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Recently I was talking with a minister who had just returned from a missions trip.
"What did you accomplish?" I asked.
"Well, the most important thing I did with the small churches in difficult situations," he said, "was give them permission to succeed."
That was an interesting thought. He must have sensed they saw themselves as losers. Their ministry was supposed to be tough, and they couldn't expect more than meager results. He realized they needed to raise their sights, to see the opportunities for success.
His remark brought to mind a story about one of the gifted golfers on the LPGA tour. This woman, a Christian, possessed enormous talent but couldn't get in the win column. In frustration, she went to a Christian counselor who discovered a surprising thing: subconsciously she didn't think of Christians as winners. She had been raised in a strict home where she was taught that Christians are passive, they lose more comfortably than they win, they're volunteer martyrs. As a result, she wasn't free to win.
After the counseling, she quickly started winning. All the counselor did was give her permission to succeed.
There are several reasons Christians are afraid to succeed.
Some have an incorrect concept of God. Last year while I was speaking at a seminary, a young man walked up and said, "God's got me right where he wants me."
I asked, "Where's that?"
"I have a son," I said, "and it would disturb me if my son were to say to some friend, 'My dad's got me right where he wants me-broke.' He and I would have to have a talk about his wrong concept of my feelings and desires for him."
A second problem is an incorrect concept of how God works. Sometimes we hear, "Ask, and God will work a miracle." Normally, that isn't the way he works. God is the one who brought cause and effect into being, so usually right results come from right actions.
You have a right to expect pay when you work, because "a laborer is worthy of his pay." In the same way, you have a right to expect results when you diligently and intelligently use the talent he's given you.
Twenty-five years ago, at a laymen's meeting in Palm Springs, a businessman asked if he could talk with me about a problem in his business. We met at 6 the next morning, and from the figures, I saw quickly that I was either missing his problem or looking at a most successful business. So I asked, "Am I getting the right picture? Is this as successful as it looks?"
He said, "It is." I stopped talking for a minute to try to intuit what he might see as a problem, because it certainly didn't show in the figures. On a hunch I asked, "What's your religious background?"
"The Plain People," he said, naming one of the Mennonite or Amish groups.
"You're having trouble with success, aren't you?" I asked. "You're feeling guilty."
He nodded. We closed the books and talked no more about the business but about his concept of God, and how the loving heavenly Father would be happy for him to succeed-in the right way, with the right motive, while sharing his success.
A third obstacle, particularly for those whose gifts bring them before people, is a hesitancy to accept plaudits for those abilities. Before speaking at a meeting of one of the very strict denominations, I was preceded by a young woman who sang beautifully. Afterward I said, "You have a lovely voice."
She hung her head and said, "Don't give me the glory. Give the glory to the Lord."
I said, "My dear, I didn't make a theological statement. I simply gave you a compliment from somebody who tried to sing and was not able to, and yet who recognizes that you can. Since I believe you have nothing except what you've received, any comments I make after that are within the scope of giving God glory."
I remembered a much healthier response from a charming woman I'd met years before. After having dinner with her and her husband, I said to her, "I believe you are one of the most gracious people I have ever met."
She smiled and said, "Thank you for noticing, Fred. I've dedicated it to Christ."
She didn't deny her graciousness; she confirmed it. Oswald Chambers said that worship is when you give your best to God. This was her best, and so she gave it to God as worship.
The issue, at its heart, is accepting a "worm theology." Scripture makes many statements about our human condition, both complimentary and critical. The problem is that we are quick to accept the negative. We have a harder time accepting the positive, that "God made man only a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor." Those who are most comfortable losing readily picture themselves not as children of a great God, but as worms. Now, compared to God, we are worms, but that's not the way he sees us. He made us from the dust but didn't intend for us to live there.
As Christian leaders we have the good news that breaks this psychological barrier and gives our people the freedom to enjoy success achieved with integrity.
Before we go any further, let's define success. Many people have the wrong understanding of it.
For Christians, success can never be measured by money. When people say to me, "That man's worth ten million dollars," that tells me he's wealthy, but it doesn't prove he's successful. In some cases, it could mean the opposite. For instance, if Mother Teresa, whom I consider a tremendous success, confessed she was hoarding a million dollars, I'd think she was a hypocrite. Money would prove her a fraud, not a success.
