Leadership in Christian Perspective

Those who have been following this blog for a while understand that my sweet spot is thinking and writing about effective leadership practice from a Christian perspective. This includes engaging both what contemporary research and theory have to say about leadership practice, and bringing this theory and research into conversation with faith-based reflection.

Because of this interest—along with my desire to see people engaging their leadership with purpose and effectiveness—I partnered up with Mark Strauss and Baker Academic to write Leadership in Christian Perspective: Biblical Foundations and Contemporary Practices for Servant Leaders.

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In the book, we share 9 practices for empowering leadership. These research-based practices are organize these around three-parts to the book:

  1. Beginning with Authentic and Purposeful Leaders
  2. Understanding the Priority of People
  3. Navigating toward Effectiveness

Here’s want a couple people are saying about the book:

Our fast-moving, chaotic culture demands more of leaders than ever before. In this well-researched book, Justin Irving and Mark Strauss provide deep insight with a helpful framework for anyone who values people and aspires to lead their organization through significant change.” – Ken Cochrum, vice president of Global Digital Strategies, Cru

In Leadership in Christian Perspective, Irving and Strauss intentionally set out on a daunting task to deliver a fully integrated and biblically rooted perspective on Christian leadership. They are thorough and effective in their examination of leadership constructs and carefully highlight the biblical case for each of them. The genius of their work is found in the integration of models and what then emerges. Empowerment becomes the thread that connects them all. Jesus Christ remains the greatest leadership role model, and without question their mission for this work is accomplished. I highly recommend this book to all Christian leaders!” – Tami Heim, president and CEO, Christian Leadership Alliance

If you’re interested in hearing us talk a bit about the book and its main emphases, Mark Strauss and I had a conversation with Bethel’s Peter Vogt on this podcast.

Whether serving as a Christian leader in business, the church, or some other sector, the book is written for you. Take a look in order to better understand how to effectively lead in a manner consistent with biblical foundations and Christian principles.

Top 10 Posts on Purpose in Leadership

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Photo by Magda Ehlers on Pexels.com

I took a bit of time at the beginning of the year to check in on which posts have been the most interesting to readers of Purpose in Leadership the past five years (2014-2018). Two main observations stand out as I consider the Top 10 from this season.

First, the discussion I offer on what the differences are between groups and teams is by far the most viewed post.  This post was viewed well over 5 times more than any other post on the blog in this time period. Understanding the importance of groups and teams, and how they differ, is so important for organizational leaders. I’m glad others have found this helpful.

Second, there continues to be significant interest in the intersection between leadership and communication. Two of the top five posts focus on the types and levels of leadership communication. I often say to students, “Although you can be an effective communicator without being an effective leader, effective communication is foundational to effective leadership.” Others seem to get this as well—effective communication is essential to effective leadership practice.

So here are the Top 10 Posts on Purpose in Leadership. I hope some of these will be an encouragement to you as you reflect on your own leadership practice.

#1.    Groups vs. Teams: What’s the Difference?

#2.    5 Types of Leadership Communication

#3.    9 Effective Leadership Practices

#4.    Don’t Confuse Motion with Progress

#5.    7 Levels of Leadership Communication

#6.    Leading from the Front … Leading with Vision

#7.    Tolstoy on Leadership

#8.    Follower Motivation and Leader Humility

#9.    Let Your Life Speak — How to Understand Your Vocational Call

#10.  37 Barriers to Change

If you found one of these particularly helpful, please share your thoughts below.

The Myth of Perfection

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Photo Credit: church_up.jpg, by Elyktra, Flickr

I saw a great quote on a wall while visiting a business in Dallas this week:

Continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection.” – Mark Twain

I love this quote. Although I can’t speak to whether or not this is actually something Mark Twain wrote, the heart of its message captures so many important themes.

However, perfection—even delayed perfection—really is just a myth.

This side of eternity, whether we are thinking about growth and improvement individually, as a team, or as an organization, if we are waiting for perfection, we will always be waiting. Rather than waiting for something—perfection in this life—that will not come in the pursuit of excellence, we rather need to work toward ongoing growth.

