Get Your Hands Off Your Hips

IMG_9853.JPG“Get your hands off your hips,” he said, “you’ll slow the other men down and demotivate them.” Dredd, a former US Army infantry and Special Forces Officer, has probably shared this leadership lesson with hundreds if not thousands of men. But it was the first time I learned it, at least in this way.

I was in Charlotte for a conference and I had the opportunity to hit a new AO before the first session. I grabbed another guy who I thought would enjoy a good workout and we jogged a couple miles from our hotel to the shovel flag. I was taken aback when Dredd himself pulled up and because he is one of the visionaries behind F3, I later joked that it was like stumbling across Animal Chin.

The workout was rigorous: an unrelenting run from parking lot to parking lot full of burpees, pushups, and sit ups. But the leadership lesson I took away has helped shape how I lead and that is what I’m really sharing with you.

Dredd’s instruction goes well beyond a workout; there is a scientific reason why it is important for leaders to keep their hands off their hips, both literally and metaphorically. If you’ve studied psychology much, you have likely come across some research on social proof. If you are not familiar, social proof is the phenomenon where we assume the behaviors of others around us in an attempt to reflect appropriate social action. In other words, we look for clues in others for how to react to a given situation. When we see others laugh, we are inclined to laugh and when we see others cry, we are inclined to cry.

I see social proofing all the time in the hospital. If a trauma rolls into the Emergency Department and the first Team Members to encounter the patient are calm and compassionate, each subsequent responder behaves in a like manner. The same holds true if the first responders seem anxious or aloof and distracted. Teams succeed and fail together largely due to social proof.

I was not in command that day, but make no mistake: I was still leading. Just before I was instructed to remove my hands from my hips, I had carried another man who outweighs me by a good 80lbs up a flight of stairs. The guy I brought that morning had seen this and it convinced him that he could make it up with his partner as well. Dredd knew that my friend was watching me. If I eased off, my friend would have too. This is the magic of teams and any good commander knows that it’s not about saying, but about doing.

Whether you and even others know it or not, they are watching you. Those in your circle of influence will have compassion if you have compassion. If you gripe and complain about things in your life, they will gripe and complain. If you do things the right way without cutting corners, others around you will too. It doesn’t matter if it’s your partner, your children, your boss, or your team, if you want them to go just a little further, it might serve you well to get your hands off your hips.

Great Leaders Serve

I once heard leadership described as the quality of influencing others to do something they otherwise might not have done. This is one of my favorite ways of defining leadership because it makes no mention of authority. While it is true that many leaders do indeed have authority, it is certainly not a requirement. We all know individuals who have authority but no leadership and very little influence. We also know many outstanding leaders who have no formal authority at all. These are the ones whom I admire the most. I, for one, am not impressed by mere titles, roles, or resumes. I am impressed by character, passion, and excellence. I am impressed by women and men who have the drive and the courage to doggedly pursue their very best self. These ones are the true leaders because they transform their communities and draw out the very best from their neighbors.

So how does one become a great leader? By serving, of course. It might sound surprising, but collecting accolades or pursuing roles of authority might actually be a disadvantage because it can become difficult for others to muddle through what we do in order to see who we are. Many sacred texts have much to say on this matter. In the Christian tradition, the book of Philippians teaches us to do nothing from selfish ambition or vain conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than ourselves. And several times in the gospels, Jesus teaches that to become the greatest, we must become the least.

Great leaders serve. And when they do, others are influenced to serve as well; something they might not have otherwise done. Make no mistake: every person here is called to lead. We have all been tasked with influencing others to become stronger, braver, healthier versions of themselves.

But Even If He Doesn’t

In the book of Daniel chapter 3 there is a famous tale of three men who are thrown into a furnace because they refuse to worship an image of King Nebuchadnezzar. Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah (better known as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego) stand firm against the king of Babylon because their faith forbids them to worship any god or man other than Yahweh. There is a particularly intriguing exchange in verses 16 through 18 as the three men declare their faith.

