OK, this may sound silly, but I got insight the other day from watching microwave breakfast pizza. You know the sort: little pies on a biscuit crust topped with sausage, egg, and cheese. You put them on a flimsy paper platform with a silver surface, a contraption always in danger of collapsing. Anyway, I was watching their progress through the window on the oven door, and noticed that one resembled a mountain being pushed up, with cheese lava flowing over the sides of the platform, while the other remained flat and bubbled only slightly. The same conditions, equal heat on the turntable, but they acted differently.

Isn’t that the way we are? Some of us blow up, reactively allowing circumstances to control our lives. Others under the same conditions are calm, seeking solutions, becoming proactive. The former are typically anxious, while the latter maintain what has been called a “non-anxious presence” or more recently, a “less-anxious presence,” recognizing that no one can be totally free from anxiety. Put another way, with the late family systems expert Ed Friedman, some of us are wired in series, so that we cannot separate ourselves and our actions from those of the fearful, dysfunctional folk around us. Others are wired in parallel, maintaining a measure of independence and acting with more wisdom and insight. If your neighbor’s lights go out, so to speak, you keep on shining like a beacon of peace and hope.

Too much of the rhetoric we hear in the church, media, and government these days is fear-driven, wired-in-series stuff, and the action that arises from it is like the bubbling mess of that pizza in my oven. Wouldn’t we rather have non-anxious leaders who do not let the anxieties of others control their talk and their deeds? Wouldn’t we like to see such serenity in our own lives?

Next time the heat is on, let those of us who are prone to panic take a lesson from the non-anxious pizza.

© 2012 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

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Susan and I have gotten hooked on watching “Dog Whisperer” with Cesar Millan on the National Geographic channel. If you’re not familiar with the show, Cesar goes into homes with, we think, troubled dogs. But it usually ends up that the owners are the ones who need help, especially with how to be leaders.

So it occurred to me that, even though Cesar teaches about leading dogs, his lessons are useful in the worlds of business and church. Here is what I have gleaned from just the few episodes I’ve watched so far:

1. Look first to yourself. The only thing we can really change in a system is our reaction to stimuli. How do you or I contribute to the “presenting problem,” as they say? How is our energy, our approach, our attempt to attend to our needs/agendas negatively influencing outcomes?

2. Be calm and assertive. In family systems theory, this way of acting is known as maintaining a “non-anxious presence,” though these days theorists speak of the “less-anxious presence,” realizing that no one is totally free of anxiety. When everyone else is falling apart in a crisis, the leader of this sort sees and thinks clearly. In Cesar’s terms, he or she gives off a “positive energy.” Dogs, intuitive as they are (and also with their sensitive noses) can tell if their owners are on edge, and they exploit that. Some folks are intuitive as well and will also exploit the leader’s lack of confidence. So be calm and at least act like you know what you’re doing!

3. Respect the needs of those you lead. Cesar reminds the owners that dogs need to be dogs. They aren’t people (especially not babies/children) no matter how much we may try to make them such. In the same way, those we seek to lead have particular needs that they are trying to have met, from the most basic ones of food and shelter to respect, intimacy, and accomplishment. How does our leadership create conditions and support to enable those in our charge to prosper and succeed?

4. Teach what you learn. Cesar’s whole approach is teaching dog owners the techniques they need to lead their dogs. He even sat down with a group of little kids the other night and taught them how to handle a rambunctious standard poodle. When we know helpful approaches and techniques, we ought to share them as well, with all sorts of constituencies. Indeed, Jesus commands us to teach everything he has commanded us. Our job as leaders, in the church at least, is not to do everything ourselves, but to make disciples, who make disciples, and on and on.

Thanks, Cesar!

© 2010 Tom Cheatham