September 2012

“John, we have a problem.”

As a leader, you get used to hearing those words. Challenges are a daily part of leadership. However, when this time when I heard them, I felt my stomach drop. I was young and had just left the church in Hillham, my first position as a leader. I had moved to a new opportunity, in part because I believed that Hillham was in great shape to continue its growth and work.

Now, one of my most trusted friends from the church was on the phone, telling me things weren’t as rosy as they seemed. I immediately asked what was wrong.

“We’ve fallen off,” my friend said. “Attendance is down, and so is morale. John, what’s gone wrong?”

I didn’t know how to answer him then. And that question stayed with me for six months. I puzzled over it, dreamed about it, and turned it over and over in my mind until I finally realized what had indeed gone wrong:


Last week, I shared with you five lessons I learned when just starting out. Those were principles learned from victories; this week, I want to share some principles that came out of failure. After all, it wouldn’t do for the author of Failing Forward to not own up to his mistakes!

It was devastating to learn that the three years Margaret and I invested in Hillham had withered so quickly. For as much as I was able to accomplish as a one-man show in Hillham, the truth is my failure to multiply myself as a leader hurt the church. Because I didn’t develop others, the church fell back into a state similar to what it had been before my arrival.

So where did I go wrong? After a lot of wrestling, I realized that I’d failed to see the limits of a one-man show.

The Limit of Vision

Margaret and I worked hard to build the church in Hillham. She was in charge of youth, serving the community, special projects, and hospitality. I was in charge of preaching, visiting members, recruiting new attenders, developing programs, and handling problems. We had a vision for what the church could be, and we worked hard to make it happen. The people loved it, got excited about it, and shared in the labor.

But while I partnered with the people in the work, I never transferred the vision to them. It was my vision, not our vision. And that’s not an uncommon problem for leaders to have. As leaders, we get so caught up in what we can see, what we think should be, that we sometimes fail to bring others into the process. When leaders don’t invite others to share the vision and make it their own, that vision is automatically tethered to the leader.

That means wherever the leader goes, the vision follows. If the leader makes a major mistake, or self-destructs, or—as in my case—moves on to another opportunity, the vision remains attached to him or her. It is imperative for leaders to share the vision with the people if the vision is going to survive and remain after they leave.

The Limit of Influence

While I was in Hillham, my old Volkswagen Beetle was an ever-present sight on the dusty farm roads. Any time someone saw it, they knew Pastor John was out trying to bring more people into the church. As time went by, the church began to grow. People would come just to see what we were up to. Leaders from other churches would call me to ask what we were doing right. I was working hard and developing influence within the community, and for three years it worked perfectly.

And then I left the community and took my influence with me.

Much like vision, your influence as a leader is tethered to you unless you share it. Had I selected even one person to mentor or develop during my time at Hillham, their influence would’ve remained when I left.

Where I really missed the boat was in not developing at least one other leader who would go on to develop other leaders! Talk about limiting yourself! I like to say, if one is good, four is better—and that’s true with leaders. Why add one or two when you can multiply by three or four? Influence is at its best when it is multiplied.

The Limit of Momentum

By now you’ve picked up on my theme, but I want to touch on one more area where the limits of a one-man show really make a difference—momentum. In The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, I write about how “momentum is a leader’s best friend.” That is absolutely true. During the years that I was at Hillham, our momentum was amazing. After starting with only three people in church on my first Sunday, we quickly reached more than 300 people in attendance.

But when we left for our next opportunity, the momentum soon died. What we had worked so hard to build faded in a matter of months, because we hadn’t developed people to continue carrying the momentum for us.


Fortunately for me—and for Hillham—none of these lessons was fatal. Hillham gradually found their own rhythm again. And the lessons I learned helped me develop one of my core beliefs about leadership: leaders must develop other leaders…who develop other leaders. That principle of multiplication drives me every day to continue growing myself and growing leaders around me, because I want my legacy to be one of leadership development. I want to develop strong leaders who carry the vision, the influence and the momentum. And I’m especially excited about our newest initiative to transform leaders who transform nations that transform our world.

And I’m grateful for all the lessons I learned from Hillham – both the wins and the losses. I started as a one-man show, but through Hillham, I learned the importance of not remaining one.

If you’re still a one-man or one-woman show, I encourage you to learn from my experiences. By developing people who become leaders, who then eventually develop other leaders, you’ll create and sustain dynamic growth, influence, and momentum in your organization. And you and your people will be better for it.

The year was 1969.

