The Flourishing Culture Podcast Series
“The Soft Skills Every Leader Needs“
January 20, 2020
Dr. Gene Habecker
Intro: Are you looking for ways to improve your leadership effectiveness? Today, our special guest, with 35 years of CEO experience, outlines four ways to improve the softer side of your leadership.
Female: This is the Flourishing Culture Podcast. Here’s your host, president of the Best Christian Workplaces Institute, Al Lopus.
Al Lopus: Welcome to another episode of the Flourishing Culture Podcast, where our goal is to equip and inspire you to build a flourishing workplace. We are here to help you eliminate workplace distrust, improve your employees’ experience, and grow your organization’s impact. And before we meet our special guest today, I urge you to subscribe to this podcast. As a result, you’ll receive our action guide. It’s our gift to help you lead your organization’s culture to the next level. To subscribe, simply go to bcwinstitute.org/podcast. Hit the Subscribe button, and receive our free action guide.
Also, if you could share this podcast with others, and rate it, it would really mean a lot to me. Thank you.
And now, let’s meet today’s special guest.
Dr. Gene Habecker is the senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, focused on leadership development and capacity building. He’s also the president emeritus of Taylor University and an adjunct professor in the PhD Leadership program at Capital University and Graduate School, as well as the former president and CEO of the American Bible Society. He’s the author of The Softer Side of Leadership: Essential Soft Skills That Transform Leaders and the People They Lead.
Gene, we’re so glad that you can be here with us.
Gene Habecker: Oh, it’s a joy to be with you, Al.
Al: You know, Gene, you and I met, probably close to 20 years ago, when you were the president of the American Bible Society. And then later, when you were the president at Taylor, we served together on the board of the Christian Leadership Alliance.
Gene: I think one of the joys, Al, of boardship in our workplace is the joy of getting to meet new people, and I still have relationships with a lot of those men and women that we served with. And the blessing was mine that we had a chance to get acquainted during that board tenure on the CLA board.
Al: Yeah. That was great.
Gene, I’m really looking forward to talking about your book and how it can help inspire our listeners, which is really our vision. And before we do that, I’ve got a question I’ve been wanting to ask you. Given all the opportunity you’ve had to serve in CEO roles—and, I mean, for 35 years, two university presidencies and the American Bible Society, plus chairing both global and national boards—I’m curious. What’s one distinguishing trait of Christian leadership that you feel called to learn, treasure, and demonstrate along the way?
Gene: That’s a really great question, Al. As I think about that, there is a lot of ways I can answer it, but this is probably where I land on this point. And it’s this: that leadership is more about the people you serve than it ever is about you, the leader. Simon Sinek has this wonderful book that our colleague John Pierson introduced to us called Leaders Eat Last. And in that book, he tells this wonderful story of the ceramic cup versus the Styrofoam cup. And I’d encourage listeners to look that up. You can easily find it on the Web, the story of the ceramic cup.
But we want the ceramic cup. We as leaders want to hold onto what we think is important, the perks, that benefits. But leaders really need to focus not on the ceramic cup; they need to focus on the Styrofoam cup, as Sinek talks about it. And that is the people that they’re privileged to steward and serve. And one of the scripture versus that comes to my mind here comes from Second Samuel, chapter 5 and verse 12, where the text goes something like this: David knew that the Lord had made him king of Israel and that He had made him a powerful ruler—and here it is—for the good of the people. And that’s what leaders often get wrong. They think leadership is about them. It’s never about them. It’s about the people you serve, and it’s for their good and for their benefit that we’re entrusted with those very important positions of responsibility and authority.
Al: Jesus really turned it upside down when He talked about the importance of service. And it’s not about what the leader gets or rank has its privilege, but it’s about the importance of service, isn’t it.
Gene: Absolutely, absolutely.
Al: Yeah. You know, certainly you’ve brought a wealth of insights, lessons, and biblical truth to this book, The Softer Side of Leadership. What motivated you, Gene, at the beginning to write the book?
Gene: My wife, Mary Lou, and I have had, for a variety of years, an emerging mission, or vision, in our lives, and it was to help develop a new generation of global kingdom leaders. So how do you do that? You think about that from a variety of perspectives. And one of the things that we really considered was, you know what, we need to share what it is that we’ve been learning all during our 35 years in CEO roles that might help the next generation understand better what leadership involves. And so the idea of the book began to emerge as we began to think about that. And I think that’s part of a responsibility that a leader has is to give back and to share the learnings that you get in your own experience rather than to hang on to it yourself. And that really was a significant motivation to write the book.
Al: Gene, you start your book out saying that hard skills, while necessary, are not sufficient to meet all the expectations of effective organizational leadership. And for a man with four university degrees, including a law degree, what brought you to focus on the need for soft skills? You know, you’ve worked hard on the hard skills, but what brought about this need for soft skills?