Remember, excellence and perfection are not the same thing. If we are striving for excellence, growth, and improvement, the best path forward is not waiting for some unattainable moment of perfection, but rather starting the journey and then learning and growing along the way.

Another way of talking about this dynamic is to contrast linear growth and iterative growth.

Linear Growth

Traditional wisdom invites those starting a work project or large journey to engage in a process of extensive planning. The goal in this linear mindset is to do all of the planning for the project up front. Those involved with this first step must foresee all possible needs, opportunities, and obstacles, and then solidify a plan before proceeding.

Linear Growth

Image Credit: Abigail J. Irving

After this “perfect” plan is in place, it is time to move on to the second step—executing on the plan.

Iterative Growth

Experience has a way of revealing the limits in such a linear model. Once a plan is executed, reality begins to confront and challenge our plans. John Steinbeck pointed to this in his novel Of Mice and Men—the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

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Image Credit: Abigail J. Irving

In contrast to linear models of growth, many fields—like software development and design—are now emphasizing the power of iterative processes. Rather than one discrete step of planning followed by another discrete step of implementation, an iterative approach embraces a path of ongoing improvement. The process of planning and implementing is repeated again and again as ongoing learning takes place, continually informing planning and improved practice in an ongoing manner.

As you consider your own process of personal growth, and as you consider growth as a team or organization, don’t put all of your proverbial eggs in the basket of a single plan. Instead, lean into iterative learning. Make a plan; implement the plan; learn from this implementation; adjust your plan; implement this learning; and continue this cycle of learning in an ongoing plan of growth and improvement.

Since perfection is ultimately a myth, learn to embrace the reality that “continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection.

I’d love to read some of your reflections; take a moment to share them below.

People First Leadership: Remembering Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines

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Photo by Anugrah Lohiya on Pexels.com

This past week, Southwest Airlines Founder and Chairman Emeritus Herbert D. Kelleher passed away today at the age of 87.

Kelleher left quite an impression on both the airline industry and on those who worked with him. One of Southwest Airline’s achievements has been 46 years of consecutive profitability due to its approach to steady and responsible growth on behalf of its employees and customers.

The drive for Kelleher and Southwest was not merely financial. It was about people. The airline is known for its commitment to affordable travel for its customers, friendly customer service, and employee-centered servant leadership practices.

Kelleher’s business vision for the company evidenced his deep commitment to caring for employees. When asked on one occasion what Kelleher’s vision was for the company over the next ten years, he replied, “My vision is to keep Southwest Airlines job-secure for our people.” Through the time of Kelleher’s passing, Southwest Airlines has never been in bankruptcy or had a layoff of employees—an amazing claim for the turbulent airline industry.

In a statement posted on Southwest’s website regarding Kelleher’s passing, current Chairman and CEO, Gary Kelly, noted the following about Kelleher’s people-first approach to life and business:

“He inspired people; he motivated people; he challenged people—and, he kept us laughing all the way. He was an exceptionally gifted man with an enormous heart and love for people—all people. We have been beyond blessed to have him as a part of our lives.”

Kelleher provided a model of servant leadership and valuing people. Mark Strauss and I included a bit about Kelleher’s leadership in our upcoming book. Here’s a look at some of this reflection:

“Although most business executives see the general value of their employees, not all executives prioritize people as individuals. Herb Kelleher sought to do to this at Southwest for people at every level of the organization—whether fellow executives or those in line jobs as baggage handlers and mechanics.

At one of the company’s famous spirit parties, surrounded by hundreds of people circling Herb for attention, [Colleen] Barrett tells the story of Herb intently talking with a Southwest mechanic in worker’s clothes for at least fifteen minutes—a long conversation by CEO standards. Barrett writes:

‘Herb never looked over the guy’s shoulder to see who else might be there, and never diverted his eyes from this man while they were talking. Herb was courteous to everyone who was trying to shove the guy out of his space so that they could fill it, but he gave this man his time. It was clear … that Herb had no hierarchical concerns—he was completely interested in what the Mechanic was trying to tell him.’”

