get off the plane in Bangkok, Thailand at 3:00 AM in the morning after 40 hours of travel. And we get in a taxi with a bus because I’ve got four kids and six of us, all our luggage and they drive on the other side of the street. One of my daughter says, “Hey dad, why are they driving on the wrong side of the road?” I said, “We’re not even 10 minutes into the country and you’ve labeled something different as wrong. It’s not wrong to drive on that side of the road. There’s no moral value to the left or right it’s just different.” And man that kicked off two weeks of us really diving into what’s principled here, what’s true, and what’s just application and what’s that kind of thing. So Canoeing the Mountains, thinking about leadership in that way is something I really think is important.

Justin:

Yeah. Excellent. Excellent. Now, one thing that you talked about your experience, you have 25 years as CEO and you’re a pastor in a church dealing with people’s problems. I know you’re traveling around the globe helping people develop ministries, build movements, infiltrate for lack of a better term cultures. And also just I mean firsthand, some of the disaster recovery missions you’ve been on around the country. So I mean, you interact with leaders, either great leaders or failed leaders across multiple environments. What are some commonalities that you’re seeing of solid leaders who are really leading a movement and a organization to that next level versus people who were sputtering and if they really truly looked behind them they may realize that there’s no one really following them.

Will:

Yeah. Yeah. That’s a great question. So before I answered that leader question that I have an overriding paradigm of leader development, movement development that I’ve been operating off for 25 years really and it’s real simple. It’s build a leader, build a team, build a movement, multiply the movement. And I run that grid through everything. So, when I’m talking to a young dad, he’s a leader, he’s on a team with his family, he’s got to build a movement which is his family and hopefully that movement multiplies into generations. On down to company presidents when they start thinking about their team, their movements. So a movement can be anything that’s the organizational goals that we’re going after. How do we make sure they’re healthy and healthy things reproduce? They grow.

Will:

So to your question of a leader, when I look at a leader who’s moldable that’s the best quality, they’re shapeable, they’re coachable, they’re hungry. Some of my friends use the term FAT, F-A-T, they’re faithful, available, teachable, that kind of thing. Because that takes humility to say, “I’ve got some things I can do well and I’m going to do those but I’ve also got some things I need to grow in,” that quality to me is in every leader. And I interact with some, I mean I’ve got family members that are four-star generals and I interact with them all the time about leadership. And one of them we’re talking a lot about some high level stuff that the army is dealing with right now with diversity, with suicide rates, with family dysfunction, and it’s the same things. We’ve got to have leaders that are able to be shaped. They’ve got to be moldable. Even if they’re generals in the army they’ve got to be changing, that kind of thing.

Will:

The other thing I think is the word discipline gets kicked around a lot like they’re disciplined and I think that can sometimes become too edgy, like rigorous. I like the word discipline if it’s in the terms of training, constant training. So like parents use the word discipline and they usually just mean they spank their kid or put the kid in timeout or they took something from the kid. It’s more like retributive, discipline is sometimes retributive, and it has this edgy, “Oh, he’s a disciplined person, like he’s a box or a machine or something. But discipline, every leader is disciplined meaning they have a system that they operate off of, a constant pattern of life that they do. Even if it’s a little bit more artistic it’s still something that helps them put one foot in front of the other every day. It’s something they’re going after.

Will:

So, we tend to think about discipline in a coaching or militaristic way but even people that are a little more ambiguous in how they approach it you still spend that quality of they’re focused, they’re disciplined, they know what they’re going after, they don’t compromise their values, they don’t change. That to me is a key quality for a leader too that they’re secure in what they do and where they’re going yet they’re shapeable and are willing to change.

Will:

And then I think the third one I would say is they’re holistic. They see every part of their life as an important asset to their leadership, from their health, to their habits on their phone, to their money, to their relationships. The best leaders I’ve seen tend to have a more holistic approach to what they’re doing. It’s not so compartmentalized to this is my business persona, this is my family persona, this is my social persona. You may have to wear different hats but there’s something consistent about the holistic nature of good leaders.

Justin:

Yeah. Now to piggyback on that last comment, I’m very fascinated by the networks, the people that leaders surround themselves by. Tim Ferris has quoted somebody he said like you are the sum of the seven people or the three people, whatever, that you hang out with the most. Your experience as a leader, as observing leaders comment on the importance of the network.