Gene: I’ll give you a pretty simple answer there: experience and bad decisions. You’re right. I did start my leadership journey with not a lot of attention to the importance of soft skills. In fact, if truth be told, I probably didn’t think highly of those who were really championing the soft stuff. I focused on the rational, the analytic, the strategic parts of leadership, and that that’s really the most important thing.
I’ll give you an example here of how I became aware of the importance of soft skills. I was in a presidency. This is an early time in my leadership journey. And we had very extensive interviews for a senior level of leader of my team or our team. And so, you go through two or three days of interviews, you get all the background, you get all the scores. I had people rate these people on a scale of one to five, like five had knocked the ball out of the park; one, don’t even think about an offer; so on and so forth. And so I had all the quantitative stuff down. And so clearly there was a candidate that emerged as the favorite one.
And so as our experience was, we’d invite that person and spouse to our home for dinner, and then we had dinner, and they’d go home. And I looked to my wife, Mary Lou, and I’d say, “But what do you think?” And without batting an eye, she would say, “That person isn’t going to work out.” And it really frustrated me. Like, wait a minute. How can you say that? Because we’d had these two or three days of quantitative this and analytic this and strategic discussions here. And then over dinner, you see something and you say, “I don’t think that person’s going to work out.” And she was right. Two years later, I had to release the person.
And then it happened again. And two years later, I had to release a person. I go, “Okay, there’s something going on here that I’m not getting as a leader.” And it was how you relate to people. All of the things that I talk about in the book, when looking back, were just missing from those people. And she saw that because she’s really strong in the area of soft skills. And I was totally missing it. So she was the one in some of those types of experiences that really began to teach me that there’s more to effective leadership than just mastery of hard skills.
Again, I want to say this: hard skills are important in leadership—we talk about that in the book—but they’re not enough. And it’s when you get the right combination of hard skills with the soft skills that I think you have the chance to be a much more effective leader and a much healthier enterprise or organization.
Al: Gosh, that’s a great story, Gene. And it points out, first of all, a great process in interviewing, which I know a lot of our readers and listeners do a lot of, and that is to have the candidate and their spouse come to dinner and see them in a different situation. That’s very insightful.
You divide the book into two sections, and I’ve really appreciated this. First of all, section one was soft skills, the personal dimension. And then number two, soft skills, the organizational dimension. So what’s the distinction between the two kinds of soft skills, and how do both the leader and the organization benefit from the two types?
Gene: Let me approach it this way. First of all, I define soft skills something like this: a collection of primarily—and here’s the key word—qualitative skills—behaviors, practices and habits and disciplines and attitudes—that characterize how people interact and behave with one another. In other words, you’ve heard people say it’s all about relationships, and that’s a simplistic way of saying it. But in the organizational dimension, relationships are really important.
And interestingly enough, Al, just within the last month, McKinsey Consulting released another excellent publication called How to Develop Soft Skills. And their definition is very similar to the one I just shared with you, that I used in the book. They’re commonly defined, says McKinsey, as non-technical skills that enable someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with others. And there are dozens and dozens and dozens of soft skills. So there’s far more soft skills than what I talk about in the book. But all of them get to the point of how we work together in a harmonious and effective way to respect one another, to love one another, to learn from one another, to achieve what we’re trying to accomplish now.
So in the first part of the book, what I’ve tried to do is to identify five soft skills that I think are essential, that have to be mastered personally by every leader. And I don’t care what your role is; where you’re serving, whether it’s in the for-profit business community or the not-for-profit Christian ministry or in a church; I think leaders have to get this right personally. I’m saying a transformational difference. And those five things are, first of all, the need to protect sacred space and to enable deep thinking. And we can talk more about these, but that’s the first one. And then, I think, to make sure your leadership is built on the right kind of foundation. And again, every chapter unpacks this. And here, I think it’s important to say at this point, part of what I mean by that, of having the right foundation, is that you go into your leadership assignment with the heart of a shepherd and the attitude of a servant. And again, there’s all kinds of biblical references we could use to illustrate that. The third soft skill is that you need to engage in self—leaders need to engage in self-discovery learning. We’ll talk more about that in a minute. And then I think the fourth one that I talk about is the need to stay connected, not just to your head, but also to your heart. And then the last thing is leaders need to take care of themselves personally. And that’s what I call fitness self-renewal. Now, every leader, I think, needs to focus in some way on at least those five soft skills and get good at it, in terms of how they build those things into their leadership.