As you think through your own leadership, what cues might you take from Herb Kelleher? Share your thoughts below.

Reflective Leadership

Photo Credit: Reflection, By Susanne Nilsson, Flickr

It’s January 1st as I write this reflection.

I took about three hours yesterday to reflect again on what I want to prioritize in the year to come. I don’t think there is anything inherently important about the transition from December 31 to January 1, but this moment in our calendars provides space to pause and hit reset on the things that matter in our lives.

I note elsewhere that I’m not a big fan of New Year’s Resolutions (see “Rethinking Resolutions). I am, however, a fan of using this season as a time to reflect and prioritize (or perhaps re-prioritize is a better term…returning to what has already been prioritized in our lives previously).

As I look back on the past two years, one of the items that has slipped more than I would like is the prioritization of reflection. There are practical reasons for this, so I’m not overly focused on “beating myself” up for the past. This is more about the future than the past.

The past two years have been full of wonderful opportunities—increased administrative leadership needs at my institution and the privilege of working on a book project that is scheduled for release in the summer of 2019. While I’m grateful for these opportunities, they did take away from a pattern of intentional reflection in my life and leadership. One evidence of this is the break from actively posting on this platform.

As I look to the year ahead, there are many new opportunities to which I’m looking forward. One of these is reprioritizing reflective leadership.

Perhaps a new emphasis on reflective leadership will be of help for you as well.

Here’s a sample from my upcoming book written with Mark Strauss. It captures some of the heart behind what I’ve raised above regarding the need for reflection in life and leadership:

Schedule Time to Rest and Reflect

While effective leadership includes honest self-evaluation, nurturing a rhythm of self-awareness and evaluation is difficult without a simple feature: time to reflect.

Do you intentionally create time in your schedule to think and reflect? In our day of continual connection to the world around us through technology, it is increasingly difficult for leaders to find time and space for deep reflection. Consider the ready access people have to you through smartphones, text messaging, a regular flow of emails, and meetings that are scheduled for us on shared calendars. While technology creates efficiencies in our work, this same technology also fills our lives in such a way that intentional reflection can be difficult.

On top of technology in the work environment, consider how technology in our personal lives also can work against time alone for reflection. For example, while there are many ways social media has the capacity to enrich our lives, social media also adds to already full schedules in ways that work against a reflective approach to life.

These realities mean that leaders need to be intentional in finding time and space in their lives to think and reflect. On this point, John Baldoni notes that organizations need leaders who first know themselves—leaders who “have an inner compass that points them in the right direction.” According to Baldoni, clarifying these dimensions of the inner life “begins with sound thinking—with taking time to think before we do.”

For Christians, time for reflection does not need to be an isolated activity. Through the practices of Sabbath and prayer, we are reminded that we are not alone in our work as leaders. Taking time for rest and prayer is a declaration of our trust in and dependency on God. Timothy Keller and Kathrine Leary Alsdorf remind us that the practice of Sabbath is an act of trust, a reminder that God is at work even in the midst of our rest, and that ultimately, God is there—we are not alone in our work.  As we recognize that we are not alone in our work, we also may receive the invitation to seek out wisdom from God: “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you” (James 1:5). In our times of rest and reflection, we are able to not only lean into our own thoughts and convictions but we are also able to lean into God’s wisdom.

So, are you making time to think and reflect in your life? Are you taking time for Sabbath rest and prayer? For those who have full calendars and high demands in their roles, this often means there is a need for scheduling time on their calendars for this important work. Remember, being busy does not always translate into being productive. As Keller and Leary-Alsdorf remind us, “a deeply rested people are far more productive.” Sometimes pulling back from the intense pace of work is just the answer we need to the most demanding questions and challenges we face. Take time to rest, think, reflect, pray, and nurture a regular pattern of self-evaluation. Consider when this specifically will take place. When will it take place in the week ahead? When will it take place next month?

