Vocational Discernment — It’s about WE, not ME

adult chill computer connection

Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

I enjoyed time at a conference on the intersection of faith and work earlier this month (see: Karam Forum).

One of the themes that arose multiple times was the importance of community in flourishing economies and in the lives of flourishing individuals. The concept of human flourishing is about growth and development. The best flourishing, however, does not happen in isolation—it happens within the context of a community where we are able to use our gifts, skills, and abilities in service of others.

It is tempting to think of our careers, jobs, and vocations through an individualistic lens, though. Consider such questions:

  • What do I want to do with my life?
  • What type of work do I most enjoy?
  • What are my passions, interests, and desires?
  • How can my passions, interests, and desired be most fulfilled in the context of my work?

These are not bad questions, they are simply incomplete. Vocation is not primarily about “I”, “my”, and “me.” Vocation—the most fulfilling and meaningful forms of vocational stewardship—is more about “we” than “me.”

Certainly, we need to reflect on vocation from a personal perspective, but the most fulfilling forms of vocational stewardship that lead to human flourishing involve deep reflection on how our work will serve others, not just ourselves. Tom Nelson referred to this as the “we-ness” of our work.

When vocation is primarily about me—what will be most enjoyable to me or what will most quickly build my wealth—work becomes merely functional and utilitarian.

We work is about we—how I can use my gifts and skills to contribute to the benefit of others—work becomes fulfilling and infused with great meaning.

In their book Practicing the King’s Economy, Rhodes, Holt and Fikkert remind us that “Every road to the economy of the kingdom runs through the creation of community.” Our work and vocation do not find their meaning and fulfillment in isolation. Vocation becomes rewarding when we consider how we utilize who we are and what we are able to do in service of others. In diverse expressions of work, we find the most fulfillment in our vocation when we see how our work connects to and meaningfully serves others.

How will your unique gifts, skills, and abilities in this life best contribute to the flourishing of both your own life and to the lives of others? The best vocational choices in life come when we thinking about “we” rather than just thinking about “me” in the context of our work.

………………….

What are your thoughts on vocational discernment? Take a moment to share your perspectives below.

The Myth of Perfection

church_up.jpg_elyktra

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.

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.

The Power of Vision, Part 5

Visions-of-Color_Joe-Dyndale

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:

Leading on Gratitude Road

Gratitude Road, by Bart Maguire, Flickr

Gratitude Road, by Bart Maguire, Flickr

This past week I had the opportunity to share briefly in a chapel service at our school. The theme was thankfulness and gratitude. Whether in the Thanksgiving season or beyond, learning the art of gratitude is important for leaders and followers alike.

The Good and the Bad of Future Focus

But nurturing a spirit of gratitude comes more naturally for some.

As I consider my personal tendencies and strengths, one of the tendencies that can work against a spirit of gratitude is an orientation toward the future.

Future focus has many benefits. As leaders, a focus on the future is important for planning and strategic thinking. I take up the importance of this theme in another post (see Strategic Foresight).

But future focus has a down side as well. At times, this future orientation can work against nurturing a spirit of gratitude. Sometimes gratitude and thanksgiving are not primarily about looking to the future, but rather reflecting on the past and being present in the moment.

Thankfulness through Remembering

The Bible affirms the value of remembering throughout the pages of Scripture. Remembering what God has done in your life and in the lives of those around you is often the seedbed from which thanksgiving and gratitude arise.

One example of this is in Psalm 105 where the author calls the reader to give thanks to God by remembering well:

Oh give thanks to the LORD; call upon his name….
Remember the wondrous works that he has done

(Psalm 105: 1 & 5).

If you are like many leaders, it is easy to have your sights set on the future and where your team and organization are headed. But are you taking time to pause for gratitude? Are you taking time to pause and be present in the moment and to look to the past with thankfulness?

Walking Down Gratitude Road

As you consider nurturing a spirit of gratitude, perhaps you may need to join with me in taking time to pause and look at the present and the past. In this act we have the opportunity to see the faithfulness of God in our lives. As we look back and remember well, we begin to see that through both the joy-filled and difficult days, we have much for which to be thankful.