Second, success can never be measured by numbers-regardless of what the numbers are. Some churches gauge success by the attendance or budget numbers. Some pastors measure their success by the number of "preacher boys" they have sent to the seminary from their congregation. If the statistic I've heard is true-that 40 percent of seminarians are there because they're trying to find the will of God-I have to believe many of these students have been misdirected by people who were measuring success by a number.
The measurement of success is simply the ratio of talents used to talents received. What you are doing with what you've got, plus who you are becoming. Are you a growing, maturing Christian? Whether you work in business, or in Christian work, or as a day laborer, professional, or academic, if you are a maturing Christian, using a large percent of your talents, you are successful. Be glad.
Some of us tend to think, I could have been a success, but I never had the opportunity. I wasn't born into the right family, or I didn't have the money to go to the best school. But when we measure success by the extent we're using what we've received, it eliminates that frustration. I've known many Christians who had limited opportunities, but they made the most of what they had. They had a great sense of responsibility, a love for God and other people, and out of that flowed a tremendous use of talents.
When I worked for Genesco, I promoted a young man from operating a machine into a lower managerial role because we wanted to test his capability. Shortly afterward, he was killed in an automobile accident near Lewisburg, Tennessee. Maxey Jarman, Genesco's chairman, wanted to go to the funeral. We drove seventy-five miles to the funeral, and on the way back Maxey said, "I believe Bill was one of the most successful men we have had in the company."
I said, "He was an hourly employee and was just promoted to a small managerial job. Why would you say that?"
"Because he used what he had."
The person who's doing the most with what he's got is truly successful. Not the one who becomes the richest or most famous, but the one who has the closest ratio of talents received to talents used.
An unsuccessful person, on the other hand, is one who didn't use the chances he or she had. He could have developed himself, he could have made a contribution to life, he could have become a mature Christian, but he didn't. It is my challenge as a leader to keep this from happening, and giving permission to succeed is a good starting place. The Bible says that to whom much has been given, much will be required.
Encourage your people to measure success only by potential, not by what others are doing. One of the prominent realtors in Dallas came to me a few years ago after the bottom fell out of the housing market. He was very concerned, almost depressed, because business was down 40 percent, and he didn't know how to get it up. We talked a little, and then I said to him, "Why don't you change your goals this year?"
"What do you mean?"
"Why not measure success by survival this year? With the current condition of the real estate market in Dallas, anyone who survives is a success."
I saw him two or three months later, and he was smiling. "Fred," he said, "I'm going to survive, and for me right now, that's success. I can't beat last year, but I can beat failure."
Another thing we often forget: being a success doesn't mean everything in our lives has turned out well. We can be successful in coming back from a fall. I have a friend who got into an immoral situation. He genuinely repented and accepted God's forgiveness and moved forward. To me, that was success.
I know a woman who right now is fighting severe depression, and winning. That's true success. I've seen women lose their husbands to an affair, yet come through that great rejection and reestablish their lives. They have demonstrated the power of God in a human life. They've become successes. Our privilege as leaders is to commend their success!
Only a person in authority can give convincing permission. Anybody can encourage. But permission to succeed comes only from an authority figure-parent, boss, pastor. Permission from such a person dispels doubt and gives assurance this is right.
When my pastor friend went on that missions trip and gave those struggling churches permission to succeed, he was able to do that. As the pastor of a healthy, growing church, he is seen by the people as an authority because he came from where they were. Had he been, say, one of the members of those churches, he could have given encouragement, but not the same permission to succeed.
Many years ago I spoke at Baylor University and met a young woman with unusual character and ability. Toward the end of my stay, I told her, "I believe you could do almost anything you want to do."
She became a missionary. Thirty years later, she called me. "I'm back in the States," she said, "and I want you to know that when the going really got rough in Japan, I would say to myself, I know there's one fat businessman back in the States who believes in me. That sustained me many times-just that one person believing."
All I'd said was one simple sentence, but this was more than encouragement, because she saw me as vice-president of a large corporation, and so to her I had authority. She accepted the permission to succeed.
Experiences like this have taught me it's not only a leader's privilege, but also a responsibility, to give permission to succeed.
According to management experts, a manager's number-one responsibility is to establish a vision for the company. I think this is also true with a church. And one of the ways you establish the vision is to give people a belief in what they can do.