May you engage the year ahead with deep reflection on the things that matter most to you!

Take a moment to share your reflections and priorities below.

What is Your Next Step in Leadership Training?

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Photo Credit: leadership, by nist6dh, Flickr

It is my pleasure to highlight leadership training resources that have just been published.

In partnership with the Logos Mobile Ed team at Faithlife, over the past couple years we have been working on a set of course offerings now available here — Mobile Ed: Ministry Leadership Bundle (4 courses)

As the demands of leadership grow in our day, the importance of thoughtful engagement with leadership training rises with it. Evidenced by the popularity of events such as the Global Leadership Summit, engaging effective leadership practices in the life of the church and beyond is timely and relevant.

Individual Courses or the Ministry Leadership Bundle

These Mobile Ed leadership courses may be accessed either as a bundle with discount, or by selecting individual course offerings. The four courses in this bundle are the following:

Over 40 Hours of Instructional Content Made Accessible

Averaging around 10 hours of instructional content in each course, the learning units in the courses are designed to provide relevant leadership content in an accessible manner. As a self-paced learning experience, each unique learning portion is captured in a video that ranges from about 5-10 minutes. This model allows learners to walk through a wealth of content in manageable learning segments.

Here is a quick overview of some of the themes captured in each course.

LD101 — Introducing Ministry Leadership (course available here)

  • Why leadership? Why Now?
  • Approaching Leadership from a Christian Perspective
  • Frameworks for Ministry Leadership
  • Self-Leadership
  • Leading Individuals
  • Leading Teams and Groups
  • Leading Churches and Organizations
  • Thoughts on Leading with Purpose

LD102 — The Ministry Leader and the Inner Life (course available here)

  • The Process of Spiritual Transformation and Essential Features of Self Leadership
  • Personal Formation: Life Story, Life Calling, Life Values, Life Motivation and Gifts, Spiritual Gifts, Life Passion, and Emotional Maturity
  • Spiritual Formation: Introduction to Spiritual Disciplines, Holistic Perspective, Eternal Perspective, Divine Perspective, and Joyful Perspective
  • Pursuing God through the Disciplines of the Mind, Heart, Action, and Community
  • Leadership and the Centered Life

LD201 — Leading Teams and Groups in Ministry (course available here)

  • Why Team Leadership?: Team Challenges and Benefits
  • Biblical and Theological Foundations for Decentralized Leadership
  • Team Leadership: Cultural Relevance
  • Team Leadership: Pragmatic Effectiveness
  • Servant Leadership and the Effectiveness of Teams
  • Healthy Teams: Driven by 5 Questions
  • Healthy Leadership: The Role of the Leader and Dimensions of Team Leadership
  • Healthy Team Contexts

LD202 — Communication and Organizational Leadership (course available here)

  • Class Focus and Rationale
  • The Leadership Communication Pyramid
  • Leadership Communication: Types, Models, and Elements of Communication
  • Leading Organizational Culture: The Elements of Culture and the Leader at the Intersection
  • Leading through Organizational Conflict
  • Leading Visionary Change

Come join me on this leadership training journey, now available through the Logos Mobile Ed Ministry Leadership Bundle.

Engaging the Emotional Side of Organization Culture

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Photo Credit: _Emotions 02, by SeRGioSVox, Flickr

In a recent post I discussed the following theme: Why Organizational Culture Matters. In that post, I engaged the questions…

  • What Is Organizational Culture? And,
  • Why Does Organizational Culture Matter?

Based on answers to these questions I concluded that leaders must focus on both smart strategy AND healthy culture in their leadership work.

The Emotional Side of Organizational Culture

Providing an expanded and clarifying conversation on organizational culture, Barsade and O’Neill argue that while emotions are a vital part of the organizational culture this dimension that is often overlooked.

In their HBR article on the topic, they note that, “most leaders focus on how employees think and behave—but feelings matter just as much.”

