Daniel Harkavy: Leadership in Uncertain Times—Part 1

“A leader’s effectiveness is determined by just two things: the decisions they make and the influence they have.”

In the world of business, Daniel Harkavy is a well-known name. Through his company Building Champions, he’s coached some of the world’s most prominent business executives to lead themselves and their organizations well since 1996. In 2000, Harkavy, an evangelical Christian, extended coaching to church leaders and pastors through a not-for-profit called Ministry Coaching International.

He wrote his first book in 2007, Becoming the Coaching Leader (Thomas Nelson), and in 2016, Living Forward (Baker) with fellow leadership expert Michael Hyatt, about self-leadership. In October, he released his latest book, The 7 Perspectives of Effective Leaders: A Proven Framework for Improving Decisions and Increasing Your Influence (Baker). In the book, he breaks down what he says are the seven essential perspectives for any leader desiring to make good decisions and gain influence: Current reality, long-term vision, strategic bets, the team, the customer, the leader’s role and the outsider.

Below, we talk to Harkavy about his own leadership experiences and the history of Building Champions. He also explains how business and church leaders can use a framework like the seven perspectives to improve their leadership of their organizations in today’s uncertain world.

Can you give a quick summary of your personal leadership history and talk a little about Building Champions, the leadership coaching company you founded and now lead?

I’ve been CEO of Building Champions for going on 25 years. I started it after a 10-year career in banking. I grew up Jewish, came to faith in Yeshua at 22, and my career took off. At age 30, I had a big crisis of faith. I really felt like God spoke to me and told me that even though I had recently started following Christ, I was still setting my ladder on the wrong building. I had this wonderful career in banking and a bright future in it. But when I was 30, I went to a Promise Keepers event, came home, and quit my job, which led to a one-year sabbatical and a move from southern California to Portland, Ore. During this time off, I considered a few business concepts that would enable me to be more on the evangelical, outreach, difference-making side. The business that most interested me was starting an executive coaching company, which was a pretty foreign concept back in 1996.

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When I started Building Champions, I incorporated the best practices I learned in my banking career, which was all about coming alongside people who wanted to make a difference, who wanted to be the best. I helped them gain clarity on where they wanted to go and how to get there. That was back in my 20s. At Building Champions, we work with business and organizational leaders (including church leaders), to help them lead themselves, their teams and their organizations better.

Talk about the idea behind the seven perspectives. How does it produce better leaders?

I started using the seven perspectives in the laboratory of my clients at Building Champions. The leadership game has changed. It’s so confusing, but if you step back, you’ll see that a leader’s effectiveness is determined by just two things: the decisions they make and the influence they have. In order to make the best decisions and have the most influence, leaders need to be intentionally curious in all seven perspectives. The moment they think they know it all is the moment they curb their leadership effectiveness. But if you can be intentionally curious and humble, surround yourself with the right people, and exercise discipline and rigor in each of those seven perspectives, you’ll make better decisions and have more influence.

2020 has been an unprecedented year full of unknowns. What has that looked like through the lens of leadership?

The game has changed for business and church leaders. When mid-March hit and COVID came, and leadership responded the way they did, it was the first time in any of our lives where we’ve seen the world shut down at the same time. How do you operate an organization when you can no longer come together and when you have no idea how long it’s going to last?

For the last five years, I’ve been talking with my clients about VUCA, a military term coined by the U.S. Army War College after the Cold War. It stands for “Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity.” In business we’ve been saying for years that leaders are operating in a state of VUCA. But if you focus on that, it will cause you to be less than effective because it will create a reaction in your limbic system where you move into fight, flight or freeze, and you no longer create. You operate out of defense.

What caused VUCA in business years ago was the speed of change with technology, globalization, and how societies can shift as the result of access to social media and news platforms.

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COVID created three major stress points: Fear of health, fear of finance, and fear of neighbor. When we put people into this state of concern and uncertainty over the danger of COVID, and then we lock them down and take away their freedom, break their routines and change the playing field every single week with no clarity as to why, that multiplies the impact of VUCA by a thousand.

It creates real emotional intelligence challenges in our minds, because we’re in limbic system overload. Fast forward to May, and you see people absolutely lose it when we see the atrocities of the George Floyd situation. And if this were not enough, add the polarizing pressures from the election. We’re all at such a high level of stress.

And what about for church leadership specifically?

If you’re a church leader, your product or service is the most valuable product that can be provided to mankind: the hope of the gospel. But the playing field changed, so for most churches, that means, How do you do church in a digital world? How do you create community via Zoom? How do you lead worship when it’s one sided? How and when do you bring people back together? It’s all so difficult, so what leaders need in times of difficulty, of feeling lost, is a GPS. The seven perspectives are a GPS. They’re not the Bible. They’re not going to be the cure-all, fix-all. But the framework can help a lot of church leaders create simplicity with how they function to make the best decisions and be the most effective, so that they fill their days with more of the right thinking and behavior.

In Part 2 of this interview with Daniel Harkavy discusses how his leadership framework applies to church leaders.