Will:

Yeah. I thought about it in three S’s. There’s leaders that sharpen you, so if you think about iron sharpening iron as Proverbs says that. The idea behind that is a steel sword that’s being made is pound into its sharpness by other metal, right?

Justin:

Yeah.

Will:

But there’s something abrasive about that but all of us need sharpening. But then closely next to that is shaping. Sometimes I need to be warm clay that’s moldable, not bounding out the grind of a metal on metal but just something… So I have leaders that sharpen me and books that sharpen me. I have shows that I watch or listen to that sharpen me. But then there’s a whole other side that people who shape me. They lessen my edges, they get to my soul a little more. Yeah my skills are being sharpened but my personhood is being shaped.

Will:

And then the last one is people that are satisfying, I just enjoy being with them and they don’t sharpen or shape me necessarily they just make me happy. I know that sounds weird but the more I live, I turned 48 last week, the more I’m around broken people and the more around empowering leaders. Pursuing your joy, what makes you happy, not in a get by worldly standpoint but deep, “Man I’m just content. You make me happy. This makes me happy.” I think that’s a good pursuit for leaders to have. “This brings me joy.” And usually it’s some kind of relationship that brings you satisfaction.

Will:

So, I have a few guys in my life that I just want to hang out with, I just want to play golf with them. Sometimes they sharpen me, sometimes they shape me, most times it’s just satisfying to be with them. Now, if you can find a leader, friend that can do all three of those for you all the better. I’ve got one of those in my life that every time I’m around this fellow he sharpens me, he shapes me and he’s just a blast to be around so I find that one is a real treasure.

Justin:

It seems like to have that and also with in terms of your listing the characteristics that vulnerability to be able to say, “I don’t know, I’ll figure this out.” Or, “I need you. I need you in my life. If this is what I’m doing. Call me out on it.” I mean, do you see that as you look across the spectrum of people you interact with, is that vulnerability, is that on the uptick, is that something we’re losing as a society is we all live in our own echo chambers?

Will:

I sure hope it is. I think it is. I think so one of the books I gave you is a book called Leading With a Limp and the premise of this book is that leaders who on the outset are more reluctant to lead are usually the most easy to follow because they have a level of humility that they don’t think they’ve got it all figured out but they’re not doormats either, they’re not walk overs. So there’s a conviction about them but there’s a humility that says they’re approachable, they’re changeable, they’re moldable, that kind of thing. And so, the idea of Leading With a Limp is to say, “I’ve got this mission that I’m on, this organization that I’m leading, this group I’m trying to move from A to B or this whatever we’re doing and I might be the leader of that but my ability to empower all of those around me is going to be the efficacy of us accomplishing the task. It’s not going to be a solo effort and if it is it won’t last.”

Will:

Every good movement that you’ve seen has been the result probably of good leaders but also of them empowering those around them, that takes humility. A leader has to be able to look around and see, “She’s actually better at this than I am,” or, “He’s actually smarter on this than I am. He’s more experienced.” “She’s got a gift set here.” And his ability to tap that and back away and empower that I think takes a great deal of humility. A lot of leaders call it the cowboy aspect or the lone ranger type leadership style is good for a season and sometimes it requires that to break new ground, chart new ground, but long lasting effect I think is seen in the humility of empowering those around you.

Justin:

Yeah. Liz Wiseman she wrote a book called Multipliers. I don’t know if you’ve read it or not.

Will:

I’ve heard of it, I haven’t read it.

Justin:

See I need to get that for you.

Will:

Great.

Justin:

One of her points is that great leaders are multipliers. The book explaisn what that means. But one of the principles is they’re genius identifiers. So they look at you and all right what are you great at and then they put that person where they can utilize their genius and just unleash it.

Will:

Yeah so good.

Justin:

It’s so challenging.

Will:

Patrick Lencioni has got great leadership fables, I’m sure you’ve read some of those. Death by a Meeting is always a real funny one but I love the titles. But his Five Dysfunctions of a Team he talks about that and the whole parable unfolds with that lady that was the CEO really tapping into the gifts of the whole table and finding that genius. But the base level of that was trust. He talks about having a base level trust. And I think leaders that are humble and willing to empower others will first tap into those trust dynamics, “You trust me, I trust you.” You have to get rid of pretense at that point in order to really be trustworthy.