“We do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter,” they say, “if we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from your hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”

But even if he does not!” What a powerful proclamation of faith! Even if God did not move to rescue the three, they knew that God is still good. As the story unfolds, the three are indeed delivered, even after being thrown into the furnace. In fact, an additional figure is seen in the fire with them.

In the hospital I hear bold proclamations of faith every day. There are times that even I have had a difficult time trusting when the outlook is so poor. Early in my ministry I sometimes struggled to pray for miracles because I thought God would look bad if things didn’t turn out how we thought they should. I have learned time and time again that healing is not synonymous with cure and that God does not need my human defenses. Nor do others need my hesitation. God can and indeed does move in all our lives, but even if God didn’t, we can rest assured that our prayers do not fall on deaf ears. Furthermore, if in the end we must enter the furnace, may each of us know that we will not be alone.

The Courage to Ask

Somewhere along the way we seem to have lost the art of questioning. Whether in religion, business, or medicine, we only want answers. More specifically, we only want the answer. Don’t get me wrong, I think that our scientific advancements and ability to tackle complex problems is nothing short of remarkable. There was a time however, before the Age of Enlightenment and Modernism, when humanity was comfortable wondering. We could question and debate, but more importantly, we had the patience to just sit with our uncertainty.

Answers can be useful, of course. We have created beautiful things, cured countless diseases, and overcome seemingly impossible situations with them. And yet there is a crisis in our souls because we are collectively realizing that we don’t have all the answers. With our machines and medicine and all of our experience, not one of us can answer with certainty the question, “will my loved one survive this?” And I don’t dare attempt to explain why I think “God let this happen.”

Deep down we know that not all questions have satisfactory answers. In fact, the greatest questions produce more questions. We would do well to remember that best practice is not the best we’ll ever have; it’s merely the best we have right now. In other words, it is an evolution of thought. If we took an honest look, we would see that we grow stagnant when we reach final conclusions and think that there is nothing left to ask.

Therefore, if we want to flourish as an institution, as providers, as worshipers, as people, then we might consider embracing a culture of questioning. Even if we have a good answer, we can ask more questions. If the answer is love, we can ask, “How do we love deeper?” If the answer is grace, we can ask, “Who else can we forgive?” If the answer is peace, we can ask, “How can we include more?” May we be a people who are not afraid to ask. May we be leaders who are not afraid to be asked. And may we have the courage to inquire, “How can we do better?”

The Road to Chaplaincy

Chaplains come from all walks of life. We represent a wide variety of faith traditions and perspectives. Some of us began the journey as ministers of local faith communities, but others came from different disciplines and careers. Some chaplains are also trained as physicians, nurses, lawyers, businesspersons, or soldiers just to name a few. As for me, I began in social work. I realized quickly that many clients interpreted their experience through their spiritual lens and this sparked my interest in religious studies. Not really knowing what would be on the other side, I enrolled in a 90 credit hour Master of Divinity program with a care and counseling concentration. This afforded me the opportunity to do a clinical rotation (CPE) at Mountain Home VA Medical Center as a chaplain. In that first CPE unit, I learned what all goes into becoming a professional, board certified chaplain. I also learned quickly that chaplains do more than pray with patients and offer sacraments (a common misconception).

In order to obtain board certification as a chaplain, one must first earn a MDiv or equivalent (typically 3-4 years of graduate work), be ordained and endorsed by his or her faith community, complete a minimum of 4 CPE units (1600 hours), work as a chaplain for an additional 2,000 hours in a clinical setting, and then apply to sit with a committee for approval. This rigorous process usually takes around six years. In that time, chaplains learn the importance of interdisciplinary conversations so that we are better equipped to translate our work into medical language. We learn how to assess the emotional and spiritual health of others, develop and implement treatment plans, and chart these interventions and outcomes in an EMR. In short, professional chaplains are held to the same evidence-based, best practice standards as any other professional discipline.