The second part of the book, as you point out, really, now, basically says, okay, now, organizationally, what are the soft skills that I think help organizations survive the difficult moments? And here, I’ve identified six. One is organizations need to understand and celebrate creativity. If all you’re doing is what you’ve done the last 20 years, you’re probably not going to make it as an enterprise. You’ve got to be reinvigorated, regenerating, rethinking. You need to be a source of innovation. You need new ideas in order to move into the future, and I think creativity helps speak to that. And I’ve thought about, which is the most important of these? But boy, this next one, the importance of embedding trust in an enterprise, I cannot tell you how important that is, and we’ll have a chance to talk about that later. They need to have accountability. Who can say no to you and make it stick? There are a lot of leaders that don’t like accountability, except to themselves. They don’t necessarily like to be accountable to their boards or to the people they serve. And I’m saying that is an essential soft skill that can help make the organization better if a leader practices that. This whole idea of forgiveness. Walter Wright, who is the principal at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, really helped bring this to light for me. The importance of having an attitude of forgiveness—and we’ll talk more about that in a few minutes—the leader-follower dynamic, most leaders don’t understand that they’re not always leading. You’re constantly going through this dynamic, almost like you breathe in and you breathe out. Leaders lead and leaders follow and followers lead and then followers follow. I mean, the dynamic that is so important here, we’re recognizing that, yeah, I might hold the position of authority, but in this situation, I need to let my staff, who know far more about this issue, take the lead and advise us on what are the best ways forward. And then, of course, I think the last one is the importance of love, which is surprisingly a value, a soft skill, that a lot of Christian organizations don’t practice or believe in. So I think those are the six organizational, I call them soft-skill competencies, that I think organizations need to excel at.
Al: Well, I really appreciate the way you identify those: personal and the organizational. And what a great way to reflect on—I’m just looking at the personal ones—the sacred space; the right attitude, and that is of a shepherd; self-discovery—just great topics to focus on in our own lives.
Early in the book, you tell the truth about today’s workplace culture. You mention a quote from Emilie Rusch, “A total of 58 percent of hiring managers across the U.S. said that the lack of soft skills among job seekers was ‘limiting their company’s productivity.’” Now, is productivity the only thing that an organization stands to lose when a leader has room to improve, to say it nicely, and develop soft skills?
Gene: I think productivity, Al, involves a lot of things. For example, I think it includes, to my way of thinking, organizational delivery of mission or purpose. And here, I think of organizations like Southwest Airlines or Chick-fil-A, where their focus is not necessarily on the output of productivity. Their focus is on serving their people and helping their people flourish in the workplace. So I think productivity, in my view, is not the end of an enterprise. As I said earlier on, David realized he’d been made king for the good of the people. I think the good at the people needs to be our focus, and if we do that in the right way—that includes helping people practice and get to know soft skills, having healthier and flourishing staff colleagues—I think that results in less stress, greater organizational clarity. Patrick Lencioni talks about that very necessity of having greater organizational clarity, and it results in better communication, improves mutual trust, and the like, and I think those are the reasons productivity improves. It’s not just making productivity—improve productivity is your end goal. Improved productivity is the outcome that results from the practice of healthy soft skills.
Al: Yeah. And I like it when you say it’ll have people flourish in the workplace. That’s a wonderful thing. It does create productivity in the end, for sure.
Gene: I like to tell people in leadership, it’s something like this. You know, when people retire from your enterprise, what is it that you like to hear them say? And one of the things that I always like to hear people say, obviously, is, hey, I really felt I was able to make a great contribution to this enterprise over these 10, 15, 20, 25 years, and I’m grateful for having had that opportunity. If that’s all they say, I’m going to be disappointed. What I also want to hear them say is something like this. I can’t believe how much I’ve grown as a person because I’ve been at this place. So it’s not just, what can they do for the enterprise? It’s what can the enterprise do for them? And I think that contributes to this flourishing culture that dramatically impacts productivity in the final analysis.
Al: Your thoughtfulness and candor really are helping to till the soil, and let’s go just a little deeper. We both know that leaders can get so busy they don’t feel they can catch their breath. And we’ve seen leaders, and we’ve probably felt that ourselves. But I can attest to this. In the book, you write about creating a sacred space. And so what’s the sacred space all about, and why is it so vital today for anyone who wants to grow as a leader?
Gene: You’ve raised a great question here. And you’ll notice that on my list of five soft skills that you have to embrace personally, I put that right at the very front, and that was intentional. Well, first of all, here’s how I define sacred space. I define sacred space this way: it’s a place where boundaries are placed in a way that allows refocusing of the mind and soul on a transcendent agenda—obviously, God’s work. In other words, the key there is you’ve got to have boundaries. If you go into a sacred-space experience with your cell phone on and available, your laptop, and your iPad and everything else and all your technology, it’s not going to be a sacred-space moment. One of the things that happens, I think, in that sacred-space moment, it becomes a place where we are made more aware of the extraordinary presence of God in our lives, and then the work that He’s called us to do.