Justin:

Now, speaking of people who are different and the need for trust let’s talk about generations because this, I thought it had tempered down a little bit but I think it’s fired back up during COVID because you’ve got now individual generation’s response to COVID is somehow being tagged as either a strength or an absolute failure from a personality flaw. So, how are these generational dynamics impacting leadership?

Will:

Gosh, so much has been written on this.

Justin:

Yeah, almost too much.

Will:

Almost too much. It’s hard to weed through what’s really helpful, what feels like a seasonal approach versus a long haul. We’ve already said it a bunch of times already I think humility has to be the driving factor. Because if the older generation boomers, whatever… What would you and I be called?

Justin:

I’m a millennial son.

Will:

Oh, how old are you?

Justin:

I’m not even 40, ’81. I’m hugging, I’m hugging that edge.

Will:

So, I don’t know what I would be, gen X’er maybe.

Justin:

Probably.

Will:

Yeah. My parents, my grandparents, if all we got from them was, “Man I walked both ways to school up hill in the snow with no shoes,” and if that’s all I get from them I can’t attain that. I can’t do it. I haven’t had two world wars. I didn’t have a Great Depression. What are you asking for me? And I think what we’re seeing from my generation and then my kids’ generation is a kickback to that greatest generation concept is yeah it was great in what it accomplished industrially but look at the divorce rate, look at the abuse rate, look at what these guys did to us culturally. I don’t want that. And so the kickback now is I don’t want the greatest generation. I don’t want to, “Make America great again,” because that wasn’t so great if that’s what you’re talking about. Well then you get the diversity component and there’s like, “Whoa, what are you talking about make America great. This feels like oppression.”

Will:

On the flip side, I think there are some you talked about being soft, about the comforts, what that generation created for my kids is I mean a device that they can get any information at any point, we want a restaurant in five minutes I can find 15. The speed at which they can do things that took hours, years to do before is unbelievable. And the older generation has to learn how to navigate that, they have to. So they, so the younger generation has to have the humility about what it took to build a family, a culture, a country, whatever, a company, but the older generation has got to understand those things aren’t necessary but the same principle of pioneering is going to happen. How do we use technology? How do we use efficiency? Because when you talk to a millennial or a gen Y’er or whoever this next one they are incredibly efficient at getting stuff done that it’s astounding what can happen.

Will:

And if we just turn our nose and say, “You’ve got it easy,” we’re missing the point of the development of culture. I mean, I hope we’re all thinking what we’re doing today makes it better and more useful for the next generation but when it does we resent it like, “Y’all don’t have it as hard as I had it.” “Well, because you worked so hard to make it this way. Don’t resent me for benefitting.”

Will:

On the flip side how do I tap in to this, the mind, the energy? So maybe they’re soft, maybe they’re flippant, maybe they’re whatever, or maybe they’re the reflection of generations before that we need to understand how they got there and then tap into that genius and use it for good. So I think on both sides, both generations, laying down their sabers and in a sense say, “Okay, how can we learn from each other?”

Will:

So for me, my 15 year old son, I try to expose him to leaders of generations past because I think he needs to learn some of those things. “It wasn’t like this.” So we read books, we take trips, we have discussions. On the flip side, I constantly am asking my son, “How would you do this? What would you do here? How would you approach this? What’s going on in your world about this thing?” And he feels so empowered to tell me what a 15 year old walking through this life now because it’s like, “Well, Dad that’s actually not how we all see that and that’s not actually how…” And it comes out in funny ways, you’re progressive, you’re not your parents commercials now is a spoof on all this because the younger generation is going, “Hey, please don’t introduce yourself at the restaurant to the waiter. No, please don’t help that guy out back out of the parking space. Please don’t.” Because the kids are going, “Dad, that’s not necessary today to be that nice or whatever.” Anyway, I could get off topic but I think all generations have to learn from each other,

Justin:

It’s just fascinating to watch because in public accounting and even with my clients when we start into these conversations it’s all about what you measure, what’s your measure of outcome. Is it people, the millennials, these younger people are lazy but they never can say what else do you want them to do and what are they not getting done. And it’s like, “Well they’re not here at seven o’clock at night.” “Well, why were you here at seven o’clock at night?”

Will:

That’s right.

Justin:

I mean, there’s an element. You said it best that humility to learn from the bottom looking up, but also that humility and if you’re the elderly looking down of yeah maybe the way I did it, maybe what I’m valuing or putting my identity in isn’t quite as valuable.