Fresh out of college and newly married to my long-time love, Margaret, I stepped into the sanctuary of my first church, in Hillham, Indiana. To say Hillham was small would be an understatement; when Margaret and I first moved there, the town consisted of eleven houses, two garages, and one grocery store. Even today, it is still small in many ways—for example, its Wikipedia page is only four sentences long!

Despite its size, however, Hillham was a place of massive opportunity for Margaret and me. It was my first church, my first real taste of leadership, and my first opportunity to pursue the dreams I had for my life. It was also the first real challenge I faced—my first Sunday sermon was delivered to an audience of two, and Margaret was one of them!

Though the church was small, my dreams were huge. The people of the church were more than happy to let me chase those dreams, but due to size and budget restrictions, it was up to me to do the chasing! I was young, I was determined, and I set out to succeed with nothing more than a little willpower and a lot of confidence.

There are many leaders who face similar circumstances to the ones I faced in Hillham: small organization and few resources, but big dreams and goals. Being a one-man show isn’t ideal, but it can teach you a lot of great leadership lessons. In fact, many of the lessons I learned in Hillham became foundational not only for my future leadership positions, but for the lessons I teach in my books and from the stage.

Here are five lessons I learned as a one-man show:

1. Harness the energy of potential

Hillham was a small community, but I had unlimited opportunity before me. Every door needed to be knocked on, every name needed to be learned, every day presented a first for me and my career. Because of this, I was able to wake up each day excited for what lay ahead of me. Nothing gives more energy to the one-man show than potential. The key is disciplining yourself to look for it in every situation.

2. Tap into your imagination

One of my first successes came in Hillham. Because so many people were struggling with finances, I decided that teaching them principles for managing their money would be a tremendous way to add value to them. I went looking for resources to purchase to help me, but none existed—so Margaret and I just made our own. We researched, wrote, designed, and printed the materials we would need to help people learn to manage their money. And it worked so well that other churches came asking for the materials!

It’s often easy to say, “Well, no one has ever done that before” and give up. But when you tap into your imagination, you can find your way around any problem—and possibly help other people find their way around it too!

3. Discover your strengths and focus on them

Most of us recognize that even a one-man show needs to begin specializing. When I first came to the church, everything was new, and I was an amateur in all of it. So I just worked hard and tried to grow. But I soon discovered that there were areas where I seemed to be growing quickly, like communication, and others where I grew much more slowly, such as administration. I worked at both, but I never became a great administrator. Over time, however, my communication got better and better, and the church began to thrive.

The natural tendency is to spend most of our energy in those areas where we struggle the most, reasoning that if we invest there, we’ll see the most improvement. Here’s what Hillham taught me: The reverse is actually true: when we spend our time focusing on what we do best (or have the potential to do best), we go a lot farther in that area.

4. Learn to build momentum

It’s tempting to believe success comes in the form of a “home run”, especially when you’re working alone. You can become convinced that you are one big this, or one lucky that, away from really breaking out. The truth is your breakout will come from the small changes you make day after day.

Consistent work to improve your routine, your disciplines, and your knowledge accumulates over time, and produces the big this or the “luck” that you need. When you learn to do the small things each day, you’ll experience what historian Thomas Fuller once said: “Care and diligence bring luck.”

5. Appreciate those who help

It doesn’t matter how much of a one-man show you are, you’re never really alone. Everyone has people who support and help them on their way, and I was no different. Hillham originally offered me a part-time salary, and gave me permission to seek other employment so I could support Margaret and myself.

Margaret wouldn’t stand for it. She told the church that she would go out and get extra jobs so I could devote my time and energy to my work. And she did – in fact, she worked three of them to help us stay afloat during that time. I was able to grow and succeed in that church in large part because Margaret believed and invested in me.


It’s been a long time since Hillham, but these five lessons have been foundational for me and my career. If you’re currently in a season where you’re a one-man (or one-woman) show, take heart—there are plenty of great things you’re learning that will help you in the future.

In fact, I want to share a few more lessons in next week’s blog, because not everything I learned came from success. There were even more lessons to be learned from failing forward, and they’re just as important as the ones I shared today.

But I’d like to leave you with a question: if you’ve ever been a one-man show, what lessons did you learn from the experience? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

I love a good quote. I’ve been collecting them for over four decades now, and it still blows my mind how powerfully other people’s words can improve my understanding of certain ideas. Lately I’ve been thinking about ways to help entrepreneurs with their businesses, and from my files I’ve pulled out some quotes that I think are extremely helpful for anyone who owns—or dreams of owning—their own business.