This is something that I think Jesus illustrated for us. And this is, as I began to study the scriptures, this is how this became clear. Jesus would be—He fed the crowd of the 5,000 men, plus women and children, five loaves and two fish. And was his response to say, bring it on? I mean, He removed Himself and went to a quiet place to be alone and to pray. You say to yourself, wait a minute. Here is the Person who said if you’ve seen Me, you’ve seen the Father. I and the Father are one. I can do nothing apart from the Father. So here is the Son of God personified, saying, I need to get away to a quiet place to be alone to commune with My Father. And I’m going, oh my gosh. If He has to say that, how much more do I need to do that in my own life, simply to make sure that I’m doing the kinds of things that He’s calling me to do in my leadership.
One of the things that I see that leaders do—and I talk about this in the book—leaders sometimes focus more on everything that needs to be done than they focus on, what is it that God has called them to do in their leadership? John 17:4 says it this way. Lord, I have given you glory by completing everything You gave me to do. Now, the first time I read that verse, Mary Lou looked at me and said, “What do you think of it?” I go, “I just have to be better organized and more effective because I focus on the words ‘he completed everything.’” And she looked at me as only a wife can look at a husband and say, “You missed the whole point of the verse. Read it again.” So this time I read it. Lord, I’ve given you glory by completing everything You gave me to do.
And most leaders—I don’t want to say most leaders—many leaders had no idea of what it is that God has called them to do in their leadership assignment, because they’ve never taken the time to get alone and experience this sacred space, either before they arrived or even during the process of being in that role, of hearing that voice from God say, go this way, not that way; or do this, not that; drop this, embrace this. And I think that sacred space allows us to be centered. It allows us to be focused in better ways than I am if I’m simply caught up in the torrent of the operational Niagras, that constantly overflow our office desks and the enterprises we lead. And so I think this is a fundamentally important requisite for effective leadership.
It also allows time, obviously, for deep thinking and for meditation, again, which often is something leaders don’t have the time to do. You know, we skim at the surface. We’re an inch deep and a mile wide, in terms of our thought processes. And I think that’s how organizations get lost, because their leaders get lost in maybe unfocused agenda or misplaced priorities.
Al: I love what you’re saying here, and I’ll share a personal example later. But tell us a story of what sacred space looks like for you, and how you’ve changed as a leader, and particularly a follower of Jesus, in this process.
Gene: Well, let me say, first of all, a sacred space can mean different things to different people. I’ve heard it referred to as a thin space, where there’s almost nothing separating you between really being able to breathe in the Spirit. Bill Bright was a friend when he was alive, and he talked about spiritual breathing. And that’s obviously a very important sense here. But I have found that there are multiple ways that somebody can experience sacred space. You may go off for a period of three, four, five days, just to be alone. I had a friend who, every year, as part of his annual spiritual disciplines, he would go off into the woods by himself for two weeks to hear God’s voice.
I think you can have short sacred-space experiences. When I was in New York, for example, there was a beautiful church right across the street. And I would go over there, maybe, say, for a two-hour period. And if you can quiet the soul and tune out the noise, that two hours might just be a blessed time. One of the ones that I did at George Fox in Oregon is that Mary Lou and I were trying to figure out if I should go to grad school, and if so, where we should go to grad school. And so George Fox had this place called Camp Tilikum, out away from the main campus, out in the woods, so to speak, with A-frames and overlooking lakes and Douglas firs and beautiful blue skies. And I went out there for a full day with just my Bible—this was before cell phones—just with my Bible and a legal pad, and laid myself, if you will, I mean, literally in this very small A-frame, probably 10 square feet, and said, “Lord, I need to hear Your voice today.” And by the end of the day, interestingly enough, I did.
I mean, so there are a variety ways to do it. But the importance here is boundaries, that you’re shutting down your phone, you’re shutting down your technology, and you’re focusing. And I think it’s the expectation that I want to hear, I need to hear a voice from the Lord today. I’m not necessarily talking about literally you hear the voice, but a clear sense of God is speaking, and I’m having the sense that I need to go this way. It’s what the scripture says. Listen to that still small voice that says, here’s the way, walk here. And that’s what I’m talking about. And to create the opportunity within which that can happen, and that’ll be different things for different people.
It’s interesting enough on my story on grad school, you’ll get a kick out of this. Mary Lou did the very same thing, and we both came to different positions. And so we had to work through that as a couple. Whose voice were we listening to? And how to sort that out.
But we did that as a couple and found that really, really refreshing, because what we also learned out of that—and this is very important for leadership—is that God’s Spirit doesn’t lead people who are committed to Him in opposite and divisive directions. We may disagree, but we disagree agreeably. And that’s why, just as an aside, that’s why leaders need to be in touch with their people, because if they’re servants of God, the Spirit’s not going to say one thing to the people and a different thing to the leader, because the Spirit is not a divided Spirit. And I think sacred space—back to sacred space—helps us remember that and focus now on, “All right, God. What are You saying to me now?”