Will:

I think it’s human nature to react instinctively to pretense, I do. I just think pride is such a cancer that instinctively all people respond. So if an older person senses arrogance in the younger the natural reaction is to put them in their place. Same with the younger generation, if they send, “You told me you worked till seven because you’re really proud of that and I’ve got a list of things that you destroyed by that workaholism. That pride is killing you and it’s killed us.” That older guy needs to listen like, “I know you worked 14 hours a day but here’s the collateral damage of that family culture, relational maturity, emotional maturity.” And I think when we get that dance healthy and there’s good dialogue and there’s good learning. I also think human nature is to say, “Oh man, you really taught me something. I really grew there. That was really helpful.” Does it make sense? But if my guard is always up like the older generation is always going to belittle the younger generation and the younger generation is always going to roll its eyes at the older generation then we’re at a stale mate.

Justin:

Yeah, exactly. You can see it coming. I mean, you can see that pride or that ego, the train just about to be derailed.

Will:

We all think our moment in history is the most important moment of history.

Justin:

Yeah. Oh for sure.

Will:

So, and when we die to that. I’ll never forget I was sitting with one of my daughters and she was studying ancient Egypt history or something, Mesopotamia or one of those ancient Babylon or something, in her history class. And she had this timeline, it was 3000 BC such and such happened, 2200 BC something happened, 1500… I said, “Stop. We’ve gotten to four bullet points of history and it went 1500 years. That’s what history remembered? Holy cow. I need to be real careful about how I talk about my 48 years on this earth because it’s going to not even show up in a history timeline for my great-grandkids if Egypt got every 400 years or every 600 years.” That was a sobering reality to me of just settle down a little bit. You’re going to be all right.

Justin:

Exactly. At best history captures the highlights.

Will:

At best.

Justin:

The sports center highlights. I mean, we’re so synthesized to think that whatever we video on our phone is important or whatever we post on insert your favorite social media goes into the archives of human history.

Will:

It won’t happen.

Justin:

Yeah.

Will:

The martians are going to come back and go, “Y’all did what tweets? What was that?” We ran your whole country on tweets.

Justin:

Bluebird, wow that was ingenious.

Will:

TikToks, Knickknacks, what are these things called?

Justin:

We put you here to extract the minerals.

Will:

And you’re taking dance videos on TikTok.

Justin:

Oh, that’s great. We need a t-shirt about that.

Justin:

Okay. Leadership curriculum, do they work? Can they work?

Will:

Yeah, so I was in a webinar yesterday with some guys all over the nation. And we got to talking about the idea of, “Are leaders best formed with formal instruction? Are they best formed with opportunity and practice? Or are they best formed with feedback and development?” That sort of continuum, and the discussion went towards, “Well, if you take a doctor, there’s obviously some front-end formal training that has to happen. I don’t want a doctor who hasn’t gone through eight years of med school, okay. But his best practice, so to speak, is going to be his practice. He’s going to learn more on the job.” That kind of thing.

Will:

But take something that you and I might do. It may take some formal education. Like for me, most of the guys in my field went through four, five, six, seven years of master’s level divinity school, some kind of theological education. We hope so, so they can rightly handle the scriptures, so they can rightly understand faith and culture, that kind of thing. But all of us would say, “Not until you got in the trenches of the ministry, did you really learn what you were doing.” So I would say the same thing about curriculum. Yes, there’s some good curriculum that leaders ought to work, and there’s a lot out there, but I think the best developer of leaders is opportunity. Is putting them in things, giving them work to do. If a guy, as a young leader is not willing to set up chairs for an event, is not willing to clean up the bagels after a thing, he’s not developing as a leader.

Will:

I don’t care what curriculum I give him. I can give him every book on servant leadership that he needs. And if he ain’t willing to mop up the powdered sugar off the floor after the meeting, he’s not going to be a good leader. Because he thinks he’s better than that, and he can parse it out all he wants. Opportunity is the best thing. And then the army always uses what they call AARs, the after action reviews. They go on a mission, they have a task, they pull away, and they review it. I think feedback is one of the most underused developmental tools in leadership. That you finish something, even something small, like getting the powdered donuts off the ground. Me, I’ve learned as a leader, when I see that happen, give feedback. “Man, thank you for getting that powdered sugar off the floor. That meant a lot to the team.”

