Top 10 Posts on Purpose in Leadership


Photo by Magda Ehlers on

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.

People First Leadership: Remembering Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines

photography of airplane during sunrise

Photo by Anugrah Lohiya on

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.

Authentic Collaboration — Avoiding Collaboration Overload



Photo Credit: collaboration, by Jennifer Leonard, Flickr

I’m a fan of teamwork. Team leadership was an area of focus for me in my Ph.D. dissertation research entitled Servant Leadership and Team Effectiveness. See some of my positive affirmations of teams in the following posts:

While teams have many benefits, there are challenges associated with teams as well. See a previous post in which I highlight and discuss the following 6 Challenges of Teams (subtitle…Removing the “I’s” from Your Team):

  • Ingrown
  • Indecision
  • Inaction
  • Inefficiency
  • Inequity
  • Inconsideration

Collaborative Overload

In a recent HBR article, Cross, Rebele, and Grant take up another important challenge in an article entitled “Collaborative Overload: Too Much Teamwork Exhausts Employees and Saps Productivity.”

In their article they provide several important cautions surrounding team member exhaustion, and in so doing remind us to not overload on a good thing. The core of the identified problem in the article is expressed in the following manner:

Although the benefits of collaboration are well documented, the costs often go unrecognized. When demands for collaboration run too high or aren’t spread evenly through the organization, workflow bottlenecks and employee burnout result.”

Cross, Rebele, and Grant go on to recommend solutions to this problem that are focused on better managing collaboration through efficient organizational and team practices. This is good advice.

Authentic Collaboration

As I engaged their work, I also began to think of another solution that I’ll label “Authentic Collaboration.”

From my experience with teams, groups, and committees, the problem is not too much collaboration, but rather too much of the wrong type of collaboration.  Let me explain.

When participants in a collaborative process are playing a role on the team, group, or committee that is authentic and meaningful, this type of collaboration tends to be energizing. When participation is inauthentic and merely procedural, this type of collaboration tends to be energy draining and feel like wasted time.

Meaningful Participation

Often from positive motivations, leaders and administrators tend to draw people into a collaborative experience because these leaders and administrators need a representative from diverse divisions or interests in their organizations.

When this practice is about wanting to authentically hear voices from these unique perspectives, this can lead to meaningful and authentic collaboration. However, when this practice is simply about wanting to placate an organizational perspective or voice, and the voice at the table is not authentically desired by leadership, this can lead to unproductive and inauthentic collaboration.

Again, I would argue collaboration is not the problem, but rather the wrong type of collaboration. When people are invited to the table of collaboration, the invitation needs to be authentic. Help people to be good stewards of their time by facilitating meaningful participation for all involved on the team, group, or committee.


What has been your experience with collaboration? What problems and challenges have you faced? How have you engaged these problems and found meaningful solutions? Take a moment to share your experience below.

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 (Part 2)

Play Ball!, by TMAB2003, Flickr

Play Ball!, by TMAB2003, Flickr

As with many families, our kids are regularly involved in youth sports. With so many demands for time in the life of a family, it is important that parents are intentional about where they invest their family time.

In light of this, as a family we took some time recently to ask a few questions about 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 youth sports?

In response to these questions our 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 last post I shared lessons 1- 4 in the physical and emotional 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

Now we turn to lessons 5 – 6 in the relational area.

Relational Lessons

Lesson 5: We’re in This Together

Along with the physical and emotional lessons, youth sports provide a significant opportunity to learn about the value and importance of working as a team. In the realm of most youth sports, the priority of teamwork is pronounced. Even in individual-oriented sports like wrestling, gymnastics, or tennis, individual effort is working toward team outcomes. In other arenas like basketball, soccer, or football, the priority of coordinated teamwork is expressed in an added level of team commitment.

Through such dynamics, kids learn that they are “in this together” with those around them. There are interdependencies that abound. As an athlete, they are motivated by the support and care of their family and friends. They are guided by the insights and direction of coaches and officials. They are strengthened by the encouragement and performance of fellow teammates.

This sense of interdependence was pronounced on the football field this past season. Quarterbacks and running backs could not move the ball without the protection of their offensive line. Linebackers could not do their job without defense ends and corner backs doing their essential work of containment. On the football field, you quickly learned both that others are depending on you to do your job, and that you in turn are depending on others to follow through with their jobs. Success comes when the coordinated efforts of the team moves toward a desired outcome.

Lesson 6: How to Respect, Engage, and Share in Authority

Along with learning the lesson of being in this together and being mutually dependent in a team, youth sports provide an important opportunity to learn how to respect, engage, and share in authority. First, youth athletes encounter authority in the form of coaches and officials.