Barsade and O’Neill provide additional clarity on this point:

 “Cognitive culture is undeniably important to an organization’s success. But it’s only part of the story. The other critical part is what we call the group’s emotional culture: the shared affective values, norms, artifacts, and assumptions that govern which emotions people have and express at work and which ones they are better off suppressing.”

Why Is Attention to Emotional Culture Important?

In their article, they note that attending to the emotional culture of an organization involves looking at what motivates employees and learning that which makes organizational members feel excited about their work and feel that the belong to the organization and its mission.

For better or worse, emotions play an important part in the overall organizational culture.  The article highlights that positive emotional culture is not just a good idea, but that emotions impact important employee metrics such as retention, work quality, and employee commitment. In short, “you can see the effects [of emotions] on the bottom line.”

What Can Leaders Do about It?

If emotional culture is important, what can leaders and managers do to help positively shape the emotional culture of their organization?

Get a Handle on the Current Emotional Culture

Barsade and O’Neill argue that it begins with simply getting a handle on the existing emotional culture. Whether through employee surveys, employee engagement apps, or other creative means of gathering relevant data, the starting place is understanding the current emotional culture. In such surveys, it may begin with capture basic emotions such as joy, love, anger, fear, and sadness.

Proactively Create and Shape an Emotional Culture

Once the current emotional culture is identified, it’s time to start thinking about how leaders and managers may take the next steps of creating and shaping a healthy emotional culture in the organization.

Barsade and O’Neill present three key steps in this process:

  1. “Harness what people already feel”
  2. “Model the emotions you want to cultivate”
  3. “Get people to fake it till they feel it”

I will stop here at this point. However, more can be noted about these so I will continue to unpack each of these in the coming post in this series next week.

——————-

For now, consider a few questions:

  • Are you considering the emotional culture of your organization, or are you, as Barsade and O’Neill suggest is the case with many people, only focusing on the cognitive and behavioral dimensions of organizational culture?
  • What steps can you take to gain perspective on the current state of your organization (or team’s) emotional culture?
  • What steps can you take to positively shape the culture of your team or organization in future days?

I’ll pick up more with emotional culture next week.

 

The Power of Vision, Part 5

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Photo Credit: Visions of Color, by Joe Dyndale, Flickr

I’m in a mini-series focused on the power of vision. Here’s a snapshot of where we’ve been in the series:

  • In Part 1, I began by providing the following definition of vision: vision is a picture of a preferred future. Further, I described the major work of leaders as communicating this picture of a preferred future in a manner that is compelling and unifying.
  • In Part 2, I engaged the capacity of vision to provide passion, motivation, direction, and purpose for life and leadership.
  • In Part 3, I engaged how leaders can help to make vision stick by casting the vision well, celebrating the vision well, and living the vision well.
  • In Part 4, I engaged how leaders can identify their burning passion and compelling vision.

This week, I’d like to provide a final encouragement as you consider the vision you are meant to pursue in the year ahead.

Looking to Your Future

As I write this post, New Year’s Day is just around the corner. In many ways, the start of a new year provides an opportunity for us to do what we should be regularly doing throughout the year—looking to the future and planning in light of it.

As you look out the future, what is the picture of a preferred future both for you and your organization?

First, what does this preferred future look like both personally and professionally?

  • Personally: What is your personal vision … for you, your family, and your community in the days, weeks, months, and years ahead?
  • Professionally: What is your professional or organizational vision … for you and the community you serve in the days, weeks, months, and years ahead?

Second, what does this future look like at different points along the way on the journey toward your preferred future?

  • What does it look like weeks in the future?
  • What does it look like months in the future?
  • What does it look like years in the future?