Will:

You’re talking about raising that leader’s eagerness to do it again, eagerness to find ways to serve. That feedback, it doesn’t have to be negative. Oftentimes even good feedback is better than negative, where you point out what they did well, not what they did poorly. Again, feedback oftentimes is that negative, “Oh, you should’ve done this better. We could have been more productive here. We could have made more here.”

Justin:

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Will:

But giving feedback, the army does a good job. They have opportunities that they should have capitalized on, and then things they want to repeat. And that’s how they talk about it, and I think that’s a good metric for that. So if I had to say, “That’s the curriculum that I want to infuse.” Is that give an opportunity, give some feedback. That feedback may lead me to a curriculum-type thing, “Hey, you want to learn more about how to do that?” Say in your industry, how to manage the market, how to deal with clients, whatever. “Here is an article, here is a book, here is a course to take that’ll help that.” But in the end, until they practice it, and get feedback in the practice, the curriculum has its limits.

Justin:

Yeah, exactly. There’s no relevancy to it.

Will:

That’s right. And we see that, and especially in my field, guys that are really good biblical scholars, they try to take that solely into the pastoral ministries. They’re not real good with people, they’re not ready for the brokenness of the world, or to engage the culture at thoughtful levels. They just stay in their own ivory tower, echo chamber of their theology. That can be dangerous, and you probably see that in business too.

Justin:

Oh, for sure. For sure. But why are we so bad at feedback? And my thought is it’s because the assumption is it has to be negative. We call it constructive because we don’t like saying critical, but our constructive feedback rarely is a pat on the back.

Will:

Yeah, I mean, I don’t know how many times in this podcast we want to use the word humility, but we’ll just keep using it.

Justin:

Yeah.

Will:

I think it’s pride. So pride can be in two forms. One is, “I always think I do things right, therefore you giving me feedback threatens that delusion I have about myself, that I do it right.” Or, “I so badly wanted to do this right, your feedback crushed my hopes that I did it right.” And when we can lay both of those prides down, then feedback is not a weapon. There’s a great book written about the Delta Force, Eric Haney, I think is his name. And in this book, I have this quote, I keep it relevant. He says, “Any time feedback becomes a weapon, it’s lost.” So if I am in a relationship with you, whether it’s in the army, in a family, in a business, and I use feedback as a weapon to get at something I don’t like about you, then the whole process is dead.

Will:

So that has to do with the receiver of the feedback and the giver of the feedback. If pride is a part of that, or arrogance, anger, then the process [inaudible 00:05:43]. But if there’s a base level of humility, “I want the feedback. Shape me, mold me, I want to get better.” And, “I want you to be better, I want you to grow. I love you, I care about you, I care about our organization. You’re a key part of it, here’s some feedback.” My experience is feedback is then received pretty well, even if it’s hard feedback.

Justin:

Yeah. Yeah. From my observation in my work, my professional life, but also just observations of working with clients, we’ve made feedback, or just that review evaluation process so formal that we’ve sucked the life out of it. For one it’s not timely enough because it’s formal, and switching gears to a more organic process would be so much easier, but also so much more valuable.

Will:

Well, that goes to the generational question too. This generation, if you sit down with a millennial, or a gen Yer, or Zer, I don’t know all the terms these days. They first want to know, “Do you care about me? Do you care about my life, my situation? Because that feedback felt like you didn’t care about me, and—

Justin:

Yeah, “Do you want me here?”

Will:

“Do you want me here?” Yeah. And so having feedback over a boardroom table, this feels stuffy, cold. Just go to Chipotle, have a burrito, give feedback. It’s received a lot better. Now, the older generation say, “That’s weak, they just need to man up and be able to take feedback.”

Will:

No, not everybody receives things the same way. Not everybody learns the same way. Not everybody grows the same way. My job as a leader, now I have some leaders that are millennial, gen Yers, they do actually like to sit down face-to-face and talk about it. But I have to know that as a leader, I have to know, “How is this person best going to feel when I give this feedback? What’s the best environment? What’s the best way? Is it an email? Is it a phone call? Is it a TikTok video? What is it that I need to… ” Just joking about TikTok.

Justin:

Well—

Will:

But maybe. Yeah, I think that’s okay, that there’s, again, different is not wrong. There’s not a moral value to having feedback across a desk table that makes it better than sitting across with a glass of bourbon at a bar.