I hope you will be able to take some time in this season to nurture a spirit of gratitude in your life and leadership. Learn to remember well; learn to remember with gratitude.

Are You Able to Lead with Clarity and Calmness?

Communication, by Paul Shanks, Flickr

Communication, by Paul Shanks, Flickr

One of the “tweetable” leadership thoughts I like to share often is the following:

Followers need clarity and calmness in challenging times.
Provide authenticity and a non-anxious presence for those you lead.

There is actually a lot of thought, and research, that goes behind this call for clarity, calmness, and a non-anxious presence. Some of this research may be found in an article a colleague and I have published in the academic journal Management Research Review. If you don’t have access to this journal, you may find another discussion of the research directly here through the American Society of Business and Behavioral Sciences.

In the face of challenging times, followers need clarity, calmness, authenticity, and a non-anxious presence from their leaders.

What do I mean by this? I’ll use some quick points of contrast to explain.

This Type of Leadership IS NOT About:

  • Leaders “having it all together,”
  • Leaders pretending to have all the answers, or
  • Leaders being overly controlling.

This Type of Leadership IS About:

  • Leaders being calm… engaging with a non-anxious presence,
  • Leaders providing followers with clarity … being clear and authentic with what can be shared, and
  • Leaders guiding with conviction … leading with moral resolve and fortitude.

“Self-Differentiation”

In the study noted above, we found that leader resiliency was associated with a social science construct called self-differentiation. Self-differentiated leaders are able to maintain a non-anxious presence in the face of what often raises anxiety for others.

The reality is those who lead in the manner described in this post face challenges just like any other leader. The difference is in how they respond.

Responding with Clarity and Calmness

Rather than letting circumstances dictate their demeanor, self-differentiated leaders find a way to recognize the challenging realities and then approach these realities in a calm and non-anxious manner.

I don’t know about you, but I love to work for and follow leaders like this. I also desire to provide such leadership for others as I’m able.

So what about you? Are you able and willing to lead with clarity and calmness? Remember:

Followers need clarity and calmness in challenging times.
Provide authenticity and a non-anxious presence for those you lead!

Observations from an Overwhelming Week

Stress, by Environmental Illness Net..., Flickr

Stress, by Environmental Illness Net…, Flickr

Life can feel quite overwhelming at times. This past week felt like this for me. Perhaps you can identify.

In light of my week, I’m going to take a bit more of an autobiographical approach to this post.

My week was not overwhelming due to a massive crisis hitting my life, though there are plenty of crises hitting our world these days. In fact, most of the various items hitting the schedule were extremely enjoyable taken individually. The overwhelming feeling simply came as the normal flow of life built up and a few added curveballs were thrown into the mix.

I’m sure you have your own list of ordinary and normal flow of life items, but here are a few of mine from both the professional and personal levels:

Professional

  • Preparing class lectures
  • Meetings with students
  • Teaching classes
  • Grading papers
  • Recording lectures for online students
  • Participating in administrative meetings and attending to administrative needs for our school

Personal

  • Spending time as a family
  • Enjoying a date with my wife
  • Attending a friend’s wedding
  • Engaging with our community group at church
  • Teaching a Sunday school class
  • Spending time in the minivan with my daughter who is learning to drive
  • Watching my daughter’s high school soccer game
  • Helping coach my son’s football team with multiple games and practices
  • Helping with the normal flow of house work

Navigating the Curveballs

I’m a bit tired just typing out this list of normal flow of life activities! I know you have your own list as well.

For me, this list shifted from normal flow to overwhelming when spending time working on two vehicles needing maintenance — one vehicle that was outsourced to a professional and one vehicle with work I did myself. Oh, and I lost my wallet as well!

You get the idea. We all have our normal flow of life activities, and then the occasional week comes along that throws us a curveball. My curveballs this week were vehicle repairs and a lost wallet. Your curveball likely was something else.

