What Kind of Leader Are You?
Sister Rebecca Merrill:
My husband has asked that I take just a minute and tell you how grateful I am to be with you this morning, and grateful to be with him. As we just corrected, we now have 23 grandchildren, and two of those were born within the last three weeks. We’re very grateful for them.
As I look at you today and your bright smiling faces, and I can feel your testimonies, my mind is drawn back many years ago to a time when I was 17, just a recent member of the Church. And a patriarch laid his hands upon my head and told me, among other things, that as I looked ahead at the future I did not see clearly. And he was so right. I was an only child; I was very interested in school and had a PhD on my mind. Joining the Church changed a lot of things in my life, among them my coming to Utah to go to school and my third day here running into this handsome man over next to me.
Now, 41 years later, 7 children and 23 grandchildren, 57,000 diaper changes, 40,000 meals prepared, economic disasters, significant health challenges, incredible joy—it’s just…life is amazing. I just have to say that probably, as you look ahead at your future, you do not see clearly either. But with the Lord as your companion it is marvelous. No matter what, whether it is challenge or joy, life is wonderful. I’m so grateful to be a member of this Church. I’m so grateful to know that God the Father lives, that Jesus Christ is His Son. And I’m especially grateful today for the gift of the Holy Ghost, because I know that as we—all of us very different in our life experience—sit here today and in every situation like this, we can be taught of the Spirit, specifically and specially according to our needs. I know that’s true, and I bear you that witness and again express my joy in being with you today, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
I’m really glad you got a chance to meet Rebecca. Let me tell you a few more things about her. She didn’t see clearly. She probably would have avoided me, but she’s had a great opportunity to influence a lot of lives. She’s always kept right up front the importance of her role as a mother and grandmother, but she’s had some other interesting opportunities to use her talents. And the Lord does things in way that you don’t recognize, or don’t realize. She didn’t get her PhD, but she’s had several gifts and one of them is to be able to write. Things worked out and she was able to be Steven Covey’s chief assistant and help write The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, which has been listed as one of the top 100 books of the last century in terms of influence, and still going strong. Co-authored First Things First with Steven and myself, and several others. [She] just recently finished working with Steven M.R. Covey on a book The Speed of Trust, which you may have read which is I think, a current classic—hits at the core of many, many issues.
So you just never know. We’ve had the opportunity to be together, to go on book tours and go to several countries and places, and meet a lot of wonderful people and have some experiences that you’d never anticipate.
The Lord knows how to handle our lives so much better than we do, and one of the most important things I think is to have faith and trust and confidence. And if we walk uprightly, He will lead our lives in the way that’s the best for all, from His perspective, because He loves all His children. He has a plan, and He has things in mind for us. Our great challenge is to be malleable and worthy and obedient, that He can use us in the most important ways.
One of the privileges that I have in my current calling is being able to associate with the apostles and prophets, and you’ve heard this before but I’ll just say it again. For my personal testimony, we have an interesting world we live in. Things are changing. That’s been a constant, but right now they are changing at a remarkable rate. One thing I do not pick up at all in those circles is anxiety and fear. It is just not there. There is great hope, faith, confidence, trust in the Lord—concerns about things, particularly about things like sin, false ideas, things that lead us away and destroy faith—but there’s a great confidence. These are prophets, seers and revelators. The Lord is in charge, is at the helm. If we are obedient, if we are true, we’re on the earth at this time for important reasons. There is nothing happening that is a surprise to God, and if we go forward in peace and faith our lives will be wonderful.
Yes, they may be challenging, but that’s always been true. And challenge is part of the journey we signed up for, and it’s how faith is forged, and one of the major reasons we came to earth and are having this experience. So just a reminder: the adversary works off of fear and anxiety. As the Lectures on Faith so beautifully teach, “faith and fear cannot exist in the heart and mind of man simultaneously. One will supplant the other.” Our challenge and opportunity is “Faith in every footstep,” and I might add, faith in every thought.
We have the choice about our thoughts, what stays, and we can choose faithful thoughts or fearful thoughts. It’s a choice. There will be plenty of fearful thoughts circling around us, and the adversary will do all he can to get them into our heads. The more we choose him, and faith and truth and love, the greater our faith will grow. And there’s a power in faith—a great power that creates worlds.