What's the alternative? If you don't give people permission to succeed, you draw artificial boundaries for them. You say, "You can't go beyond this fence." Recently PBS aired a documentary on children who fail. A great many of these children, studies have found, are verbally abused by their parents: "I hate you. I wish I'd never had you. You'll never amount to anything. You'll never accomplish anything." Yes, a tiny percentage of those people will, in rebellion against that, accomplish a great deal; we hear about those. But we won't hear about the thousands who live mediocre, even criminal, lives. A prophecy of failure is wrong. Permission to succeed is right.
As a leader it's my great opportunity-my great responsibility-to say, "You have permission to succeed, provided you succeed correctly, by using the right principles in the right way in the right time." In fact, this is one of the thrills of being a leader: to recognize in other people talents they don't know they have and then give them permission to enjoy their success.
Often when I bring up this topic, someone will say, "But Fred, that sounds like prosperity theology, or possibility thinking." It's not. There's nothing I oppose more than prosperity theology. I think it's disrespectful to our intelligence and to our God.
Prosperity theology says, in effect, that because God likes me, he makes me rich. Not at all. The Bible says God gives opportunities and the ability to be faithful. He doesn't work some formula for favorites. Personal success is possible, not divinely guaranteed. There is no automatic prospering here, no putting God under obligation.
But the key difference is in the definition of prosper. It doesn't mean you'll be better known than other people or richer. The biblical definition is that you'll mature as a Christian and use a greater portion of the talents God has given you. That is true prosperity, true success.
And possibility thinking? I believe in keeping a positive attitude and seeing possibilities, if realistic. I do not accept thinking that says I can do anything I think I can do. That is unreal. And if something is unreal, it is not divine, because if there is anything God is, it's real.
When I gave that Baylor student permission to succeed, I wasn't telling her, "The whole world is yours; you can do whatever you think you can do." I was simply saying that, based upon my hours of observation and interaction, I believed she had the ability to excel at her chosen profession. It was a positive statement but rooted in a realistic assessment of her abilities.
A second problem with overly optimistic thinking is that it can be rooted in egotism or in greed or in exploitation. I believe positive thinking, to be Christian, must be rooted in gratitude to God. You can think positively, for example, about your possibilities on Wall Street. But if your success is built on insider trading, you cannot thank God for that.
Permission to succeed is miles from these two unrealistic views. I'd like to offer four ways to give your people the genuine article.
1. Verbalize it. For some reason, many people find it difficult to tell people they have permission to succeed. It's easier to do the opposite, to talk in a negative way. Quite often I hear people say to their organizations, "Now, we can't expect to do miracles here. I mean, we're just a little organization; we're just a band of believers."
But if the people in our organizations are going to reach their God-granted potential, it will usually require leaders' saying, "You've got it. God hasn't fenced you in capriciously. The psychological barriers you might have of how important you are or where your family comes from or your education-they'll limit you only if you let them. You have the permission, my permission, to go as far as you can go."
It doesn't need to be said in a hyped-up way. A simple, matter-of-fact statement is powerful enough. When I was 3 years old, I fell on a Mason jar and badly cut my right hand. The cut became infected. The infection grew worse, and soon there was a question whether I'd lose the hand.
My parents took me to a surgeon in the city, who operated. My father was deeply concerned, but the surgeon told him, "This boy has something in him that he can thrive even without that hand." As it turned out, my hand was saved, though I did lose major function in it. My father told me that story when I was 5 or 6 years old, and only two or three times after. He never told it in an inspirational way. He just repeated what the doctor said before the operation. But I felt that this was a form of permission. The surgeon, an authority, was saying, "He is a survivor." That long-ago statement still motivates me.
2. Reinforce it constantly. One of the most powerful reinforcements is telling stories of people who are successful.
I walked into a plant the other day to meet the president for lunch. He's a pragmatic, engineer type, a noninspirational sort. I knew it is uncharacteristic of him to verbalize his belief in people, and I wondered, How does he give his people the permission to succeed?
Then I saw on the wall a chart that showed the company's production and sales for the past five years. The figures started at $200,000 and this year reached $5,000,000. With that chart, he's saying, "Every year we have grown. Every year we've been more successful. Next year we expect to be more successful." He's giving the permission.
