I once taught at Pacific Christian College (now Hope International University). I was home one evening grading papers. I read one and gave it a grade and then read the next one on the pile. It had the very same content – word for word. My first question was why would someone copy a paper and then put it right on top of the one they copied it from? 

Now, I didn’t know which person did the cheating. So I called both ladies into my office. I showed the papers and asked who wrote the original and who copied. They were silent and kept looking at each other. I waited. Finally, one said they copied if from another roommate. The other student had done the same. They both copied from a third person and didn’t know each other had the same idea. That’s why they both came in on top of each other. I warned them both about cheating and that if I caught them copying again, they could fail the class and even be dismissed from the college. 

A few weeks later, I caught one of them cheating again, this time on a test. I met with her and asked her why she would cheat again and take such a risk. What I was really trying to do was discover what would motivate such behavior that would cause her to cheat with such consequences. She said he was under great pressure from home to get straight A’s. She said she found college to be much harder than she expected and she could not go home failing or having poor grades. She lived in fear of her parents’ reaction. After a long discussion, I asked her to go home for the rest of the semester. I made sure she understood this was not punishment, but I urged her to work out her relationship with her parents through a counselor. She did just that and came back to school the next semester and eventually graduated from college. She also developed a great relationship with her parents. 

One of the greatest things I learned from my mentor in college was this simple life-changing principle: All behavior is motivated. He got it from the well-known author Larry Crabb. It’s simple and basic. I’ll bet it didn’t blow you away or knock you off your chair. But it’s so profound and so easily forgotten. Someone in your church, organization or even in your house attacks you or unfairly criticizes you and you react in a way that you later regret. People act the way they do for a reason. You react for a reason. The words and tone both you and your detractor used were motivated by something. 

I’ve come to realize in the last few years that there are many in my church who suffer from serious abuse issues that caused trauma. These folks are not just those who were in the military (there are many who suffer from PTSD for sure). So many folks have suffered emotional, verbal, physical, sexual and spiritual abuse from others. I’m amazed at how many people come to our church and later report the horrible abuse they experienced from spiritual leaders in their lives who used their power to control, shame, use, and abuse. I give out so many books on spiritual abuse because folks didn’t even know that such a thing exists. But they feel the effects of it. 

A person’s hang-ups, hurts, bad habits or addictions are often a way to cope with the trauma they experience or have experienced in the past. All behavior, good or bad, is motivated by something. We have to get past the behavior itself and understand what is deeper that drives the behavior.

Most of us look at this principle and can agree with it. It makes perfect sense. We become very utilitarian about it. We want to use it to help someone change their behavior and help them discover and address what causes or caused their actions. We use it to change the behavior of that critical person or even our spouse. 

We might even go one more step and look at ourselves and wonder why we did what we did or said what we said to try and discover our motivations. Good reflection can lead to self-awareness that can help us change our behavior.   

We use this principle to keep us from being and staying judgmental. Not that we excuse any bad behavior, but it helps us move from judgment to caring help when we understand or even seek to understand what motivates behavior. 

But we won’t get to these places of clarity until we consistently take the time to understand first. First, understand. That for me is the greatest application of the fact that all behavior is motivated. What a great aspiration. It’s an awareness. It’s a commitment. It’s a learned habit. First, understand before you respond or react. Ask genuine questions (not questions with a point). Seek to understand what motivates or motivated the behavior. That very effort can change how we see and respond to a person and has power to help that person.

I love how Stephen Covey in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People says it. He reminds us that we are at our best as a leader and as a person when we seek to “understand before being understood.” Our human pride that feeds our brokenness wants others to understand how we feel, why we did what we did or didn’t do first. But the key to great leaders is that they, out of humility, seek first to understand before being understood. Of course, there is nothing wrong with being understood, but when we set that on the shelf, then we can listen and try to understand the motivation that leads to the action. 

I know, this isn’t rocket science. So why is this not our first and natural response – first understand. It’s because of the power of pride in all of our lives. Humility is a choice. Out of humility, we can also decide to first understand. If we do it enough and often, it might even become a habit!

This blog is an admission of my struggle. I don’t write this as one who is consistently victorious over this frustration. It’s a daily challenge for me. I’m pretty sure it is for you too. What’s this difficulty? It’s ministry, which is really ironic for those of us who feel called to it.

You see, for any of us called to ministry, it’s so easy to focus on the what and forget the who. The “what” I’m talking about is the ministry itself. It is always in our face. It demands our attention 24/7/365. There is always the urgent…emails, calls, texts, hospital calls, counseling appointments, people crisis, an unhappy church attender, staff and volunteers who need attention. Oh, and Sunday is coming! Then add to that the car that needs attention, the room that needs painted and more importantly, our spouse and family who really needs some of our time and attention. The “what” is overwhelming and it can’t be ignored for very long.

In the midst of the urgency of all the ministry stuff, we easily miss who it is centered around. The “who” is Jesus. We get so busy working for Jesus we forget how important it is to just be with Jesus. We assume we can get with him later. We want to spend time with him. But we also know he’ll wait, and he will.

