RLL 32--Inverted Leadership (part 1 of 4)

RLL 32--Inverted Leadership (part 1 of 4)

Starting this week and for the next month, these updates will be excerpts from my upcoming book Inverted Leadership: Lead Others Better By Forgetting About Yourself. The book will be available on June 12th on Amazon, and I hope that you are encouraged, inspired, and challenged by what you read!

From Chapter 1--Confident Humility: Leadership As Service And Art

My father is from a small farm town in Illinois called Paw Paw, with a population of less than 900 people. He was able to go to college at Illinois Wesleyan in the 1960s. A year after he graduated from college, he was drafted to serve in the Vietnam War. After that, he decided to make a career in the military, staying in the army for 20 years, eventually joining the 82nd Airborne, going through Ranger School, and winning numerous medals and commendations, including three Bronze Stars. He finally retired, having attained the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Just before he retired, though, he was up for promotion to the rank of Colonel, which would have been a significant step up in rank, in pay, and in prestige. However, because Dad knew he was planning to retire, he withdrew his name from consideration for the promotion.

This is one of my all-time favorite pictures of Dad, my older daughter, and me. If you can't tell, she's wearing a Cinderella a soccer game. She's not concerned about being judged or laughed at because she didn't know any better, and she was confident in the love of those around her.

This is one of my all-time favorite pictures of Dad, my older daughter, and me. If you can't tell, she's wearing a Cinderella a soccer game. She's not concerned about being judged or laughed at because she didn't know any better, and she was confident in the love of those around her.

I asked him about this later in his life, and I asked him why he chose to withdraw his name. Dad’s answer was an excellent example of what will be called Confident Humility. He simply said, “Because I don’t need to know.” Dad then went on to explain how, though he was curious if he would have been considered worthy of this major promotion, ultimately waiting to see if he got promoted would have been counter-productive to the Army and thus to the country. He admitted it would have been fun to wait and see if he got the promotion. But he also knew that by waiting to be promoted only to then immediately retire from the military would have benefited only himself. Therefore, he chose to go ahead and retire without ever finding out about that promotion. He just didn’t need to know.

That idea of not needing to know is exactly what this entire book is about: this concept of Confident Humility, leading others and serving others without focusing on yourself. It is self-belief that is used in the service of other people. This idea is upside down and backwards, entirely counter-cultural because it is based on what is eternal rather than what is temporal; it is based on Jesus rather than on what is good for us. We often measure success by how much we can accumulate, or how far and quickly we can get promoted--things that are self-focused and self-centered. As a result of that, we have come to a point where there is a gap between what success and leadership are and what they ought to be. This book is an attempt to begin correcting that misunderstanding by helping people rethink leadership based on an eternal perspective, beginning with the concept of Confident Humility.


Can you imagine, especially after the 2016 US Presidential election, a presidential debate that was characterized by true respect between the various candidates, rather than the passive-aggressive insults and insinuations among the candidates (even in the same party)? Can you imagine a politician ever giving a news conference to apologize for something before a scandal has broken, or in order to simply take responsibility for something that was done which he or she has now changed their mind about? Today it seems the only time people take responsibility for negative choices is when they have been outed and are now trying to save their reputation. As the old saying goes, “Success has many parents, but failure is an orphan.”

Again, Confident Humility turns that on its head, saying that our first job is to give respect to other people while taking responsibility for our choices and our actions. Confident Humility focuses on serving other people, creating good relationships between leader and audience, and on building other people up regardless of who gets the credit for accomplishments. When my wife and I got married, her father said something at our wedding about love that I believe also is very applicable in this context. He said, “Love is choosing someone else’s ultimate good over your own.” I believe this is absolutely how leaders ought to operate: by choosing the ultimate good of other people over themselves. The greatest example of this is Jesus, who through love for us and a desire to do the Father’s will, gave Himself up for us on the cross.