Working Hard from Passion rather than Stress

In the midst of this slightly crazy, and wonderful, week, I landed on a delightful quote from Simon Sinek:

“Working hard for something we don’t care about is called stress;
working hard for something we love is called passion.”
– Simon Sinek

With the exception of the vehicle maintenance and calling credit card companies to report lost cards, as I look back on this past week, a vast majority of everything with which I engaged thankfully fell into the passion category. Although I hope to avoid such a busy week as I move into another, I’m grateful that even when the work feels hard, it still feels meaningful.

May you find work in the week ahead that draws out passion rather than stress for you!

I’ll be aiming for this sweet spot as well.

11 Lessons for Those Feeling “Stuck” or “Trapped” in their Careers

Limitless, by David Melchor Diaz, Flickr

Limitless, by David Melchor Diaz, Flickr

Have you ever had the feeling of being “stuck” or “trapped” in a career or job? Most people have at one time or another.

The question of what to do with this “stuck” feeling is vital for anyone facing a challenging season, and is at the heart of what I’d like to engage in this brief reflection.

Changing Your Work Context

Sometimes this experience or feeling leads toward a shift away from one’s current role, whether this shift is dramatic or more subtle.

One expression of this might be the bold step of quitting a job even though a next step is not in place. Another expression of this might be putting your résumé out and getting a feel for other options. Still another expression of this might be going back to school in order to eventual make the jump out of a current role.

Changing Your Perspective on Your Work Context

Other times, the answer is not a shift away from a role or organization, but rather a shift in perspective within that role or organization. This path is about taking a proactive posture toward the stuck feeling. Rather than seeing this as something brought upon you by the organization or others, this is about shifting to take ownership and responsibility for what you have control of as you face this feeling.

Advice for Getting Unstuck

On this point, Robert Steven Kaplan provides thoughtful reflections in his HBR article entitled Reaching Your Potential. Here are some recommendations and reflections drawn from Kaplan’s work for those desiring to move out of this feeling of being “stuck” and “trapped.”

  1. Understand Your Strengths and Weaknesses
  2. Use this Understanding to Guide Your Career Choices and Goals
  3. Identify Three or Four Tasks that Are Central to Your Work Responsibilities; Make Sure You Excel at These
  4. Show Character and Leadership within Your Role and Organization
  5. Put the Interests of the Company and Your Colleagues ahead of Your Own Interests
  6. Be Willing to Speak Up, Even Voicing Unpopular Views
  7. Don’t Play It Too Safe
  8. Identify Your Dreams
  9. Develop Skills to Realize these Dreams
  10. Demonstrate Courage to Pursue these Dreams
  11. Remember their Will be Bumps Along the Way

What Are Your Next Steps for Getting Unstuck?

Although we could identify other recommendations to add to these, Kaplan provides great insight here for those wanting to move forward from this place of feeling stuck. The key is to move away from a passive posture and on toward an active posture of taking ownership in moving toward your career potential.

What steps have been most helpful for you in getting “unstuck” in the context of your job?

Let Your Life Speak — How to Understand Your Vocational Call

Artist at work, Jean-Francois Phillips, Flickr

Artist at work, Jean-Francois Phillips, Flickr

How do you discern your vocational path? How do you decide what your contribution to the world will be? What is your vocational calling?

These are big questions. How we understand our work and the contribution we make to the world is vital from our earliest days of vocational discernment on through adulthood.

  • It is vital for teens as they consider potential pathways for further education and future work.
  • It is vital for adults as they work to make ends meet for their family, and particularly as they seek to do so in a manner that is fulfilling to them personally and meaningful to others societally.
  • It is vital to all engaged in any form of vocation because our work lives occupy the majority of our waking hours.

Understanding the importance of vocational discernment is one thing. Understanding how to approach this process of vocational discernment is quite another.

How to Engage in Vocational Discernment

As I have spent time teaching in the area of leadership and the inner-life, one of the core principles I come back to with students time after time is a rather simple one—the importance of listening. At the core of vocational discernment is the art of listening.