My problem, Al, to be perfectly blunt, is that even when I pull myself away, it takes me time. One of the things that Anne Morrow Lindbergh said in one of her books is “The problem is not entirely finding a room of one’s own; the time alone, difficult and necessary as that is. The problem is how to still the soul in the midst of its activities.” And I’m sure you’ve been there. I know I’ve been there multiple times. I can get alone, but my head is spinning with all the things I need to be working on and all the issues I’ve got to be addressing and all of the things coming down the pike. And that stillness of the soul is so critical to getting the blessing of sacred space, and leaders need to work at that for it to be the blessing, I think, and a source of guidance and really Holy Spirit enablement that results.
Al: Yeah, I can relate to that. It’s interesting. I just got back from four days—this is around the first of the year when we’re recording this—just got back from four days at a Benedictine monastery. And you’d laugh. First of all, I’m thinking, “Okay, boy, I’ve got four days. And okay, I’m going to finish my annual planning for myself personally. And then, I’ve got some books I’m reading that will help me with a strategy for the Best Christian Workplaces over the next couple of years.” And then, I was reading Ruth Haley Martin’s book on retreat. And she coached me, as you’ve just said, no, no, don’t do any of that. Don’t even take it with you, because what you want to do is have a real refreshing and a time where you are able to reflect on the presence of God and experience the presence of God. And I found that day one, I got closer; day two was even better; but, boy, the afternoon of day three for me was really the most rich time. It was really a great experience, no question about that.
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Al: All right. Now, let’s hear more from today’s guest.
Gene: That’s a great, great illustration of exactly what the sacred-space experience needs to be about. Now, there’re probably some people hearing our voices who are going to be skeptical and say that’s a waste of time, all right? To a certain person, it might be. But let me give you a practical reason, a pragmatic reason, why leaders need to engage in sacred space. I have found that sacred space is often a place where vision is birthed and new ideas are generated, which often lead to the salvation of the enterprise. And if you don’t take time for sacred space, for all of the other reasons you and I have been talking about, there is a pragmatic reason to consider, because I’ve experienced that in my own life, where I’ve got a new vision or a new idea out of that alone time, where I’ve had new insights or new direction or new ways of wrestling with a problem that I never really thought about before. Plus, what it does, those sacred-space experiences provide is a sense where you truly get a sense of the awesomeness of God as being big enough to wrestle or handle any problem a leader has. And too often we lose that perspective. We focus on what we have to do. And of course, we have to do something. We have a role to play. But, I mean, whether it’s the Egyptians barreling down on the Israelis and they’re facing the Red Sea, or whatever our contemporary problem is in 2020,God is big enough and more than big enough for it. And we simply need to take time to be aware of that and experience that reality in our own lives.
Al: Exactly. Well, we could talk about this for a long time. But there’s another thought here, another point that you bring up in your book that I think is really worthwhile to talk about. And while reading the book, you highlight the importance of self-discovery and that our colleagues play a huge role in a leader’s self-discovery over time. And you mention the importance of leaders surrounding themselves with people who can give honest feedback—you’ve already mentioned that—even embracing 360 reviews. We’re big fans of 360 reviews at BCWI. But why should leaders embrace the idea of feedback, and particularly in the sense of confidential 360 reviews?
Gene: I’m going to start with a quote from a famous former professor at Harvard University by the name of Chris Argyris. I mean, his books are famous in the literature of business. And here’s what Chris Argyris just said about himself: what was relevant was how unaware I had been, and that’s what got me started learning more about myself and my blind spots.
Every leader has blind spots. Most of us are unaware of what they are and how they impact the enterprise. And here’s the tragedy—many leaders are reluctant to try to find out what they are and to do something about it, and they just drag them forward. So I think one of the real advantages of 360s is that you get that kind of feedback that really makes a difference in terms of my being able to lead more effectively.
Now, one of the terms that is big in the literature of leadership is the whole idea of emotional intelligence, and we all subscribe to the idea of emotional intelligence. And yes, it’s not just this kind of intellectual intelligence, but we want to be emotionally intelligent, etc.. But interesting enough, Al, the first two components of emotional intelligence had to do with self-understanding. The first one is self-awareness. The second one is self-regulation, being able to control yourself, your emotions, your anger, etc. And this is really what 360 can help leaders learn. I know a lot of leaders who’ve said something like this to me, “If they want me to be the president, they will not ask me to do a 360, because I hate 360s.” I mean, I’ve heard that.
Al: Yeah, absolutely.