I am pleased to share with you that I recently completed all of the aforementioned requirements. In March I met with my professional committee and they approved me for board certification. I appreciate all of the love and support given from my family here at The Path. It is an honor and a privilege to walk with this community providing some of the absolute best care to the families of this region.

The Courage To Be

One of the most difficult parables to swallow appears in Matthew 25. In this story, which is also known as “The Parable of the Talents,” a master punishes his servant for burying his gold instead of investing it so that it might increase. In the final verse of the story, the master even goes so far as to command that the servant be cast into the darkness where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (a description of hell). This is an unsettling story to say the least. After all, the man’s transgression seems harmless enough. In fact, all he does is nothing. Perhaps the key can be found in verse 25 of the story. Here, we find that it is the man’s fear that kept him from action. He states that he was afraid and that is why he hid the gold. But, going to hell for being afraid? That seems a bit harsh. But, the truth is, this is not the only place we can read about fear having this outcome. In Revelation 21:8 cowards are listed alongside murderers and idolaters as those who will suffer a second death. This is downright shocking.

However, the more I dwell on these passages, the clearer it all becomes. In The Courage To Be, Paul Tillich describes three major fears (or anxieties) that every person must face; fate, guilt, and emptiness. The first is about coming to terms with our mortality and the second is about answering for our misdeeds, but the last one is about our failure to step into our purpose. When I think about which is the worst of the three, I’d have to say that it’s the last one. The first we have no control over and the second sometimes produces harsh consequences, but the last truly is hell because it is shame. When we hide from our calling, the outcome is devastating. We’ve all heard that at the end, one’s biggest regret is often not what he did, but what he failed to do. This sort of regret is indeed a dark place.

In the ancient world, it makes sense that one would be terrified. The first recipients of these stories faced torture and crucifixion if they stood up and walked in their calling. If they professed their faith or challenged Rome, it could mean certain death, but the authors make it clear that this is better than burying their talents or running away. In short, we only have one life and we are asked to take a risk with it. Don’t let fear consume you for “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and self-discipline” (2 Tim 1:7). It is my prayer for all of us that we can escape the darkness of shame and regret and that each of us has the confidence to act and the courage to be.

Look Around

I write this in the week we honor Rev Martin Luther King Jr. You will read it during the course of Black History Month. Each year at this time I re-read King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. In this 1963 letter, he responds to a public statement of concern and caution written by eight white ministers in the South. If you have never read this letter, I urge you to do so as it is a remarkable piece that contains deep, prophetic wisdom and I cannot convey its weight in a simple reflection.

I am fully cognizant that the discussion of racial matters might cause discomfort for some readers. After all, creating tension was one of King’s stated goals when he first penned the letter. He challenged readers then and now to press into this discomfort with the hope that it would motivate us to become agents of change. He unapologetically calls upon moderates to take action and stop living by the myth that time alone will fix everything. In short, he challenges us to pick a side: we are either for justice or we are against it.

It has been more than fifty years since Rev Martin Luther King Jr.’s oppressors confined him in Birmingham for taking action. The landscape of the United States has changed in some ways and remained the same in others. We mustn’t ignore the progress that we have made, but we cannot allow ourselves to become complacent either. As King so elegantly put it, as long as there is injustice anywhere there will be a threat to justice everywhere. This is not a political matter, but a human matter. It goes well beyond a conversation about skin tones and policies. It appears here, as a spiritual reflection because peace is a spiritual ambition.

My hope for us is that February is more than a history month. This implies that we are only looking back, as if everything has been accomplished. We can improve things by looking forward too, but if we stop there we will fall into the trap of compliancy. Therefore, this month let us also look around. May we have eyes to see the work that is left to be done. May we have the courage to act in transformative, loving ways toward our neighbor and be transformed ourselves. And may our colleagues, patients, and communities experience a divine hospitality that can only be recognized as an inclusive Kingdom of grace and peace.