Now something else Rebecca said I want to emphasize. She talked about that we’ll be taught by the Spirit, and the Spirit is the true teacher. I’d suggest it’s very important that you listen today, and feel in the operative word. What I say may be a carrier, or it may not be, but if your heart is right and you are seeking, you will receive the message the Lord would have for you. That’s so important.
In our general authority training meetings the Friday before general conference, we were invited in on Friday. It was an interesting discussion. Elder Bednar led a discussion. He suggested to us that—with all the Brethren there, and sisters—as we were reviewing the teachings that we’ve had, and he said, “Let’s just review them.” And what was said and what was learned and what was felt. And later, Elder Nelson added what was observed. Key words. So when we’re just—as you’re thinking about an experience—this and others you’ll have this day—what was said, what was learned, what was felt. And sometimes we learn a lot through just what we observe. Those are simple ways that we can help to learn by the Spirit and be taught from on high, which is the most important thing.
I’d like to spend a few minutes and share a few thoughts with you and some scriptures today, about the idea of being a leader. The first question you might ask is, “Who wants to be?” Sometimes we look around, and we see the leaders as the center of a target, and we say, “I’m not sure I’d want to be a leader.”
Let me suggest you already made that decision before you came here. Part of being on the earth in the last days and being the covenant people is that we signed up to be a leader.
Years ago, I was…I’ve been influenced by a lot of people in my life. Let me just mention two briefly. One, I was a young teenager living in Carmel Valley, California, and there was an older man in our neighborhood who was out walking. He looked like an interesting person—kind of a powerful personality. He was older—it turns out he was in his nineties, but he just looked like somebody you wouldn’t ever want to mess with, you know? He just had that sense about him, and I was curious, so being a brash teenager I just went up and introduced myself and one thing led to another. We got acquainted. They called him “The General,” which is one of the reasons I was interested and intrigued. And I got to know General Harold Townsend. He was a retired general, had spent a lot of time in Southeast Asia way before Vietnam was…you read about it as a war, but when communism was spreading in that part of the world. He had a lot of interesting experiences. He’d take me down into his little room—he had no family left, direct family; there were some cousins I believe he was living with the last few years of his life who had a room for him. He’d take me down, and he had one of those big foot lockers that weighed, I don’t know, a ton it looked like. It had labels all over it and had been scarred. They don’t make them like that anymore; it was almost bomb-proof. But you could tell that thing had been around the world. He’d open it up and pull out things. He’d pull out this little Brownie camera that he had and these kind of brownish, black and white pictures that he’d taken all over the world, and show me.
Now you have to remember, this was in the days before CNN and that kind of thing, so he’d pull out pictures of bodies laid out in the jungle minus heads. You don’t think that got my attention? It freaked me out! Well, he’d tell me—he’d start telling me stories about where he was when he took these pictures, and what happened. And I didn’t honestly realize until later what he was doing, but all his stories, as I look back, had a common theme. He was trying to pass on a little bit of a legacy to me. And his theme was simply this: Leaders make the difference.
He would tell me stories about how these villages would be infiltrated by what we now would call terrorists—little troops—and threatened, and sometimes destroy a whole village. And every now and then there would be a leader who would stand up, provide an alternative, fight back, and he’d talk about these warlords as leaders, the tremendous toll they’d take on the people and the suffering they would cause. They were leaders, but of a different kind. And his stories constantly had that theme, of the joy and goodness or the pain and suffering that are the inheritance of leaders—good leaders and evil leaders. And you could tell he kind of, after his years of experience, saw the world through the glass of leadership—the impact of good leaders or the terrible effect of evil leaders.
I came to believe that was the message he was trying to give me, is to think of the world and look at it through the eyes of leadership. Now think of your experience. Can you think of some really bad things that influence your life that flow from somebody’s leadership or lack of it? Can you think of some good things? Our lives are influenced every day by leaders of one kind or another.
Now, like many of you as a missionary I had a great mission president. All mission presidents are the greatest mission presidents, right? So I had the greatest too. He was an interesting man who—I had two, but I’m going to talk about the second one—who really influenced my life. He was a leader. He taught us. He set the example. It was interesting, in Texas, he ended up staying in Texas. He decided that that’s where he wanted to live. He ended up being in the Dallas Temple presidency and a patriarch in that area. But I saw this one area that we worked in that had just a handful of members, and through his influence and others, and a wonderful family that lived there, the Porters, the little branch in Denton, Texas grew and now it’s a center of strength in that part of the Church. In fact, I’m going to go back this summer for the 50 th anniversary of the Church in Denton. To watch the impact of people like Sam Elias, of the Porters, of the Ragsdales, over a period of years. I was in their home a few years ago and we were sitting back trying to remember the number of members of the Church that had come from the Ragsdales after the Porters helped them come into the Church. We couldn’t—in fact, then we said, “Well, we can’t do that; let’s just try to count the number of full-time missionaries from these families.” And we couldn’t number them.