Gene: I mean, in significant positions of leadership. And my question is, why? Why would you not want to know about the thorn that’s in your foot or the way you rub people the wrong way with your attitudes or your comments or a whole host of things? And I think the whole idea of effective leadership is that you are a leader that is constantly involved—I call it leadership self-discovery in the book—where you are constantly learning more about yourself, you’re learning more about your enterprise, where you work and serve, and it might be also book knowledge or new degrees. But that learning has got to be continuous and ongoing because you’re not the same person you were 10 years ago. I’m not the same person I was 10 years ago. And how have I changed, and how does that work itself out in the workplace? So, yeah, I think 360s are a critical part of getting to where Chris Argyris talks about, is understanding the blind spots that I have, and our staff will be willing to help us to do that and help us learn those things.
And I think here’s the other thing that I think is really, really important, is that leaders who commit to learning about themselves in this way actually improve as leaders, and they usually end up evoking from their teams more authenticity, more honesty, and more humility in their leadership. All counterintuitive but I think so necessary in this whole area of effective leadership.
Al: You mentioned authenticity, honesty, humility, and that really leads into the topic of building trust. And you spend a fair amount of time also—and you really nail it in your book. You write trust is the glue that holds organizations together. And our research shows that, over the years, working with 1,000 different Christian-led organizations. In your experience, how can leaders build trust? That’s the question that we oftentimes get. How can leaders build trust within their organizations?
Gene: Let me give two or three ideas here, as the ways leaders can build trust. First thing I would say is leaders need to make sure that they have relational integrity in their lives. What I mean by that is not only do you work on the relational side of being real and authentic, but you practice in your life what you say is important, that your actions and what you talk and how you live are absolutely congruent. And obviously, character comes into that as well. And there’s a lot of leaders who say the right things, but their actions are 180 degrees removed from what it is that they say. That destroys trust; that does not build trust. So that relational integrity, coupled with good, solid character is really important. Somebody once said it to me this way: most leaders have got to stop talking; they’ve got to start walking and let their feet catch up with their mouths. And I think that’s right. I mean, if you think about it this way, the word listen and silent, both are made up of the very same letters. And yet listening and being silent—one person said it to me this way, don’t speak unless you can improve the silence—a lot of leaders have to learn that as they go forward. That’s part of having relational integrity and good character.
But I think Covey introduces another idea here that builds trust. And specifically, this is in the context of an organization. There must be perceived competence in the leader for trust to take place. And probably, the best example I can give you, I may have a friend who is a very good friend, and there’s relational authenticity and there’s integrity, and he’s a person of good character. But the reputation—that person does not have is being a good surgeon. I would not let that person do surgery. And it’s the combination of relational authenticity, integrity, and character, with perceived competence in the workplace, that I think allows trusts to be built and to flourish.
And the third thing I talk about in the book is I share with leaders is this is be aware that in your leadership you have a leadership trust account, just like you have a bank account, and you need to know if hopefully there’s more money in there than you write checks for or whatever or you’re going to be in trouble. Leaders also have a trust account. And sometimes leaders are unaware of how much trust is in that account, and they’re not very cognizant at all about doing things to make deposits, or they aren’t aware of when withdrawals take place. And Al, I think you would agree with this, is that when trust is gone, leaders are pretty much finished in their leadership assignment. And so that’s the third thing I would recommend, is that leaders need to be aware of the fact that they do have a leadership trust account, and how much trust is in your current account, and what are you doing to build it and add to it? because there will be hits. Whenever you have budget cuts, whatever, you have to make personnel decisions where people depart the enterprise, those are all hits to your leadership trust account. There’s no way around it. But be aware that you’ve got that, and you can replenish that account. But when it’s empty, you’re done, I think, as a leader.
Al: Yeah. That’s really a question that many leaders have. What happens when there is no longer trust, and if there’s no trust in the organization, what should the CEO president consider at that point?
Gene: Well, I think this is a very important question only for the CEO in their roles, but I think it’s also a very, very important role for a board to be alert to. Do the people in the enterprise trust the leadership? It’s not just the president making that decision, but I think boards have to be alert to that as well. I think the first question you’ve got to ask is, is trust capable of being built and rebuilt in an enterprise? And sometimes it’s not easy, but sometimes that can happen, but oftentimes, it can’t be rebuilt. And again, that’s when leaders have to step aside and sometimes boards have to intervene to help make that happen. But be aware of the responsibility you have as a leader to steward organizational trust. If people trust each other and work well with each other, it’s amazing what can get done in the organization. Where that doesn’t happen—in New York I learned the term “polishing your invisibility.” When you work in an organization where there’s not trust, you’re not working for the greater good; you’re working to self-preserve your job. And so what you do is you polish your invisibility, go off into the corner, so to speak, and stay out of harm’s way. You want to be invisible and just be quiet, do your own job, and not rock the boat. And there are lots of organizations where that would describe the culture. I’m sure you’ve seen organizations like that in your own work, where you’re not going to get the kind of outcomes that you desire, let alone move the needle in terms of achieving good work for the kingdom in that kind of an enterprise. So I think that issue of trust, if it’s not the highest priority that you have to be alert to in your enterprise, it’s got to be one of the top things you’ve got to focus on and why I think it’s so important as a soft skill to develop and acknowledge.