Developing a Strategy for Visionary Planning

Weekly Carve out 15 minutes at the beginning of each week in order to prioritize your schedule and insure you are working toward your preferred future.
Monthly Carve out 2 hours to evaluate the previous month and then plan for the coming month in light of your visionary priorities.
Quarterly Carve out a day (workday length) in order to evaluate progress in light of your personal and professional vision. Use this evaluation to make adjustments for the coming 2-3 months.
Annually Carve out a 1-2 day retreat (getting away to a hotel, cabin, or retreat center) where you can have focused time not only evaluating the past year, but also reevaluating your overall visionary priorities. This is an annual time to insure that the direction of your life and leadership is moving toward a preferred future in light of the things that matter most in life.
Seasonally (each 5-7 years) Carve out a week or more every 5-7 years for a season of deep rest, refreshment, and renewal. This is not about simply taking a vacation—something that likely happens every year—but rather taking a genuine sabbatical from the normal routines of life. Some professions may allow for this seasonal time to be multiple months of rest, refreshment, and renewal. For other professions and work contexts, this seasonal time may be limited to a typical vacation week. In either case, find a path for intentional reflection on the trajectory of your life and leadership.

Have you seen tangible progress toward major visionary dreams you had 5 to 7 years earlier (degrees you wanted to complete, job changes you wanted to pursue, organizational goals you wanted to accomplish, etc.)?

As you look out into the next 5 to 7 years of your life and leadership, what are your major visionary priorities for the years ahead? What course corrections need to be made now to help navigate toward this preferred future? How can you adjust your schedule, budget, and general pace of life to make space for prioritizing movement toward this preferred future?

Engaging major life questions like this takes time and space for rest, renewal, and reflection. Take time not only for vacation and recreation, but also for sabbatical in order to tackle such visionary reflection and dreaming in your life.

 Vision: the Tool for Leading from the Front

Whether thinking of vision personally, professionally, or organizationally, vision is a powerful tool for your life and leadership.

Engaging the power of vision in leadership, Burt Nanus shares these thoughtful insights:

Vision is the main tool leaders use to lead from the front.
Effective leaders don’t push or production their followers. They don’t boss them around or manipulate them. They are out front showing the way. The vision allows leaders to inspire, attract, align, and energize their followers—to empower them by encouraging them to become part of a common enterprise dedicated to achieving the vision.

Rather than simply using push and production techniques, as leaders we need to learn to lead from the front. Vision provides the essential tool for moving from extrinsic motivation to intrinsic motivation. Vision provides the path for painting a picture of a hopeful future that motives us personally and others organizationally. As Nanus notes, “Vision is the main tool leaders use to lead from the front.”

Taking Your Next Visionary Steps

As you look to your future, the key is to pay attention and make changes based on this visionary reflection. In the week ahead, I encourage you to take some time to pay attention to your preferred future (your vision), and begin to take steps toward this preferred future in practical, tangible, and meaningful ways.

God’s best to each of you as you make strides toward the things that matter most in your life.


Here are all of the post links for this series:

10 Life Lessons from Youth Sports (Part 3)

Soccer !, by Craig Sunter, Flickr

Soccer !, by Craig Sunter, Flickr

This is part 3 of 3 in my series reflecting on 10 Life Lessons from Youth Sports.

In this season our family has been asking a few questions as we make decisions regarding where to invest our time with youth sports:

  • In what way are youth sports meaningful?
  • How do they contribute to the development of children and youth?
  • What life lessons may be learned from participation in youth sports?

In response to these questions we landed on a list of “10 Life Lessons from Youth Sports” that fall into five main categories: Physical Lessons, Emotional Lessons, Relational Lessons, Mental Lessons, and Spiritual Lessons.

In my previous two posts I shared lessons 1-6 in the physical, emotional and relational areas.

Physical Lessons

  • Lesson 1: Physical Health Is Important
  • Lesson 2: Athletes Are Born and Made

Emotional Lessons

  • Lesson 3: How to Lose, and Win, Well
  • Lesson 4: How to Press through Perceived Barriers

Relational Lessons

  • Lesson 5: We’re in This Together
  • Lesson 6: How to Respect, Engage, and Share in Authority

Now we turn to lessons 7 – 10 in the mental and spiritual areas for this final post.

Mental Lessons

Lesson 7: Successful Execution Engages the Mind

Although success in sports is tied in part to physical, emotional, and relational dynamics, successfully execution involves a significant mental dimension as well.

