Bill Mowry

Are You Practicing Hot-Tub Leadership?

Have you heard the story about the hot tub? Mary was part of a male/female leadership team meeting for long-range ministry planning. Their meeting place was a motel conference center. After the evening meal, the men went to relax in the hot tub and invited the women to join them. The women politely declined and the groups went their separate ways.

Imagine the women’s surprise the next morning when the men described the decisions made in the hot tub. Turns out that the guys’ casual night together ended up in a strategic discussion that led to some decision-making. What’s the moral of this story? Never turn down a hot tub invitation!

How did the women feel about what happened? Mary told me the women felt disrespected because they were left out of the conversation. For the men, it was more efficient and expedient to make the decisions in the moment rather than wait for the women’s participation. I call this hot tub leadership.

Hot tub leadership, by design or circumstance, excludes others from decision-making conversations for the sake of convenience, efficiency, or expediency. Women, ethnic minorities, and those of a different economic-social class have repeatedly faced hot tub leadership. They’ve been systematically left out of leadership conversations so their voices were not heard nor included in the discussion. In those cases, racism or sexism may be blamed. Whatever the reason, the bottom line is that respect happens when we include those most affected by a decision into the decision-making conversation.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with people of color, class, or gender gathering together to discuss important issues — whether in a hot tub or a coffee shop. There’s also nothing wrong with organizational leaders meeting to make decisions. The problem is when decisions are made for others without the input or considered interests of those most affected. When this happens, those on the receiving end of the decision can feel used, disrespected, or marginalized — no matter the ethnicity or gender. This is hot tub leadership at its finest. But, the Bible presents a different way.

In a recent Bible study, I noted how respect should characterize every relationship I have. Here’s the evidence from the New Testament.

  • Husbands are to respect or honor their wives (1 Peter 3:7).
  • Wives are to respect their husbands (Ephesians 5:33).
  • Slaves are to respect their masters (Ephesians 6:4).
  • Believers should win the respect of “outsiders” or unbelievers (1 Thessalonians 4:12).
  • We are to respect our spiritual leaders (1 Thessalonians 5:12).
  • By implication we’re to respect civil authorities (Romans 13:7).

The word “respect” carries a diversity of meanings ranging from admiring someone because of their qualities, considering the feelings and rights of others, to affirming the equality of another with one’s self. The word “honor” has a similar meaning. We honor people by respecting people.

Author and CEO Max DePree describes how respect takes place when “everyone is taken seriously.” Another fundamental meaning of respect is using good manners. Management guru Peter Drucker writes that “manners are the lubricant of an organization.”

My wife, and the staff I’ve led, were faithful to tell me when I practiced hot tub leadership. Those on the receiving end of my leadership challenged me to ask more questions and listen to those most impacted by a decision. After all, this is just good manners. Sincere listening is one of the highest forms of respect.

My friend Randy taught me a corollary principle: good questions start with curiosity. Respectful leaders ask questions because they’re curious about another’s needs, context, or experience. We honor others by being curious about them. But, like listening, curiosity is hard work. It slows down the process, delays the decision, and may steer a leader away from his or her original assumptions or agenda. Remember, hot tub leaders value efficiency, convenience, or expedience. Respectful leadership guarantees none of these but it does produce trust.

Giving respect reaps trust. I’ve been on project teams where we worked hard to develop a project but someone “above us” decided to change our proposal without communicating the change rationale to the team. I have no problem with refinement or change but let’s respect one another by communicating with one another. This is just good manners.

Respect is a two-way street between leaders and followers. Respect does not guarantee that my opinions, values, or agenda is of equal wisdom with others or that the test of respect is implementing my ideas. The old adage still holds true, “I understand what you’re saying but understanding does not mean agreement.”

Nor does respect mean that leaders have to consult people on every decision or seek the permission of others. Sometimes decisions must be made quickly. However, unless you’re on a battlefield or in a crisis situation, respectful inclusion of others should be practiced along with efficiency, expediency, or convenience. That’s just using good manners.

Here’s one last story to illustrate the importance of respect.

Several years ago, I participated in a pastoral staff assessment process. My partner in the staff review was a successful business man. In our assessment interview, the staff person described how he felt unappreciated in his work. When walking away from the meeting, my partner commented that, “If he was in the real world he would just do his job whether he felt appreciated or not.” The implication was that the church world was not the real world.

Something didn’t seem right about that conversation. Driving home in the car, I asked myself, “What’s the real world?” The “real world” is not the business world — that’s a fallen world enslaved to sin. Of course people wouldn’t be respected in this world. However, the “real” world is the Kingdom world. How do we relate to one another in the Kingdom world? Romans 12:10 came to mind, “Outdo one another in showing honor” (ESV). I pictured people racing towards each other, outdoing one another in giving honor and respect. Zealousness in the kingdom means respecting one another.

So, beware of practicing hot tub leadership. Let’s honor people by listening, asking questions, and being genuinely curious. Let’s replace the values of expediency, efficiency, or convenience with respect. This is hard work but no one said giving respect was easy. As Aretha Franklin sang, “All I’m asking for is a little respect . . .!” The New Testament is clear — respect should characterize our relationships with one another. Let’s practice respectful leadership.

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