Being an entrepreneur is hard. There are challenges in so many areas: time, resources, commitments, character. Fear can be an ever-present enemy. But along with the challenges, the rewards are abundant as well: opportunity, independence, freedom, flexibility, and so many more.

In fact, the entrepreneur embraces what Peter Drucker once said: “The entrepreneur always searches for change, responds to it, and exploits it as an opportunity.”

But Peter isn’t the only one with wise words for entrepreneurs. In fact, here are some other great quotes that I believe entrepreneurs of all stripes will find helpful.

"Energy motivates but charisma inspires. Energy is easy to see, easy to measure, and easy to copy. Charisma is hard to define, near impossible to measure and too elusive to copy. All great leaders have charisma because all great leaders have clarity of WHY; an undying belief in a purpose or cause bigger than themselves. It’s not Bill Gates’ passion that inspires us, it’s his undying optimism that even the most complicated problems can be solved."

– Simon Sinek, Start with Why                                                                                                             

"We have, I think, a very rigid and limited definition of what an advantage is. We think of things as helpful that actually aren’t and think of other things as unhelpful that in reality leave us stronger and wiser…What the Israelites saw from high on the ridge, was an intimidating giant. In reality, the very thing that gave [Goliath] his size was also the source of his greatest weakness. There is an important lesson in that for battles of all kinds of giants. The powerful and strong are not always what they seem."

– Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath

"No one has more skin in the game than you do. If your offering fails, the marketing firm employee handling your account will go on to the next project. The company distributing your product will fill that product slot with something else. The speaker’s bureau will find another person to talk on the same topic you did. It is not that they don’t care; it’s just that their bets are spread across a portfolio of projects. Not so with you. Your fortunes rise or fall on the success of your current project. If it succeeds, you reap the lion’s share of the rewards. If it fails, you suffer the consequences. It’s your career on the line…This is why you must take matters into your own hands. Take responsibility for your own success and invite others to join you in the endeavor."

– Michael Hyatt, Platform

"Consumers are not loyal to cheap commodities. They crave the unique, the remarkable, and the human. Sure, you can always succeed for a while with the cheapest, but you earn your place in the market with humanity and leadership…Those are the only two choices. Win by being more ordinary, more standard, and cheaper. Or win by being faster, more remarkable, and more human."

– Seth Godin, Linchpin

"I only accept and pay attention to feedback from people who are also in the arena. If you’re occasionally getting your butt kicked as you respond, and if you’re also figuring out how to stay open to feedback without getting pummeled by insults, I’m more likely to pay attention to your thoughts about my work. If, on the other hand, you’re not helping, contributing, or wrestling with your own gremlins, I’m not at all interested in your commentary."

– Brené Brown, Daring Greatly

"Effective workers do two things: they strive to do excellent work, and they spend their time on the most important things…Say no to the unimportant, and say no to the inclination to do less than your best. If you are doing your best work on the most important things, you will reach your goals."

– Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend, Boundaries

"We often try to make it complicated. We say things like, 'I don’t even know where to start' or, 'I’m afraid to do it the wrong way,' when it comes to hard work and putting in effort. But our desire to complicate it is all too often just a cover for laziness or fear. Hustle is not hard. If you write your blog every day, at the end of the year you will have more readers than when you started. If you get up early and work on your dream two hours more than somebody else, your dream will progress faster."

– Jon Acuff, Quitter

"Our two greatest gifts are time and the freedom to choose—the power to direct our efforts in the use of that time. The key is not in 'spending' time, but in 'investing' it—in people, in empowerment, in meaningful projects and causes. Like any capital resource, if we spend time, it’s gone. We dwindle away our inheritance. If we invest it, we increase our inheritance, and it will redound to the blessing of generations that follow."

– Steven R. Covey, First Things First

Developing your own business can be worth all the challenges you’ll face, which is why I want to come alongside and help you if you are in the arena, fighting. After all, I’ve been there, and I know where you stand. That’s why this Thursday, April 21, at 2:00 pm EDT, I’m offering a free live call to help entrepreneurs get a leg up on their business. I want to offer some principles that can help you expand your imagination for what’s possible—because, as Mark Twain said, “You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.”

To join the call, you need to preregister here before the slots fill up. In the meantime, let me leave you with one more quote to take with you, from an old king who knew a little bit about, well, everything: “Take good counsel and accept correction—that’s the way to live wisely and well.”

I may not be as wise as King Solomon, but those are words to live by. But don’t let me have the last word—what are some of your favorite quotes on the subject of being an entrepreneur?