Justin:

Yeah. Yeah, this conversation reminds me of, the quote that came to mind is from CS Lewis’ Screwtape Letters. And he’s actually quoting Immanuel Kant when he says, “Experience is the mother of illusion.” And if you get people so focused on their experience, and that’s where their virtue is tied to, not on reality.

Will:

Ooh, that’s really good.

Justin:

I go back to that all the time.

Will:

Yeah, that’s really good. Yeah, talks about, “Disillusionment is the greatest gift a leader can have.” Because when he gets disillusioned about his experience, that shapes him into a more realistic way of how to approach it. Yeah.

Justin:

Yeah, healing. So we are a nation hopefully, well, that’s been through a lot the past 12 months with COVID, a tumultuous presidency. Luckily we haven’t had any new wars, because all of our wars seem to be here domestically. I think everyone would agree that we need healing. We need a leader who can get us some healing. If you are a leader in an organization, or in a movement, and you either have people who are hurting, or maybe your actions have led to hurt. Maybe it’s out of your control, but it’s still your problem. How can you lead your people through, how can you bring healing into this movement, into this matter?

Will:

So not to sidestep the landmines of the current political cultural thing, I’ll reference my own organization. I have 25 years in an organization that is about 40, 45 years old. And the last couple of years we have done this process. There is enough data, good and bad, there’s enough fruit, good and bad out there that we had some things as an organization we needed to look at. And there was enough there that we started seeing, “Some of our folks need some healing.” Some bridges were burned, there were some leaders that were manipulative and controlling. There were some patterns of finances and morality that were questionable. And so we pulled together, and we said, “The greatest gift that we have to our organization is humble… ” We used the biblical, “Repentance.” Okay, and so I know this is a more secularized podcast, which is fine, but that admission of wrong, that acknowledgement that, “I was wrong. We were wrong.”

Will:

Even though I wasn’t there, the collective, “I’m part of this organization. I represent that kind of leader. I represent the name, ‘We were wrong.'” And naming those wrongs down to specifics was incredibly healing for people, “I just wanted you to acknowledge this.” And I’ve seen this in my own family, that when there’s brokenness in my own family, I erupt at one of my kids, and I cause harm to them. This happened eight nights ago with my son, I was helping him work on some assignments. I didn’t feel like he was giving his best effort, and I actually shamed him. I actually used language and a tone that humiliated him. Woke up the next morning, I thought, “What I wanted him to do was right, more effort, focus. The way I went about it was wrong.”

Will:

And so what I said to him is, I said, “Son, will you forgive me for shaming you? Will you forgive me for using that tone?” And then I had a couple of words that I had used that I knew were humiliating to him, “Effort.” I know it’s not him, but I’d used those to get. He came back to me about 15 minutes later and he said, “Dad, thank you so much for coming back and revisiting that.” And within the next two he finished the assignment, knocked it out of the park. I just learned such a lesson there as a leader is, what I was saying was right. How I said it changed the whole dynamic of it. And when I changed how I approached it, it changed him. I think that’s where we are as a culture. We talk about diversity, and we talk about politics, what we’re saying is being missed oftentimes by how it’s being said.

Justin:

Yeah.

Will:

So I think a leader who is humble enough to admit the mistakes, and not keep the blame shifting. And the finger pointing, and the camp dividing, we got to stop that. The calls for unity, the calls for harmony, the calls for all that, I think are good. I don’t know that we have leaders in place that can do that yet, because we’re still so partisan in how we approach it. So I’m just choosing in my own locale, with my family, with my organization, with my city, to say, “These are things I’m going to go after.” And humility is going to be, when I’m showing that I’m wrong, me saying to my kids, “Well, I gave my best effort. I tried hard.” That didn’t work. I need to humbly say, “You’re right, I was wrong.”

Justin:

Good stuff, good stuff. A quote from you that I heard you say, it rocked my world. So you and I were in a counseling, we were working with another couple. And you said, “To love your neighbor as yourself… ” The talk of the scripture, “Implies you have to first love yourself.” How do healthy leaders love themselves?

Will:

Oh, man. This is, again, my second Bible, I told you, is a failure of nerve. This is His premise, is the ability for a leader to be engaged emotionally, but not enmeshed in other people’s chronic anxiety, is the key to healthy leadership. And I think Jesus got to that in the quote you just gave, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.” That’s the first great commandment. The second is like it, He says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” And I think what He was getting at is if I don’t have the first one right, where I am, the Bible’s word is Holy. But for our discussion, if I’m not set apart as a leader from the anxiety of my own heart, and the world around me. If I’m not Holy, if I’m not set apart, differentiated, to use Friedman’s word, then what I will do with people is I will either use them, or abuse them to fill the gaps of my own issues.