Al: Yeah. That’s been our experience, no question about it.
But let’s shift to another topic before we finish, and that is more around a spiritual dimension. And it’s a topic that’s available, really, to every organization, and it should be more common in Christian organizations. And that’s the power of forgiveness. How does forgiveness—you mentioned it earlier—but how does it play in organizational life, and where does forgiveness land in a conversation around the soft-leadership skills?
Gene: Oh, wow. This is another really, really important one. And interestingly enough, I think it impacts the discussion we just had on trust. I’m going to start by asking this question. As you look at the enterprise that you serve, would one of its attributes—I’m not asking this about you. I’m saying it to our listeners who are hearing this. As you look at the enterprise or the organization where you serve, would you say that one of the attributes of your organization, is that a forgiving organization horizontally? I’m talking, Al, about theological forgiveness. I’m talking vertically. I’m talking about horizontal forgiveness, person to person, team to team, executive to executive, board to president, so on and so forth.
And to really unpack that a little bit further, I think you have to look at four different factors. The first factor, and I raised the question this way—and again, this is in the chapter on forgiveness—is this a place where courageous conversations take place? If courageous conversations aren’t able to be achieved in the enterprise, you’re never going to be able to address the kind of simmering issues that often end up in explosions, that end up destroying people and the enterprise itself. And I think the first mark of being committed to what I call the forgiveness cycle in the book is that you’ve got to be committed in the enterprise to having courageous conversations, being able to ask the hard question. An example of a hard question? Well, the one I had before, we talked about accountability. Would a staff member in your enterprise, if you’re the president, be able to walk into your office and respectfully ask you the question, “Who can say no to you and make it stick?”
Steve Holbrook—you may remember Steve from his board days.
Al: Yeah. Yeah, I do.
Gene: He taught me that question, and I think it’s just a brilliant question. And would that question make you mad? I had a wonderful person on my staff at ABS who did that on a regular basis. And the question he would ask me would be, “What in the world are you doing? What are you thinking by taking that course of action?” We all need people like that. We may not like it. We’d say, “Who do you think you are to come in and do that?” If your organization and enterprise allows and champions and nourishes that kind of a culture, where people can have courageous conversations one with another, without people getting upset or blowing up or whatever, then you have the chance to take the next step, which is to seek forgiveness in an enterprise. And there is a lot of unforgiveness that’s harboring, that’s being harbored, that’s being unaddressed in organizations. I’m sure you see this, where somebody’s mad at this person, and somebody else is mad at somebody else, and somebody else is not going to speak to this person. It happens on boards. It happens on senior leadership teams. It happens in frontline management, in various areas. And that kind of thing sucks the energy and the focus out of being a healthy enterprise, which means we’re not going to be able to get the kind of results that we want. And so I think championing a culture of forgiveness, where we say we forgive one another around here—
Now, there’s a slippery slope here that I want to caution against. The slippery slope is, because you extend forgiveness, there need not be consequences. I’m not saying that. I don’t think consequences and forgiveness are mutually exclusive concepts. And think in terms of your parent role. No, I mean, I forgive you, my son or my daughter, but no, you’re grounded. You can’t drive the car for the next two weeks. That’s what I mean. And so there are consequences, but you can still deal with an attitude of forgiveness.
But I think once forgiveness happens—that’s the second state, confession and forgiveness—the scripture talks about if we confess our sins, He’s able to forgive our sins—First John 1—that happens at the horizontal level as well. And so I think my dream for organizations is that that’s something that is right up front, and we say that is a value that we celebrate and is embedded in this culture.
But here’s the third part of the forgiveness cycle. The third part is reconciliation and restoration. And this is where it gets tricky because restoration and reconciliation don’t necessarily follow from forgiveness. Sometimes that takes time. Yeah, I forgive you. Like John Mark and the Apostle Paul—I’m not taking you with me on this missionary journey. I mean, he may have forgiven John Mark, but, I’m going with somebody else on this trip. And just to be aware of that in this embedded culture of forgiveness, that it’s not automatic.