From Chapter 2--CEOs or Youth Soccer Coaches: Lead Where You Are

First principle of confident humility: Lead Where You Are

First principle of confident humility: Lead Where You Are

Here’s the truth about leadership: most of us will not be CEOs of multinational corporations with thousands of employees in our charge; most of us won’t be college presidents, responsible for dozens or hundreds of faculty members and hundreds or even thousands of students. Most of us will never be military commanders with soldiers’ lives in our hands; we are unlikely to be professional sports coaches, responsible for managing multi-millionaire athletes and some of their egos. But many of us will be parents, Sunday school teachers, or volunteers in local civic groups. We will be youth soccer coaches, organizers of small drama groups, or helpers at local animal or homeless shelters. Though our audience or organizations may be smaller, we will all be leaders in various ways because we have been called by God to further the ends of His kingdom while we are here on earth. The key is to remember: just because the setting and audience size are smaller, this does not mean that our leadership matters any less. In fact, the smaller our setting and audience, the more important the leadership due to the larger potential impact we can have on each individual within our audience or organization. Think of the person that has impacted your life the most: was it a celebrity or athlete or CEO? For most of us, the person who impacted us the most is someone we spent significant time with in a smaller setting: a teacher, a coach, a youth pastor, a caring adult, or someone similar.

I have an immediate family of four: myself, my wife, and our two daughters. I also have classes averaging twenty students per class, and I have an average of thirty soccer players in my program at any given time. The amount of influence I can have on my wife and daughters far outweighs the influence I can have over each student or soccer player that I have. The smaller the organization, the more influence and impact the leader can have. Thus, the first principle of Confident Humility, LEAD WHERE YOU ARE, means this: every role is either a leadership role or preparation for a future leadership role, so begin leading wherever you are right now.


I hope you liked those two teaser parts from the book! Remember, Inverted Leadership: Lead Others Better By Forgetting About Yourself is coming out on Tuesday, June 12th! If you'd like to read the whole first chapter now, come sign up at, and let me know if you'd like to be part of the launch team. Also, please be sure to share! 

RLL 29--Controlling Emotions and Getting Work Done: Two More Keys to Leading Well

Real Life Leading #29

Controlling Emotions and Getting Word Done: Two More Keys to Leading Well

As with last week, this week I'm sharing more information from my ebook '(Extra)Ordinary Leadership', and I hope that you find the post helpful, engaging, and encouraging. Let me know what you think, and be sure to share with others and sign up to get the first chapter of my upcoming book 'Inverted Leadership', due out in June!

Principle Three: “Choose to be in a good mood every morning—you can control your emotions, or you can be controlled by them.”

As I mentioned in last week's post, Dad was not terribly keen on displaying a whole lot of emotion, and in fact, when I was young, anger was one that I remember seeing more than some others. He was also quick to laugh, and as I stated earlier, I never doubted whether Dad loved me. As I got older, I remember seeing Dad go through a number of life circumstances, both positive and negative, that affected him emotionally. Through all of those situations, what I remember most is that Dad was in control of those emotions.

I was never afraid of Dad’s anger, because I knew that he would not take it out on me in a harmful way. I was also always very aware that few people were quicker to make a silly joke or laugh at a small jest than Dad was. No matter the circumstances, Dad was in control of his emotions, and as I got older, I saw more and more of them. Too many people equate “controlling one’s emotions” with “never displaying one’s emotions.” Those are most certainly not the same thing, and Dad seemed to know this. As with everything else, it was a display of love toward others to control his emotions: because love is more than just a feeling, love can supersede and inform one’s emotions. Dad showed this through not taking out his anger on others, through being kind in difficult situations, and by maintaining an unfailingly positive outlook on life, even when he was suffering from cancer.

Grandfather and granddaughter together--what better reason to choose to be in a good mood every morning?

Grandfather and granddaughter together--what better reason to choose to be in a good mood every morning?

There are a number of events that Dad went through in his life that could have caused emotions to run high and for those emotions to cause lasting damage to those around him. From losing his parents at a younger age than most, to fighting in the Vietnam War, to struggling with finding work after retiring from the military, Dad saw his share of difficult situations and yet maintained a positive outlook, because for Dad, having a positive outlook and attitude was simply part of his lifestyle, part of his being.

According to his own testimony before he died, Dad learned much about integrity from his mother and father. This is especially striking when one considers that Dad lost his mother, Olive Merriman Hawbaker, when he was a senior in high school. At a time when students are either gearing up for college or to enter the workforce, Dad, his older brother Joe, and their father were trying to figure out how to manage their lives while missing a key component, namely, their beloved wife and mother. Later, while Dad was in the military and stationed overseas, he got word that his father had also passed away. On top of these things, Dad had been drafted to fight in the Vietnam War just a year after he had graduated from college. During his eighteen months in Vietnam, Dad saw combat and was awarded three Bronze Star medals, along with numerous other commendations. After all of these things, it would not have been a surprise to find a surly, or at least bitter, adult. But that is not the father that I knew.