At every level of competition, athletes must stay focused. They must learn their specific job on the court, field, and mat. They must remain engaged. They must effectively execute on their job. They must be able to recognize challenges to their play and make necessary adjustments.

In sports, successful execution engages the mind. On the practice field, in the midst of a game or match, and in reviewing performance after the fact, athletes must stay mentally engaged.

Teammates depend on each other to know and execute their role in the right way and at the right time. Athletes not only need to learn their own role well, but also must be mindful of how their role coordinates with those around them on their own team, and how the opposition is working against them in the competition. Youth sports provide an opportunity for kids to stay focused mentally and to execute on this understanding.

Lesson 8: Pursuing Perfect Effort

One of my son’s favorite movies is When the Game Stands Tall. The movie provides a dramatic account of the De La Salle Spartans’ journey to a 151-game winning streak in high school football. The coach of the Spartans was Bob Ladouceur, and he built his program on the philosophy of expecting perfect effort from his players.

In the movie, this principle of perfect effort is communicated by the coach in the following manner:

We’re not asking you to be perfect on every play. What we’re asking of you and what you should be asking of each other is to give a perfect effort from snap to whistle.”

Perfect effort requires engagement from the whole person. Athletes need to be present physically, emotionally, relationally, and mentally. They must be ready to engage, and stay engaged, with their whole self to offer the perfect effort of which Ladouceur speaks.

Spiritual Lessons

Lesson 9: You’re Not Alone

Youth sports can be tough at times. Youth athletes can feel pressed in all of the areas noted above: physically, emotionally, relationally, and mentally. When things get tough, as they do in sports at times, it is an important opportunity for individuals to recognize that they are ultimately not alone.

To begin, players are surrounded by the many people who care for and support them along the way (fellow players, coaches, and loved ones). But even when this is not the case, when it feels like so many who are surrounding are not being supportive, athletes are able to turn to the one who is faithful through it all.

In the book of Philippians, the Apostle Paul writes, “In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret…. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:12-13).

Though many athletes may want to quote such a verse to point to God’s help in providing them with a victory in a match or game, the reality is this verse is not about victories in sports. It is about finding strength in the Lord, whether in victory or defeat.

Paul did not write these verses from a place of comfort and excitement. Paul wrote these verses to his friends while sitting in a prison cell because of his faith in the Lord. So in the midst of joy and sorrow in sports, and in the midst of joy and sorrow in life, we can say with Paul that we “can do all things through him who strengthens” us. In competition and in life, we are not alone.

Lesson 10: Play to Win the Prize

Finally, youth sports provide a context where individuals and teams compete to win. On one of our kids’ teams, the coach emphasized playing for the greater reward.  This meant several things: (1) playing for the win, (2) playing to improve as an athlete, and (3) playing to grow is a person of character and commitment.

Lessons like these point to playing for the greater spiritual reward as well. In the Bible, the Apostle Paul speaks to the greater reward of the gospel in the following manner:

I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable” (1 Cor. 9:23-25).

Victories on the field, court, or mat feel great. But these victories in sports are temporary. Paul says there is a greater reward that will last. For Paul this lasting reward is all about the gospel—the relationship with God made available to us because of the forgiveness offered in Jesus Christ.

So run for the athletic prize, but recognize this is pointing to an even greater reward. Nothing matters more than finding peace with God in this life. The prize of peace with God is found in Jesus Christ.


Youth sports provide countless opportunities to learn lessons about life and leadership. In these posts, I’ve highlighted 10. I hope you enjoy the life lessons that you are learning along the way as well, whether through your own involvement with sports, or as your children are involved in sports.

Take a moment to share your insights below!


Here are all of the posts in this 3-part series:

10 Life Lessons from Youth Sports

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We just finished another season of youth sports in our household. Over the years our kids have participated in a variety of team sports including soccer, football, wrestling, softball, baseball, and basketball.