I ask people, when I speak on this topic, when is it that Joseph’s brothers were reconciled to Joseph? Think about that for a moment. It’s interesting to hear people talk about that. Yeah, well, he was reconciled when he introduced himself as his brother, and etc. But I think it actually happened 16 years later, because after Jacob died, the brothers all got together. And here’s the narrative. It’s in the, maybe Genesis 50, 55, somewhere in that text, where they got together, said, okay, Dad’s gone. We’re going to get it. Now we’re going to get it. And they came to Joseph and pleaded with him. And here’s where we hear these powerful words from Joseph. You intended this for evil, but God intended this for good. Remember, this is 16 years after Jacob died. And then the text says, and Joseph spoke words that comforted their hearts. Those are reconciliation words, those are restoration words.
But I think that’s a third phase. Well, these two employees, they’ve extended forgiveness to one another. How come they’re not working like 100 percent? Well, sometimes restoration and reconciliation take time.
And then the last thing that I think is an important part of the forgiveness cycle is this whole issue of restitution, which we don’t talk a lot about in Christian organizations. Usually somebody’s got to sue the enterprise. But there are harms that take place, and I think leaders need to be alert to, how have you been harmed by this action? and to build that into the response. And ironically, it’s often the restitution that builds the bridge which allows restoration and reconciliation to take place.
Two biblical examples—the book of Philemon, where Paul and his friend Philemon had this discussion about the runaway slave Onesimus. And you remember the language in the book of Philemon, where Paul says to Onesimus, if he owes you anything, charge it to my account. That’s restitution. Or think about Zacchaeus in the New Testament, where he met Jesus. He said, today I’m going to give away four times as much to the people I’ve robbed. That’s restitution. You see it in a variety of ways in scripture.
And I’m simply saying, on this whole idea of the forgiveness cycle—courageous conversations; confession and forgiveness, number two; restoration and reconciliation, number three; and restitution, number four. We have to be alert to how those factors play a role in contributing to a healthy culture. Again, those aren’t hard skills; those are soft skills.
Al: So many times in organizations, you come up to a rough spot where there’s arguments, there’s hurt feelings, and you need to move on beyond that for the sake of the organization. And without these steps that you’ve mentioned, it can just really grind to a halt. That’s great advice, Gene. Thanks.
Gene, I have to ask you, if your book The Softer Side of Leadership sold out, who in the Bible, besides Jesus, would you point to and say, “This person lived and demonstrated the softer side of leadership”?
Gene: Well, there are a lot of people, actually, that come to my mind. I think of Ruth, for example, who gave up her own future to go back to her own country and to start over, to go into an unknown culture, because of her love of her mother in law. Or Esther, who was willing to sacrifice her life for the good of her people, there again. David realized that he’d been made king for the good of his people. Here you have Esther, modeling that very same thing. Or Joshua, interesting enough, who made sure that all the other tribes got their inheritance before he got his. So counterintuitive to the way most leaders do. How’d they deal with the leader? What’s my salary going to be? And then I’ll work to serve the people. Joshua totally reversed that. But just recently in the scripture reading of this week, things like, first, there’s, like, Hannah or Samuel, or what about the mother of our Lord, be it unto me, your servant. I mean, there are lots of people who model that. I think Peter and Paul, in their later years, as the Holy Spirit worked in their lives, became marvelous, marvelous examples of soft skills. You think about Peter, in Second Peter, chapter one, versus five through seven, talking about things that he did to mark our lives; or Paul, in his letter to the Galatians in chapter five, the Fruit of the Spirit. All of those are examples of soft skills.
Al: They’re great examples.
I’ve really enjoyed everything that we’ve learned today, Gene. This has been great and really insightful. And I appreciate going through the five soft skills from the personal side, as well as the six from the organizational side. I loved our conversation about sacred space, about building trust, confession, and forgiveness. This has really been a rich experience.
With that said, is there anything you’d like to add to what we’ve talked about?
Gene: Well, I would hope that people would find what we’ve talked about to be of interest and maybe think of digging a little deeper by getting their own copy of the book, The Softer Side of Leadership. I’ve had the privilege this past year to speak on four continents on this topic. Just most recently, led a group of Taylor University students who were very engaged and wanting to learn about soft skills, which was really an encouragement because if you get it at that age, rather than wait until a later age like I did to learn soft skills, they’re going to be way ahead of the game. So I would encourage people to consider exploring it further and maybe engaging a little bit deeper with this very important topic.
Al: And Gene, I know that you’re always interested in feedback. Where can people get in touch with you?
Gene: I’ll give you my email address: email@example.com. Just send me a note.
Al: Gene Habecker, senior fellow of the Sagamore Institute, president emeritus of Taylor University, and the author of The Softer Side of Leadership: Essential Soft Skills That Transform Leaders and the People They Lead, thanks for sharing your wisdom, insights, and stories, and thank you for investing yourself today and on an ongoing basis to those who’ve been listening and benefitting from all you’ve shared with us. So, thanks so much, Gene.
Gene: It’s been a blessing, Al.
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