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5 Leadership Lessons from Running the Race

BlogCLA.Runner By Mark Holbrook

After more than 30 years in the CEO role, people are starting to ask me two questions: First, when am I going to retire? Second, have I learned anything in all that time?

To the first question, it’s up to the Lord and my board. As for learning, here are some highlights from a guy with more than a few miles on his Nikes.

Forget the learning curve. It’s more like a slope or cliff, the kind you crawl up, slipping and sliding back down as you go. And sometimes you’re just painfully hanging on by fingernails. But each time you climb back up, the more deeply you value the lessons learned. Example: I thought I had the humility/pride thing under control. It took the financial crisis that shook the banking industry to help me see how much I had yet to learn.

Staff communication. Do it more. E-mails are fine, but never as your sole form of communication. I am enjoying more open forum sessions with staff.

Embrace change. I struggle with this issue. I’m all for change where change is needed and healthy. Yet I am committed to the unchanging standards that are set in stone. Sometimes discerning between the two isn’t as black and white as I once thought. Take, for example, transparency. What I once thought was complete transparency is no longer seen that way, especially by younger co-workers who expect to peer far more deeply into the CEO’s office than I deemed acceptable even a few years ago. Form 990 is a game changer. Where does my right to privacy intersect with my co-workers’ or constituents’ right to be informed? I’m realizing that, in the long run, openness about some things previously off-limits may well be a good thing as I choose to embrace instead of defend.

Team building. Healthy, high performance teams are essential for success. Excellent resources abound. The Wisdom of Teams by Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith (HarperBusiness, 2003), and Patrick Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team (Jossey-Bass, 2002), and The Advantage (Jossey-Bass, 2013) are foundational works. I’ve tried to live by these principles as best I understood them. So, what would I do differently if I could run this race again? For sure:

  • Regular team assessments. I wish I had done these more consistently. My primary team would have functioned more effectively sooner. Only a third party assessment tool yields the objective information needed
  • Disciplined accountability. At times it wasn’t taken seriously, even though team accountability is one of our core values. We are doing better these days, making sure our goals and responsibilities are clear and that we continually measure our progress through scorecards and other objective measures all can see.

Looking back, I’d take team building much more seriously. As Lencioni says, “Few organizations invest nearly enough time and energy in making their leadership teams cohesive, and certainly not with the level of rigor that it requires and deserves.”

Trust. It’s one of the most misused and misunderstood words around.

Maybe you’ve heard, “There’s a lack of trust around here.” Those words are grenades carelessly tossed over the wall. A lot of damage happens quickly — unless there is a clear understanding. Trust needs a common definition and always context. What do we mean by trust? Here are three levels of trust to think about:

  • Level 1. “I trust you will do this particular assignment well. You have the ability to get this task done on time and on target. You are the right person to lead this project.”
  • Level 2. “I trust you are the right person for this job. You have the skills and competencies to handle all the dimensions and demands of your job effectively.”
  • Level 3. “I trust your motives and integrity. I know you mean what you say, and I can always count on you.”

Unless we identify what level of trust we are referring to in context, what is generally heard is “I don’t trust you.” Maybe the best way to deal with this ambiguity is to find other words to express what we mean. For instance, “I’m not sure you’re the best person for this assignment. Here’s why…”

I’m still learning about authentic leadership. At its core it’s disciplined, competent, and informed. And I’m more convinced than ever that humility is the key. Above all, I’m understanding the meaning of the old adage “be humble or be humbled.”


Mark Holbrook has served as president and CEO of Evangelical Christian Credit Union (ECCU) since 1979 ( This post is from Outcomes Magazine, Spring 2013.

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