Recognizing individuals who have succeeded is another way we confirm the permission to succeed. If you see someone perform in an exemplary way, call attention to it. Some people are willing for you to accomplish only if you don't feel successful. But to be honest, we have to give people the right to enjoy the feeling of success.
Consider the apostle Paul. He said, "There's a crown waiting for me," and in another place, "Only the winner gets the crown." Paul is saying, "I plan to succeed! I'm a winner!" You catch the flavor, "I have paid the price of being successful, and I'm also feeling the joy of being successful."
As I recognize success, I try to stretch people's horizons. I might say, "That was terrific!" but I don't stop there. Tomorrow I might return, repeat the compliment, and say, "Last year, would you have believed you could do that? You may be surprised at what you can accomplish next year."
3. Implement it. Then we need to give people opportunities. In Worcester, Massachusetts, I created a task force of managers but put on it an hourly employee who hadn't been recognized. That assignment gave him the opportunity to run in a different league, and he sprinted! I knew he would; he had the talent and simply needed the opportunity.
Last year we all watched the same thing happen with the NFL replacement teams. When the professionals went on strike, hundreds of unknown football players, who had been scrimmaging on YMCA fields, got the opportunity to be professionals. In that environment, several succeeded. Even when the strike ended, certain players were kept because the owners and coaches said, "Look at that Zendejas kick! That ol' boy's got it; we just didn't recognize it before."
That's what I mean by implementing it-you give people opportunities to succeed.
4. Demand it. You don't start by saying, "It's your responsibility to be successful," because you'll overwhelm a person. You start by saying, "You have the permission to be successful." That fuels his desire, and if he has the drive and desire to succeed, he will.
But after the person has become successful, you switch from giving permission to making it a responsibility. You say, "God's given you something to develop. It's your responsibility to take that and do as much as you can with it."
Toscanini, for example, demanded near perfection from his musicians. Robert Merrill told once about singing under Toscanini's direction and repeatedly missing the syncopation in a particular short passage. Toscanini kept bringing him back to it. Finally he walked over and with his baton tapped the beat lightly on Merrill's head. Ever after, Merrill said, whenever he sang that phrase, he could feel Toscanini's baton on his head. Toscanini demanded greatness, and he produced it.
Demanding success may sound harsh, but when done in the right way, and while there are still time and opportunities for the person, it's one of the most caring things we can do. Let me be more specific about what it means to demand success.
First, demanding success means keeping people off dead-end streets. One young woman in our office was not a particularly capable clerk because she was enthralled with the idea of becoming an actress, and finally she went to New York to make it big. There someone was kind enough to say to her, "You are not an actress." She decided to get her MBA instead.
She failed in the theater but now has become vice-president of one of the large international investment companies. She is a genius in finance, but she needed somebody to say that, for her, acting was a dead end.
Second, demanding success means keeping people from irresponsibility. I had breakfast recently with the chairman of the board of a corporation. He said, "Fred, the thing I need most is the accountability of Christian friends. I want someone to ask me, 'Are you really being a good chairman of the board? Are you working as hard as you did twenty years ago? Are you arrogant?' " We all need leaders and friends who will see irresponsibility and point it out. How else can we be successful?
Third, demanding success means keeping people focused on results, not effort. A mediocre leader thanks people for effort without realizing that unsuccessful effort is a great waste. The time to thank people is when they've produced results. I had a boss once who taught this to me in a dramatic way. I didn't have good results to show for a certain project, so I was telling about how hard I'd worked on it. Finally, he said, "Fred, show me the baby; don't tell me about the labor pains." He was right: what we're here for is the baby. And he helped me become more successful by teaching me to focus on results.
One final thing: I find it difficult as a leader to give permission that I've not received myself. Sometimes people say, "But Fred, I didn't receive a lot of permission to succeed in my family, or at seminary, or in my first church."
To them I say, "Keep opening the vista. If you've been able to see a little further than where you are, it may be possible for you to see a great deal further than where you are. Yes, everyone has a limit, but most of us and our organizations are so far from that limit that we really don't have to worry about that. It will be a long time before we bump against the limit."
In many instances, that seems to give them permission. And those who feel they have received permission to succeed are always best equipped to give it.Â
Copyright © 1988 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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