Rather than allow these negative and difficult events define him, Dad chose to look at the positive side of things. There can be no positive spin on losing one’s parents, but Dad chose to focus on the fact that his parents had taught him about hard work and integrity. Dad related stories about his father working through the winters--each winter taking apart one of the three family tractors and its engine, cleaning the pieces, and reassembling everything so the tractor would be ready to work again in the spring. He talked about his mom’s side of the family and how they were very musically gifted, going so far as to have a family band. Dad even had one of the now antique instruments that had been used by his family, as well as an old photograph proudly displaying the “Merriman Family Band.”

Instead of focusing on the horrors and challenges presented by fighting in Vietnam and the social stigma often associated with that even after retirement, Dad looked back on his time in the military fondly. He had not enlisted, but rather he was drafted during the heart of the Vietnam War, and because of his college degree he was able to go to Officer Training School. Until he was near death, he did not tell many stories of his time in Vietnam, but he did tell stories about being stationed in Germany and in Korea, about traveling to Australia and Alaska, and about the many great people with whom he served. On one occasion, he said, “I was just a farm boy who was able to serve with some really great soldiers.”

He spoke about the beautiful locations he was able to see because of the military, and he even was grateful that the military had allowed him the opportunity to pursue and complete a graduate degree, receiving his master’s degree from the University of Georgia. Because of that, he was able to teach at the college level at both the University of Pittsburgh and at Jacksonville State University. Any of these things would be amazing accomplishments, but taken altogether one realizes that he was able to do these things because he chose to focus on what he could do, rather than focusing on what he had lost, and on controlling his emotions rather than being controlled by them.

Action Step: Today, choose to focus on the positives in your world, and then see what a difference it makes when you run into negative circumstances.

Principle Four: “If there is work to do, do it—no excuses or reasons to avoid it—get it done.”

In a world that seems to always be in a hurry, it also often feels that there is never enough time to get everything done, especially for those of us who are gifted at the art of procrastination. This habit of mine was one that probably frustrated Dad the most, whether it was procrastinating in my school work, in regard to my chores, or in any other area. I believe this is because—with the exception of annually doing his taxes, which he put off until the last possible moment every year—Dad was always committed to getting done whatever needed to be done in as timely a manner as possible. This issue was treated not just as a good idea but as a personal trait without which every other trait lost a little bit of value; that is, whatever good you are capable of, the most good will be done by doing what needs to be done first.

To not fulfill one’s obligations would have been unthinkable, not even an option worthy of consideration. But the manner and timeliness with which one completed one’s tasks also mattered; procrastination was not acceptable. And perhaps the only way to worsen the habit of procrastination was to start to make excuses for why you had failed to get your work done. No matter the excuses given, they were unfailingly inadequate: the bottom line was whether or not you did what you were supposed to when you were supposed to, and anything short of that was not okay.

I do not have any memories of this being required in a way that caused resentment, and as I reread the preceding paragraphs, I feel it is important to make that clear, because I could see how they might come across in a way that implied a type of authoritarianism or even a tyranny in how Dad related to us, and so I want to make clear that this was not the case. He expected us to get done what was required of us, and he expected us to do so within a proper time frame, and failure to do so always carried consequences. I believe this is a result of various aspects of Dad’s life experiences, from growing up on a farm in rural Illinois to serving in the military for much of his adult life including seeing time in combat and overseas, all of which are situations that required him to get things done well and on time.

Last year's state championship game ended in a 4-0 loss for us. Some days at work are better than others, but choosing to celebrate the good (rather than be angry at our loss) is one way to make sure that it was still an enjoyable evening.

Last year's state championship game ended in a 4-0 loss for us. Some days at work are better than others, but choosing to celebrate the good (rather than be angry at our loss) is one way to make sure that it was still an enjoyable evening.

One of the things I most remember about Dad is that he was always telling me to get done with the difficult tasks first, or to accomplish a task in such a way that the more difficult aspects were taken care of first, thus making the entire task easier. For example, when loading a dishwasher, Dad always started loading from the back, so that as the dishwasher racks got full, he did not have to reach over the dishes already put in there before he could put more in. When carrying a series of items from one place to another (e.g. when unloading a moving truck), he always made the new stack of items at the farthest point in the unloading area, so that instead of each trip getting a little longer, each subsequent trip was actually a little shorter. When working on a multi-step project such as writing a paper or putting together a presentation for school, he encouraged me to do all of the difficult research first before I began to do anything else, so that I would not have to break the flow of the work to go do more research.