As a larger family with five children, we need to be intentional both with how we invest our time as a family and with the activities in which our kids participate. This includes the need to be intentional about involvement in sporting activities.

As a family thinking through the stewardship of our family time, it is helpful to think about youth sports not only from the angle of what is fun, but also from the angle of what is meaningful. In light of this…

  • In what way are youth sports meaningful?
  • How do they contribute to the development of children and youth?
  • What life lessons may be learned from participation in youth sports?

On the heels of another season, a few members of the Irving household sat down to think through the value of youth sports. Out of this conversation came our list of “10 Life Lessons from Youth Sports” that fall into five main categories: Physical Lessons, Emotional Lessons, Relational Lessons, Mental Lessons, and Spiritual Lessons.

Physical Lessons

Lesson 1: Physical Health Is Important

To begin, youth sports remind us as a family, and remind our children in particular, that physical health is important. As parents we really do not care about what specific sports our children engage. We just want to them to engage a sport, or an activity, because through this engagement they are able to stay active and physically fit. When their days of youth sports end, we hope that they take the value of physical activity with them into adulthood. Care for our physical bodies is not the only part of life, but it is an important part. Youth sports help children value the importance of physical health.

Lesson 2: Athletes Are Born and Made

Youth sports also make it clear that although each individual is equally valuable as a person, not everyone is equally gifted with particular skills. To say it another way, athletes are both born and made.

People are born with gifts that differ from others. Those engaged in youth sports quickly see that not every person on a mat, field, or court has equal abilities. Youth sports provide an opportunity to face such realities, and these are realities that are true in other areas of life as well.

Although everyone is born with different levels of specific gifts and talents, everyone has the opportunity to make the most of what they have been given. Discipline and hard work go a long way in the realm of sports and in the realm of life.

Regardless of the level of talent that one has at the start, everyone can take the talent they’ve received and make it grow through discipline, hard work, and practice. Youth sports teach such lessons. Youth sports help young people to recognize that athletes, and mature humans in general, are both born and made.

Work with what you have been given and then take this talent to the next level.

Emotional Lessons

Lesson 3: How to Lose, and Win, Well

As with recognizing different levels of gifting, youth sports also provide a chance to recognize that not all outcomes are the same. Some teams win and some teams lose. Such realities raise emotional lessons for life as well and provide powerful opportunities for maturing. While defeat is difficult, youth sports generally provide a safe environment where children can learn how to both lose, and win, well.

Another way to talk about this is how to win and lose graciously. As individuals and teams battle it out on the mat, field, court, and beyond, they encounter the need to face deep emotions such as fear, disappointment, sadness, joy, excitement, and more.

Through defeat and victory in youth sports, children are able to face diverse emotional experiences in a structured environment. Although the world of youth sports may not always feel gentle, the adult world will likely be less forgiving. Learning to engage both loss, and victory, is ultimately a gift and a key life lesson that youth sports provides.

Lesson 4: How to Press through Perceived Barriers

Along with the flood of emotions noted above is the reality of facing both real and perceived barriers. Whether it is in a challenging practice or in the heart of a sporting event, youth sports provide numerous opportunities to bump up against barriers. In these moments, when it feels like quitting or giving up is the easiest solution, children are challenged to dig deep emotionally and find a bit more to offer to both themselves and their teammates.

The feeling of wanting to give up, and the feeling of being so tired that you can’t go on, is not limited to the world of sports. It relates to life in general. It relates to the world of study and academics. It relates to the world of family and relationships. It relates to the world of work.

Youth sports provide a place for children and youth to recognize that the feeling that there is nothing left to do or nothing left to give is not always the reality. The emotion is real, but the emotion is not always accurately expressing reality. Sometimes there is more that can be done. Sometimes the barriers that are felt are perceived rather than actual. Youth sports teach how to press through such perceived barriers.


I’ll stop at Lesson 4 today and pick up next time with Lessons 5 – 10 in the relational, mental, and spiritual domains.

In the meantime, how have youth sports contributed life lessons to you or the youth you know well?