1. Listening to Heroes and History

In the book of Hebrews we are instructed to “Remember [our] leaders, those who spoke to [us] the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (Heb. 13:7). This charge to look to our leaders is not simply referring to the contemporary and living, but rather also to those who have gone before us.

In Hebrews chapter 11 the author highlights over a dozen persons of great faith such as Abraham, Sarah, Moses, and David. Reflecting on their lives, we are instructed: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1).

As we look to such stories of courage and faith, this becomes one pathway of listening for our own vocational discernment. What is “the race that is set before us”? As we run our own race, we have “so great a cloud of witnesses” surrounding us and cheering us on. Some of these are individuals we read about in Scripture. Some of these are courageous individuals we read about in other historical literature. We can learn about our own vocational race as we look to others. We can reflect on our life and calling as we consider the lives and callings of those throughout history. Historical examples, for better or worse, provide thoughtful insights for our own vocational discernment process.

2. Listening to Your Community

Not only can we engage in vocational discernment through listening to heroes and history, we also must learn to listen well to those in our immediate communities. Are we listening to our family, our friends, and maybe even our foes as we consider our vocational path? There is great value in a contemplative approach to vocational discernment (something I will highlight below), but calling is often best discerned not in isolation but rather in the context of community.

Are we listening to the voices around us? Are we listening to the perspectives of supervisors? Are we listening to feedback from coworkers and those who work for us? Are we listening to what our friends and family share? Are we listening even to our critics when they bring constructive rather destructive reflection?

In the context of community we find a place to listen to others in our own vocational discernment processes.

3. Listening to Your Life

In his book Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer points us to an old Quaker saying that became the title of his book—let your life speak.

Speaking to Your Life

Parker begins his reflections by contrasting two approaches to life. I’ll call the first approach speaking to your life. On this approach, Parker writes, “Vocation, the way I was seeking it, becomes an act of will, a grim determination that one’s life will go this way or that whether it wants to or not.” This is the path many pursue for understanding and seeking their vocational goals.

This path is characterized by setting our course, clarifying our values, and identifying and implementing things such as our S.M.A.R.T. goals. Certainly there is a place for these principles.  But Parker is pointing us to something more. He refers to this something more as letting your life speak.

Let Your Life Speak

Rather than planning out and dictating to our life, Palmer reminds us of the importance of listening to our life and letting our life speak to us. Parker writes, “Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about—quite apart from what I would like it to be about—or my life will never represent anything real in the world, no matter how earnest my intentions.”

Such insights remind us of the value of contemplative reflection. They remind us of the importance of stopping, listening, and paying attention to what is happening in and through our lives. Though contemplation is not the only solution, it is a particularly important message for this season in time and history. There are so many potential distractions around us. Although contemplatively listening to our lives has always taken intentionality, in the days of smartphones, email, Facebook, and countless other barriers to contemplation, we are reminded that listening to our lives takes focus and intentionality.

4. Listening to God

For persons of faith, listening to God is the most important consideration. Understanding and living out God’s will for us is a primary concern, and a conversation for which the biblical authors provide key insights (e.g., Romans 12:1-2). While the discussion of understanding God’s will and listening to God’s heart for us warrants a substantial treatment, at this point I’d simply like to make the connection between listening to God’s voice and what has been noted above.

Listening to voices from history, voices from our community, and the voice of our own life are some of the primary ways we hear the voice of God in our lives. The biblical phrase “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28) reminds us that through seasons of discernment and prayer, often the will of God is discerned in the context of the communities within which we are placed.

Certainly God can speak in very direct and dramatic ways. Moses experienced this in the burning bush of Exodus 3. But more often, we hear the voice of God in quiet ways through the people, events, and circumstances that shape our life. We tend to hear God more like the “gentle whisper” Elijah experienced (1 Kings 19:11-13) than the burning bush Moses experienced (Exodus 3).

What’s Next — Moving from Listening to Action

While listening is often the headwaters of discerning vocational calling, action is also important. Engaging the question “How do you get where you want to go,” Michael Hyatt reminds his readers of the importance action: “Just start. Once we had our direction all that was left was to move toward it. … Clarity is composed of knowing and doing.”