All of these habits have served me well in my adult life, as they were so impressed upon me that I continue to follow them. In my job as a teacher, I assign many tests which require the students to write essays. Due to the size of my classes, this means that I often end up with upwards of one hundred essays to grade for a single test. Knowing how wearisome that task can become, before I grade the essays, I take a few moments to look through them, arranging them in order from the longest essays to the shortest, so that when I am growing tired or frustrated or simply weary of grading, it is encouraging to know that the task will grow easier all the while. By the time I am nearly through, I have gotten to the shortest and thus often the easiest essays to grade, rather than grading these first and leaving myself with the longest and often the most difficult and complex essays to grade at the end.

This principle also held true when Dad would have us help out at school or church events, which often required us to set up many folding chairs and collapsible tables for banquets, church dinners, award ceremonies, and the like. Wherever the chairs and tables were stored, he would always encourage us to begin setting up the tables at the far end so that every table after that required a bit less carrying and thus a bit less time; same with the chairs. Then when it was time to break these things back down, we would again start at the back, so that as the task neared completion, the task also became easier due to the decreased distance. This may seem like a small thing, but I have continued to see its benefits in many areas of my life, from helping my daughters with school projects to taking care of things around a soccer field.

Dad grew up on a small family farm in a small town in Illinois called Paw Paw. When I first visited there as a child in the 1980s, the population was under 900 people, and the population was still under 900 when I visited there again in the summer of 2016. The local public school was the only high school in town, and it graduated classes of twelve to fifteen people most years. There were few paved roads, little in the way of public entertainment venues, one gas station, and a general store. The town was, however, full of very friendly and very hard-working people, many of whom are part of my extended family. Most people in town lived on or worked for the local farms or in the local mill/processing center. Thus Dad grew up surrounded by people for whom hard work was a natural way of life and not even something to be remarked upon.

As a child, I remember disliking the chores my parents required me to do: occasional vacuuming, washing dishes, cutting the yard, washing cars, doing laundry, cleaning my room, and other usual chores suburban children have to do. However, as I got older and heard bits and pieces about Dad’s childhood, I began to understand that, despite the seemingly-facetious nature in which he told stories about “Waking up at 4am to feed the chickens and milk the cows before heading to school,” there was a large element of truth in them. He really did have to get up and do those chores long before the sun came up, and he really did have other chores to accomplish when he got home after a day of school and then baseball or basketball practice. And as I learned those things, I began to be more and more grateful for my own relatively comfortable and easy lifestyle.

As a result of learning about Dad’s past, I also began to see that Dad’s habits of hard work were not things relegated to the past: rather, the habits he learned from growing up on a farm had prepared him to continue to work hard as an adult, both in the military and after retirement.

Action Step: Take the hardest task you have to complete today, and get it done first so that the rest of the day is easier.

RLL 20--Church Camp and Yellow Card: Difficult Conversations and Leadership

Church Camp and Yellow Card:

Difficult Conversations

This past weekend was a busy one in the Hawbaker household: one daughter had a Friday night soccer game followed by a weekend-long church camp. The other daughter had a basketball tournament all day Saturday, and my wife’s family was celebrating Chinese New Year (her brother’s family adopted a young girl from China a couple years ago, and so this has become a new family tradition). In addition to all of those things, my soccer team had a tournament as well, and so I was busy coaching most of the weekend.

After the rush ended this morning, I was reflecting on the various events, and in doing so I was struck by one common theme that came up for me which has a direct bearing on leadership: difficult conversations and why they are necessary. For me, there were three such talks that particularly stood out this weekend: one conversation with my daughter, one with a referee, and one with an opposing coach. What they all had in common was that they were focused on topics that make me uneasy, or which required me to accept responsibility for things I had done poorly. But, after having engaged in all three of them I also came away realizing that each situation was better because of having had those conversations.

The first conversation was with my daughter on Friday afternoon, and it was admittedly the least difficult of the three. She is almost fourteen years old, and the topic of the conversation was about friends and boys and young teenage relationships in general. I have never been a fan of my daughters growing up, mostly because I remember being a teenage boy and thus am familiar with how they think. I also know that, no matter what I do, the girls will grow up; and so, I know the best thing is to continue having these difficult conversations, even when they make me uncomfortable.