I was in the general authority training six months ago and Elder Martino came up to me, an Area Seventy, and he said, “I’m just excited to meet you.” It turns out he was a little boy when his parents joined the Church because of the Ragsdales, and the Ragsdales were a family that I was one of the missionaries to. It’s just interesting how you see the effect of some people who made some choices to lead and set an example, and how it’s affected so many lives and whole communities for good.
What kind of leader are you? What kind will you be? We live in a day where you can be a leader or a victim. There’s not much middle ground, and we have to make choices. You have a wonderful opportunity to learn some important and good things in a spiritual environment. My, how rare that is. In all the people that have been on this planet in the history of the world, you are in a very, very small minority—miniscule in terms of numbers. Why are you here then? And some of you have come through some rather interesting paths to get here. You’re not here by accident, and the experiences you have, have potential in ways that you will not realize.
Let’s turn to a scripture, and thank you for bringing those. I notice that many of you did, and saw the little assignments. Turn to the 115 th section of the Doctrine and Covenants. We’re just going to look at verse five. I’m going to have you actually turn to it. We often during the sacrament meeting don’t take time to do that, because then people start wandering reading the verses and it’s better sometimes just to listen to a verse or two. But here I want you to get your fingers and your head into the scriptures to feel the spirit of some of these things. And you may then after go back and read around these verses.
Let’s just in this one look at verse five: “Verily I say unto you all.” This is speaking to all members of the Church in the last days, as the verses before it bring out. So it’s for us. “Verily I say unto you all: Arise and shine forth, that thy light may be a standard for the nations.” Now is that to you or to the Church? I suggest it’s very personal. Part of our discipleship and our covenants as followers of Jesus Christ, particularly in these last days, are the covenants and responsibilities we have and take upon ourselves to be a light, to be examples, to be leaders. We don’t live for self alone.
It’s interesting—the adversary’s constantly trying to do things to get us to think selfishly. What’s in it for me? It’s about me. It’s about mine. What are you feeling? What are you going through? Are you happy today, because of this or that? The Savior’s life was a life of service, of giving, of focusing on the individual, of blessing others. Yes, you have to pay attention to your needs, so that you can bless and help. You get an education so that you can better bless and help others. The motive—or the scriptural word for motive is often the word intent—what is our intent? I suggest that is something that is very important to think about. And the world around us will seep into and twist our thinking into being self-focused. The Spirit will move us out to think of others. It’s a great key to life, joy and happiness.
Now, with the idea that we were called to lead, let me suggest something you’ve heard before, but maybe you’ll think about it and feel it a little differently. The Savior is the perfect model or example of what that means. He’s the leadership example. Now sometimes you hear this and then somebody will write an article, and it’s all usually good, but it will have examples of some of the techniques Jesus used in leadership. I’d suggest that maybe we look at it through broader glasses, and look at patterns and principles, and think of not only His mortal ministry, but His entire—we know more about Him: we know He was Jehovah, we know about His mortal ministry, and we know now, and we look more broadly and see some of the principles and patterns, that we then maybe can learn to understand what happens.
I’m going to suggest four lessons that we can remember, simple lessons that will help us in leadership. The first one, looking at the Savior’s model, is to clarify and purify your purpose. So whether you take on the challenge of education, a new job, a committee, an assignment, a project at work—wherever you may be, one of the first things to determine is, “What am I trying to do?” In fact, you’ll find over time—and this is true kind of universally—that I’m about convinced that almost more than any other thing, your purpose and your motives will influence the outcome. It may look good, but if secretly inside your motive is selfish, it will poison the fruits. They will be bitter. And if you don’t have a clear purpose, you won’t have very good luck getting results. One of the things we find studying organizations in my professional work is that the organizations that are the most effective and the project leaders that get the most done have the ability to focus on a few simple things at once. They usually sort down priorities, have a clear purpose, usually not more than three at a time, and focus their efforts and energy, and excellence almost always comes by focus. You look at a project manager that has a list of 28 projects and you can almost predict absolutely he’ll be mediocre. You just can’t perform to get results in that way, spread that thin.