Coaches and officials make many decisions throughout a game. Coaches decide how to run practices prior to games. Coaches decide which players to put in and what time to put them in the game or match. Coaches decide on key plays that will be made or strategies that will be utilized in light of the team’s performance on the court or field.  Similarly, officials of various types make judgements about athlete performance and adherence to the rules of the game or match.

Anyone that has played sports long enough realizes that good and bad calls are made both coaches and officials. In light of this, one of the key lessons is how to respond well to these calls. When a bad call is made, will athletes stay focused on the work that is before them, or will they become distracted and disrespectful to these authorities.

In addition to respecting authority, youth sports also provide significant opportunity for youth athletes to begin to exercise authority in appropriate ways. Coaches cannot personally enact the strategies and plays they call. Only the youth athletes can do this. And so they learn to take responsibility and authority on the field, court, mat, and beyond. And, they learn to share this authority with others, learning to take direction from fellow athletes when needed. Youth sports help young people to learn how to respect, engage, and share in authority.

I’ll pick up next time with Mental and Spiritual Lessons associated with youth sports.

What are your top lessons from youth sports? Please take a moment to share your thoughts below.

10 Life Lessons from Youth Sports

IMG_4560 - Copy

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?

Understanding Relational Skills (Leadership Practice 6)

by Chuck Patch, Flickr

by Chuck Patch, Flickr

I’m in a series highlighting 9 Effective Servant Leadership Practices. Servant leadership is not just a good idea. It works! The 9 effective leadership practices highlighted in this series capture core leadership dimensions that are correlated with effectiveness in the team context.

The second grouping of servant leadership practices presented in the model emphasizes the importance of understanding the priority of people. In this second cluster of servant leadership practices, leadership behaviors associated with effective teams include: (1) valuing and appreciating, (2) creating a place for individuality, and (3) understanding relational skills. This week we take on Leadership Practice 6 — Understanding Relational Skills.

Practice 6: Understanding Relational Skills

This second cluster, which is focused on understanding the priority of people, ends with the servant leadership practice of Understanding Relational Skills. Knowing how to get along with people is basic to quality relationships, and it is the basis of quality leadership practice as well. Although this may seem simplistic, understanding relational skills is key for leading well in the team context.

Relational Skills and Emotional Intelligence

In recent decades, leadership researchers have identified the importance of emotional intelligence for leadership practice. At the core of emotional intelligence are skills that support intrapersonal and interpersonal engagement. In his discussion of emotional intelligence, Daniel Goleman emphasized factors such as empathy and social skills, premised on self-awareness. These factors provide a basis for effective relational skills. Self-awareness leading to an awareness of and responsiveness to the needs of others provides a platform on which effective leaders may appropriately humanize the leader-follower relational engagement.

Self-Awareness, Empathy, and Authentic Listening

The themes of self-awareness, empathy, and authentic listening were also highlighted by the research participants in my study on the topic, noting these as important characteristics of effective relational skills. One participant noted that empathetic communication, personal connection, selective vulnerability, and attention to what motivates followers are all critical relational skills. Other participants emphasized items such as:

  • The importance of authentic listening,
  • A commitment to fairness and equality,
  • The ability to tolerate and accept appropriate differences,
  • The importance of knowing oneself well in order to relate authentically with others,
  • The embodiment of confidence blended with the ability to see future possibilities and communicate the most appropriate path to get there
  • Creating a sense of safety and support for followers,
  • Demonstrating care and kindness,
  • Reinforcing a commitment to the working relationship, and
  • Maintaining an open and approachable posture toward followers.

All of these themes comprise key relational skills that help foster positive leader-follower relationships.

Although leaders at times may like to work in the background simply dealing with systems and structures, engaging organizational members, team members, and direct reports with relational intelligence is vital. How are you nurturing your relational skills? How are you engaging followers with wisdom and a spirit of understanding?


Related Posts for the 9 Effective Leadership Practices:

Cluster One — Beginning with Authentic Leaders

Practice 1: Modeling what Matters

Practice 2: Engaging in Honest Self-Evaluation

Practice 3: Fostering Collaboration

Cluster Two — Understanding the Priority of People

Practice 4: Valuing and Appreciating

Practice 5: Creating a Place for Individuality

Practice 6: Understanding Relational Skills

Cluster Three — Helping Followers Navigate toward Effectiveness

Practice 7: Communicating with Clarity

Practice 8: Supporting and Resourcing

Practice 9: Providing Accountability


Note: For those wanting to dig a bit deeper, please check out my article entitled “A Model for Effective Servant Leadership Practice.”