As most can affirm through their life experience, sometimes the best way to figure out what is vocationally fulfilling is to experience a number of options. As you “try on” these vocational options, what is a good fit for your skill set and gift mix? What is consistent with your personal passions and purpose? What options are also aligning with opportunities?

While vocational discernment begins in contemplation, it doesn’t end there. Find a rhythm of moving between contemplation and action. There is a cyclical or helical relationship between reflection and action where contemplation gives birth to behavior, and those actions once again lead us back to further reflection.

What Has Worked for You?

As you’ve engaged in your own vocational discernment journey, what has been the key for you? What acts of listening have been of help to you? What other steps do you recommend for those engaged in their own vocational discernment process?

Leadership, Work, and the Priority of Purpose

Purpose Logo, leesean, Flicker

Purpose Logo, leesean, Flicker

Purpose matters. As evidenced by the popularity of Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life—a book that has sold over 30 million copies—people have an innate desire to know that their lives matter and that their lives are shaped by a sense of purpose. One CEO, Dave Dillon, expressed it this way: “All human beings want to find meaning in their lives.”

Purpose and Leaders

While purpose is a priority for all human beings engaged in all types of work, purpose holds unique importance for leaders. Why is this? Leaders have an important role to play in shaping the culture and direction of the organizations they lead. Will this culture and direction be shaped by an anemic vision of life and organizational purpose, or will it be shaped by a vital sense of purpose and mission that connects to something larger than themselves and contributes to the flourishing others?

Engaging the importance of purpose for leadership, Bill George, former CEO of Medtronic, asks the following questions: “What is your True North? Do you know what your life and leadership are all about, and when you are being true to yourself?

Personal and Organizational Purpose

Although this begins with a personal sense of purpose for leaders, this “True North” purpose is vital at both the personal and organizational levels. Does the leader personally have a sense of purpose guiding their life? Does the leader also see a greater sense of purpose in the work organizationally? Understanding purpose at both the personal and organizational levels is vital for leaders and followers alike.

Theologically-Based Purpose

Amy Sherman provides thoughtful reflection on purpose and vocation in her book Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good. In discussing the core of Christianity Sherman writes: “The gospel of the kingdom tells us not only what we’re saved from, but also what we’re saved for. We have purpose, we have a sacred calling, we have a God-giving vocation….”

In other words, God has made, shaped, and redeemed our lives for a purpose. The Bible reminds us that “we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). Because of the gospel, our lives are not only moving away from something but our lives are to be oriented toward and for something as well.

Practically-Effective Purpose

Not only is purpose in work and leadership a theologically grounded idea, it is also practically effective and backed by a growing research base. In another post I highlighted the work I’ve been doing with the Purpose in Leadership Inventory (PLI). Along with additional leadership variables such as goal-orientation and follower-focus, the variable of purpose in leadership is showing strong statistical relationships with other important variables. Purpose in leadership—a leader’s sense of personal and organizational purpose—is significantly related to leadership effectiveness, follower job satisfaction, follower organizational commitment, and follower sense of person-organization fit.

Identifying Your Purpose

Amy Sherman argues that our vocational sweet spot is found at the center of three domains: (1) God’s priorities, (2) personal passions and gifts, and (3) the world’s needs. Understanding this vocational sweet spot goes a long way in understanding one’s purpose. Bill George makes a similar affirmation arguing that “following your passions will enable you to discover the purpose of your leadership.”

Understanding your purpose as a leader is not simply about personal fulfillment. Understanding your purpose and how this relates to the organization you serve shapes the lives of others. Leader purpose helps followers to be more satisfied in their work, have a better sense of their fit in the organization, and have increased commitment to their work and to their organization.

Taking the Next Step with Purpose

So what is your purpose? What is the “True North” that guides you in your life, work, and leadership? Whether taking to time to read a book such as Bill George’s True North, or engaging with a peer or coach who may help you better clarify your vocational sweet spot and sense of purpose, purpose needs to be a priority. Take time to prioritize reflection on purpose in your life, leadership, and work in the coming days.