Now that doesn’t mean over time you can’t do 28, but you break them down and focus your efforts and energy. Clear. What is it we’re trying to do and why? What is our intent?
Purity of motive—now this is critical to the Spirit and the kingdom, but it’s actually very important on a very practical level. You’ve worked with people and you just kind of—well, they’re saying the right things and moving the right way, but you just kind of feel uncomfortable. It’s something like, “Where are they coming from? What really is their agenda?” Something just leaves you feeling discomfort, and so there’s not a complete trust you put in those people, in that project. And trust affects communication; it affects almost everything that happens in a group. Real trust has to be earned by being trustworthy. Motive is critical. The intent.
If you want to do an interesting search on your computer, just go into your scripture program and look up the word intent, and look at all the scriptures that use intent. Now some are talking about, oh, they intended to go back to the city and do this, you know, simple. But you start looking at the promises and the words around intent, and just say—nowadays, we often use the word motive. What’s the motive? In fact, it’s the key to getting a testimony; Jacob talks about riches “if you seek them with the intent”—or the motive—to bless others, after you have faith in Christ. (See Jacob 2:19) You see, motive is critical.
Great leaders focus a lot, first within themselves and then in what they’re working on, to be clear in purpose and motive. And it usually takes some purification—some clarification and purification. How about the Savior? Was He clear with His purpose? Yes. What was His purpose? To help the Father and bring to pass “the immortality and eternal life of man.” (Moses 1:39) He was very clear.
Can you imagine—we can’t, but we try. I remember standing by the Garden of Gethsemane, the voice on a little speaker in my headset of our guide, who was recounting some scriptures and what the Savior went through in the Garden of Gethsemane, and how He maintained focus. And you start thinking of the pain and the suffering and the physical, through sin and of all the people in all the earth at one time. It just gets beyond our scope. Why was He willing to do that? Why did He put Himself forward and suffer as no being less than Him can suffer? And He’s also clear. The scriptures say it’s because of charity—His pure love for us. It was a very personal, loving thing. His purposes and His motives are perfect and pure. That’s lesson number one.
Lesson number two, I’d suggest, is create good things. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Well, let me just suggest that here’s a little reading assignment. Go to the book of Abraham, and let’s just turn there quickly and I’ll point out a few verses, a few words. One of the ways, interestingly, to get patterns of scriptures is to look for a few key words. We’ll go to Abraham 4. This is one of the great accounts of the Creation. I’ll just read a few verses, and then you look at this and see if they start to jump out.
Here’s a word that can jump out: Counsel. We heard a little bit about that a few minutes ago, and it’s one of the things that you’re working on in your culture. Counsel. What is a council? It’s not just a group where you get together and reach consensus. It’s a method of revelation. It’s a process of receiving and gaining the will of the Lord. And you’ll find that the Gods, in the Creation, counseled together. Notice that word, that’s used in several places. It’s used in [Abraham] 5:2, 3. Just try highlighting the word counsel or councils in these chapters.
Try highlighting the word organized. For example, here’s a verse, [Abraham 4] verse 15: “And organized them to be for lights in the expanse of the heaven.” Verse 16: “The Gods organized the two great lights.” Organize, organize, organize is used throughout these two great verses. Counsel, organize.
Another interesting word to highlight is the word do. And they, the Gods determined to do everything they said they would do. Isn’t that interesting? If a leader says to you, “I will do this,” do you have trust that they will do it? The Gods did everything that they said they would do.
And here’s another word: Watch. They watched, not to be a snoopervisor, but they watched so that they know when to bless, to help, to fill in, to support. Great leaders watch what’s happening. They pay attention. They’re there to help, support, to uplift, to make sure it’s done. Not like a whip, make sure it’s done, but to provide the help, the light, the guidance, the support, the preparation, so that results happen and there’s integrity in the system. Counsel, organize, do and watch.
Now there are other words you can pick out, but I suggest you read those chapters and just highlight those. And then say, “Now wait a minute. What does this mean for me?” Well, let me give you two quick examples.
One: I went to a ward as an area Seventy a while ago, and I went into a sacrament meeting that was absolutely reverent. I mean, it was amazing. People weren’t talking in the chapel, they weren’t walking around. The deacons were in their seats, they were dressed right, they were quiet, they were focused, they were reverent before the meeting started. People were on the stand on time. It was like everything that people talk about doing, they were doing. And there was just a great spirit. There was quiet prelude music. People came in quietly and sat down. You could feel the spirit in that meeting.