The challenge we face is whether, on a consistent basis, we make the Ministry or the Master our priority. You already know which gets most of your attention. What I’m writing is nothing new to you if you’ve been in ministry for any length of time.

I love the story in John 21. When I was in college, I did a major paper on this chapter in my Gospel of John class. It has always captivated me. You know how it goes. Peter denied Jesus three times. Then after Jesus’ death and resurrection, he finds Peter and his buddies fishing and invites them to breakfast on the shore. During breakfast Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him. There’s no missing what’s going on here. Jesus is restoring his relationship with Peter. In a powerful way he allows Peter to reaffirm his love and Jesus is telling Peter that he forgives him and loves him in spite of his failures. What grace!

After each time Peter says that he loves Jesus, the Lord invites him to do ministry. “Feed my lambs.” “Take care of my sheep.” “Feed my sheep.” He’s telling Peter to be a shepherd of the church. Jesus has things for Peter to do! You see, a restored relationship with Jesus will restore real and effective ministry. But notice what comes first! The relationship. It never works the other way. It’s not who or what, but who over what.

Then after the failures are put behind and the relationship is restored, Jesus reminds Peter what is perpetual focus is to be. While he’s to do ministry, his focus is not to be on the ministry. He is to follow Jesus. In fact, he made this emphasis twice (John 21:19, 22). Our focus, our first priority, our only priority is to follow Jesus…day in and day out. We follow where he leads us. Wherever!

Is ministry the master or is Jesus the Master? Does the ministry direct your life or is Jesus directing what you do and where you go? Does he direct you to spend time with your family and for yourself along with ministry, or does ministry dictate your how you use your time and effort?

It’s hard to distinguish when we are following Jesus or ministry. I think it’s possible that if we were really following Jesus and not the ministry, we might leave our church ministry and do something Jesus wants us to do. Or, if we are really following Jesus, we might stay in our church ministry even though we’d rather quit! If we were really following Jesus, we might take a risk that could get us fired or for sure would get some folks upset at us. If we really followed Jesus, we’d find that every day would be a life giving adventure, not a taxing one that drains us. If the who comes before the what then we’ll ask Jesus what following him looks like today…and we might be surprised!

I’m convinced from experience and from the Word that if we made Jesus the priority in our life over the ministry, we’d be healthy and full…no matter the circumstances we find ourselves in. Don’t get so enamored and engaged in the what that you forget the who. Let the who form and shape what the what looks like (What a sentence!). Let the who set the pace of the what. Let the who fill you when the what tries to drain you.

What’s THE most important trait of a leader? Can we even find one key trait that all great leaders must possess? Here’s a common list that will show up in this discussion.

  • Courage and boldness!
  • The ability to motivate!
  • Empowering and developing other leaders!
  • Emotional intelligence or EQ (emotional quotient like empathy, self-awareness, transparency, self-control, connecting skills, etc.)!
  • Vision!
  • A great strategic mind!
  • The ability to communicate well!
  • Integrity!

All of these are essential qualities of a great leader. And we could add more like execution and collaboration. But I believe there is one trait that has greater influence in leadership than all others? I’ve been a student of leadership now for 40 years and I believe that humility is the one trait that is the most important of all.

This trait allows all the other important traits to exist, grow and flourish. It births essential traits like self-awareness, collaboration, vulnerability and transparency, servant leadership, the ability to be a continual learner, character integrity and so much more. All leaders have weaknesses and shortcomings. This trait allows leaders to admit they are not the perfect complete package. Humility allows leaders to surround themselves with people who can balance their deficiencies using their unique gifts and skills.

Leaders can be “successful” without humility. Leaders, in and out of pride, can grow a church or run a company that shows amazing results and can even gain the respect of others. But in the end, a lack of humility will keep them from a bigger potential that will never be realized. And worse, a lack of humility will keep a leader from giving away their very best, whatever that is, to build up others. Success wins the day. Humility leaves a legacy. Today comes and goes, but a legacy is what lasts.

What is humility? It is a choice! Humility is not natural, rather we choose to be humble. The core meaning in the word humility is to “lower oneself.” In humility, we lower ourselves for benefit of others. The decision to lower ourself is letting go and giving away what we possess to help and serve others. What might we have to give away? Power, influence, position, status, resources (time, money, knowledge, abilities), comfort, safety, recognition, or even our own advancement. Humility is lowering ourselves and letting go of what we have & possess for good of others.

This is so important that I’d like you to watch a 16 minute video I did on humility. It is part of our the Seven Non-Negotiable Traits of a Leader that is core to our Next Level Leadership development strategy at Pantano. The link is below and there is also a humility video guide on the Leading Edge website you can access before you watch. The guide has lots of practical ideas on how to grow your humility and a good list of books and resources to help you grow in this area.

HUMILITY

There are too few really humble leaders. Make yourself the best leader you can be. It starts and ends with humility. Humility is a choice. We can learn to be humble.