Will:

And so loving myself is not some self-help, Oprah, Joel Osteen, better yourself. That’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about setting yourself apart. And Jesus said to God, “Pull yourself out of the chronic anxiety of your family, or your culture, or your city, or your organization. And then you’ll be able to see clearly how to engage the people there lovingly. If not, you’re going to use them, abuse them, neglect them.” And we’ve seen this time without number. Families are the greatest example of this. You have an undifferentiated father who’s enmeshed in the anxiety of his family. And it makes him angry, he starts abusing them either physically, emotionally, or spiritually. Or a mom who’s enmeshed in the emotional drama of her family becomes codependent on a daughter or son.

Will:

And you can see that playing out over and over. But when a parent can differentiate, pull out of the chronic anxiety of her family, or his family, then they can love, serve their children in a way that’s actually beneficial to the whole entity. I think that’s what’s behind that quote, is my job as a human is to rightly assess myself with God. Pull out of the chronic anxiety of the world around me, which is love myself. Friedman used the example of, “A healthy cell has a membrane and a nucleus. It knows where its parameters are, and it has a center, a purpose. Cancer has neither of those. So in order for cancer to survive, it has to attach itself to healthy cells, which ultimately kill the healthy cells.” So he says, “Your job is to be a healthy cell. And when you’re healthy, you make other healthy cells around [inaudible 00:16:06]. They multiply into healthy cells. The moment you allow cancer in, you’ve killed the whole organism.”

Will:

Cancer usually is attitudinal in organizations, behavioralistic at times. And so you need leaders who can pull out and love themselves. Meaning, “I’m not going to get enmeshed in your anxiety. I’m not going to let you.” So I do this with my kids all the time, or people I counsel. You cannot control how they’re going to respond emotionally. The only thing you can control is how you’re going to respond emotionally. And if you will regulate your own emotional response at this moment, it will regulate the environment. Man, that’ll get a lot of mileage as a leader.

Justin:

I’m jingling something in my pocket. It’s relevant though, editorial staff. It’s something I carry with me every day.

Will:

Awesome.

Justin:

You gave it to me on Christmas. It’s a coin, a little bit bigger than a half dollar, Campus Outreach on one side, glorifying God, laborers to on the back. You’ve mentioned in other conversations that you have other coins that you carry with you, or that you have in a familiar place. I’ve found tremendous value of this little thing being in my pocket.

Will:

Awesome.

Justin:

My kids know, “Don’t touch that coin.” They were trying to flip it, and breaking stuff. Like, “No, that’s my coin.” Why is this important? Why is this important to you?

Will:

Yeah, so I carry one too, it’s my family shield, family crest. I keep that in my pocket. So the idea came from, I got it from the US military. On several occasions I did different trainings for military guys, where I was in the office of military leaders. And every military unit, every commander has his own what they call challenge coin. And it has the unit’s insignia, it has different memorabilia from that on there. And it’s to represent the unit, or the mission that the unit was on, or the office of the officer. And they give these coins to people who they want to say, “Thank you for being engaged in this.” Or, “There’s some level of camaraderie here.” So I have a coin from the adjunct general’s office of Georgia.

Will:

He was a relative of mine, went in, did some things with him. Was in his office and he pulls out his coin, gives the handshake, and gives me the coin. I just thought it was so empowering, right? To have that sort of connection with another leader, it just empowered me to be a leader like that. And so I thought, “I want to create that for my organizations that I’m with, for my family.” So I had this family crest, so all my kids have one, my wife has one, my daughter’s husband now has one. And then my idea is to give one to every grandchild and spouse that comes into the Witherington family dynamic. So that we can say, “Not that you have to adopt this as your family crest, but I wanted you to know you’re part of a much bigger unit that has a vision, that has a purpose.”

Will:

And so I gave one the other night to my daughter and son-in-law, and just to see them, “Wow, this is great. Now we’re building a family.” And hopefully they’ll come up with their own ideas of how to, and I told them, I said, “I don’t envision you repeating this as an application. What I do hope is that you think intentionally about your family, you think intentionally about the development of your family.” So to me, the challenge coin is just a great, simple way of saying, “I’m a part of something that matters.”