So after I said to the bishop, “How did you do that?”
He said, “Well, we decided in our ward council that reverence was a major problem. We tried to figure—okay, that’s the goal. We tried to say, ‘What has the Lord already said about this?” and we studied some scriptures. We prayed. We came up with the distinct feeling that the Aaronic Priesthood was the solution. So we counseled with the Aaronic Priesthood: what could be done, what are the principles, how do you invite reverence? The Aaronic Priesthood took the challenge and charge, and they started preparing the sacrament early. How should you be there and prepare? They started talking with their families: “Now listen, you can’t talk in the chapel. You need to talk outside. We need to be there in church on time.”
They took the lead, and over a period of months, through the leadership of the Aaronic Priesthood quorums, this ward developed a pattern of reverence that was the best I’ve ever seen. How did they do it? Well, they counseled, they set up a plan, they organized. They did what they said they were going to do. They watched to make sure it worked, and helped each other.
It’s kind of the same pattern as the organization of the world. I could give you other examples. Study this, and it will help you figure out how to do class projects, run a business, organize a family, or create any other beautiful and good thing. The Lord set the example, because who was the Chief Creator under the Father? Again, the Lord is the example.
Lesson three: Teach correct principles. Now, we know Joseph Smith’s statement reported by John Taylor. When he was asked how he dealt with his people so well, he said, “I teach them correct principles and they govern themselves.” As other prophets have said, the implication is that “I teach them correct principles so that they can govern themselves.” I learned this idea early from that mission president. I was in his office one day and there was a little book, and on the back it had this quote. And it hit me like lightning. I don’t know how to express it, but this is one of the greatest ideas I had ever heard, and it has actually formed a major part of my professional life as well as working in the Church. There is a difference between teaching methods and techniques and principles. Principles and practices—that’s the way the scriptures teach.
You do this and—why, even the Old Testament, which is so full of technique and method, people lost it when they realized that it was all, every jot and tittle was pointing toward the great and last sacrifice. That’s what it was about. If you lose the principle, you get lost in the details, and we constantly do that in our jobs and our education and our lives. We think, “Do this, do this, do this,” we get into the details without understanding the principles. And it’s not either or, it’s both, but the principle is the foundation. To learn to teach and think in terms of principles is one of the most important things you’ll learn in being more effective as a leader and as a student. Constantly ask yourself, “What’s the principle? Why does this work? Is it tied to an eternal principle? Is it just a practical one?” It’s the best we have. What’s the principle? It’s a way of thinking.
Teaching in principles breeds ability to empower people, because then when the techniques change, the principle is there and you can come up with new techniques to solve the problems in new and effective ways. So I suggest the scriptures—when you once start looking at this, you’ll find the scriptures are just loaded with principles. All kinds of examples when you violate them—how they’re applied, how they’re not applied, what happens—but in the Book of Mormon it gives us a clue. Often it will say, “And thus we see.” In Moroni and Mormon it says, “And thus we see.” That’s a clue. You’re about to hear something. Be constantly looking for them. What’s the principle? It’s a key characteristic of perfected leadership.
Last lesson, number four: How do you exercise righteous influence? The 121 st section of the Doctrine and Covenants—you’ve heard it: “No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by [patience]…long-suffering…love unfeigned.” (verse 41) Read those last 15 or 20 verses in the 121 st section personally, and say, “As a parent, as a project leader, as a quorum president, as a Relief Society counselor, do I seek to influence righteously?” Leadership is about influence, but there’s righteous influence and there is all other kinds. If we follow the Savior, our influence will be righteous influence.
And there are specific guidelines and specific warnings and specific promises. It’s a beautiful section, describing on a very practical level how to influence the Lord’s way. And I’d suggest it applies in the Church and in any priesthood calling, and in the world. And if we learn to influence through the Spirit of the Lord in the world, that’s one way, and an important way, that we can literally fulfill our charge to let our light shine and be a light unto the nations.
And the light we will hold up is the light of the Lord Jesus Christ. That’s the source. For He is the way. He not only shows the way, He is the way. He is the truth. He not only teaches the truth, He is the truth and the light, and is the light and life of the world.
May we focus on Him, seek His guidance in becoming the leaders we can be, starting now, is my prayer and witness to you, and I offer it in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.