Hanging out with the daughters on a fun afternoon

Hanging out with the daughters on a fun afternoon

Thankfully, my older daughter is very open with me when we talk: she tells me about the boy she likes, and she tells me how her friends tease her about it. She tells me about how the other boys in her group of friends give her a hard time and make her face turn red. And she tells me how excited she gets when she sees the particular boy that she likes. All of these things make me varying degrees of uncomfortable, for different reasons: it’s hard that she’s growing up, and I want to protect her from teasing and from heartache, and yet I know that those are situations that she mostly will have to learn to navigate on her own.

Thus, as her father, the best thing I can do is to try to provide guidance so that when she is faced with various situations she is as prepared as possible to make good decisions. As a leader, this is what we must do in our various contexts, whether at home at work or in a volunteer position. When there is a difficult issue, I know that many times the easiest option is to ignore it and hope that it works itself out, but I also know from experience that that rarely occurs. Thus it becomes necessary to have these conversations in order to facilitate a better environment or culture for the group. In this case, the goal of having these talks with my older daughter is to help her make decisions that are good for her in both the short term and the long term.

The other two conversations revolved around my soccer tournament this weekend. During our Friday night game, the play was very physical and rather heated, and I became concerned that players might get hurt. In my frustration I purposely yelled in such a way as to force the referee to issue me a yellow card, which (for those who are unfamiliar with soccer terminology) is an official warning and type of rebuke. If a coach or player receives two in the same game, he or she is ejected and cannot return. In addition to that, while things were still heated, I had a verbal exchange with the opposing coach, which almost never goes well. He responded in kind, and both of us came across looking rather immature and setting a poor example for our players. Those mistakes were actually the easier parts of the situation.

The hard part was that when the game ended Friday night, I felt unsettled about the whole situation. I knew I had behaved poorly and that I needed to attempt to reconcile those situations. So I went to the referee and I apologized for yelling the way I had. I still didn’t agree with her decisions, nor did I appreciate how she approached the situation. However, the truth of the matter is that, as the referee, her decisions are the ones that matter; my opinion is merely my opinion, and it makes no difference in her decision-making. As I told my team afterward, I had treated her merely as a referee, and in doing so I failed to treat her as a person who is refereeing.

The same thing was true in my exchange with the opposing coach. I unconsciously ceased to view him as a person, instead viewing him as just an opponent, and when I did that I allowed my frustration to get the better of me. However, I also knew that after the game I was still not in a great frame of mind to try to apologize, and so I waited and then went and found him in between games on Saturday. We talked, we both apologized and shook hands, and I believe we both went away from the exchange feeling better. He admitted that he hadn’t taken my words personally, that he knew it was all in the heat of competition, and I appreciated his honesty. We still didn’t agree about the game or some of the calls, but now we were disagreeing cordially, as opposed to disagreeing angrily. And the difference there is crucial to leadership.

Disagreements that become personal often become elevated very quickly, and then the disagreement often morphs into personal attacks rather than just a disagreement about an external situation. We also observe this in family life, when what started as a disagreement over what television channel to watch turns into a name-calling fest where feelings and relationships are damaged.

In sports, as in life, it’s very easy to forget that people are people, and so we often treat workers as workers rather than as people who are working at a particular job. Think of the hotel clerks, waiters, or cashiers that we have all seen mistreated by irritable customers (and remember that sometimes we are those irritable customers). In family situations we often allow our emotions to get the best of us and we resort to personal attacks, using hurtful names or bringing up often irrelevant past wrongs simply for the sake of ‘winning’ an argument. (Does that ever really happen? There’s a chapter about that topic in my book coming out this summer!)

But when we remember that people are people, and we try to treat them with the respect that all humans deserve, it makes us more humble. When I’m angry about a referee’s call, I need to be reminded that the referee’s decision matters more than mine; that’s not always fun or even fair, but it’s still true. And how often do we say that sort of things to children and young people? “Life’s not fair.” It’s true for adults, too, though we often tend to forget it in our pride. As leaders, we cannot afford to let our pride cause us to dehumanize people, though this will happen to all of us. And when others dehumanize us and attack us, we must have the maturity and humility not to respond on kind. On the occasions when we have failed at both of those, as we inevitably will, may God grant us the humility and grace to go back and apologize and seek forgiveness, in the name of restoring good relationships.

Action Step: What difficult conversation do you need to have with someone in your circle? Ask yourself why you have been avoiding having it, and then decide if it’s worth it to continue putting it off.