Justin:

Yeah, yeah. It’s very powerful. All right, I’ll get you out of here on this. So either you’re going to write a book, or I’m going to keep having you on this podcast so I can write your book.

Will:

Okay.

Justin:

And I’m not going to give you any credit, just FYI.

Will:

Great.

Justin:

What’s the title going to be? And then how are you going to start it, and how are you going to end it?

Will:

So I get this question a lot, to be honest, which is so funny.

Justin:

There’s demand.

Will:

I know, and my mother-in-law can tell you, “He’s not a good writer.” Because she had to edit all of my papers through my schooling. So I’ve gone back and forth on, I told somebody the other day, “I’m going to write a book that says, ‘How do you prevent a train wreck?'” Because the question is, “How do you know if you’ve prevented a train wreck?” Well, you don’t know, because there’s no train wreck. But if there is a train wreck, what the investigators do is they come back and say, “Oh, the conductor was drunk.” Or, “The track was broken, the weather was bad.” They get all the factors.

Will:

Well, in leadership, if we can get ahead of the factors that are going to cause train wrecks based on history [inaudible 00:20:44], then we can prevent train wrecks. So that was one title, “How Do You Prevent a Train Wreck?” The other one is, there’s a proverb that says, “When there’s ox in the manger there’s mess everywhere. But the size of the ox is the abundance of crop.”

Justin:

Ah.

Will:

It’s something like that.

Justin:

Yeah, yeah.

Will:

If you want crops in your field, you’re going to have to have oxen. Those oxen are going to lay foul all over your manger. If you want a clean manger, don’t go get an ox, and you won’t have fruit. That’s a great principle for leadership. If you want to lead, and you want to bear fruit, you’re going to have messes, you are. Train wrecks. People are going to make messes, life is messy, but you’ll have fruit. So go get some oxes, train them up well, plow your field, and be ready for the mess. This sort of podcast we use a different word for mess, because that’s what we’re getting at, right?

Justin:

Beep.

Will:

But here’s how I’d structure my book.

Justin:

Oh, okay.

Will:

Okay, because I really have thought about this. A shocker, right? I would start where I think the scriptures and the world starts, is that people are created in the image of God. What that implicitly means is that you, and I, and Carrie, and everybody else has unique glories that God gave them. And your femininity, and your masculinity, and where you were born, how you were born, who you were born to, God made you unique. That is the starting point. How are you made unique? Like I told you earlier, I started playing violin at age three, born into a father who’s an atheist, okay.

Will:

He had no Godward thoughts about my life, but he started me playing violin at three, because he told me, “I want you to be comfortable in crowds.” So I started playing an instrument that’s highly soloistic, that’s not a word. But it’s a solo instrument with a high training mechanism, Suzuki violin. If there’s one thing I am today, it’s comfortable in crowds, and in solo dynamics that require something from me. That’s an image-bearing thing that God did in my life. So I’d start the book with image bearing, which then bleeds into your fallenness, your brokenness in your story. How has God used the events of your life to shape you? I just gave you some of those. My father went to prison. I had a grandmother and two aunts commit suicide. I’ve been on, there’s a whole bunch of things to my story that have shaped me.

Will:

So the middle of the book would be, “How does a leader’s experience, life, stories shape them?” That kind of thing. And then the end would be the goal of all leadership, and the goal of the Bible is flourishing. Is that people, the world flourishes. Then there is no death, there is no destruction, there is no harm. There is no manipulation and injustice. And the scriptures actually end that way, where there is total and utter healing, and righteousness, and completion. I think that’s the goal of leadership. So when I walk into an environment, if I were in this boardroom this afternoon, I would be thinking, “How do I make this environment flourish? How do I make everybody here flourish?” Each person has a story. Each person has an experience. Our goal is to build Dean Dorton to a level that it’s flourishing for the world, blah, blah, blah. So the end of my book would be the flourishing of all things. And so the progression would be build a leader, build a team, build a movement, multiply the movement. The movement ultimately results in flourishing.

Justin:

So good, so good. Man, thanks for being on.

Will:

Oh man, what a joy. Thanks so much, that was really fun.

Your Host

Justin Hubbard
Justin HubbardAccounting & Financial Outsourcing Director

With Guest

Will Witherington
Will WitheringtonAssistant Minister, Tates Creek Presbyterian Church
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