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If You’re Trying to Hide Your Weakness, Read This

If you look at his resume, Mike Ullman is a powerful person. He’s been the CEO of five huge corporations,…

post by Ben Cachiaras

If you look at his resume, Mike Ullman is a powerful person. He’s been the CEO of five huge corporations, including some dramatic turn-arounds at places like Macy’s, Duty Free Shops, and most recently JC Penney. He’s been a White House Fellow. He serves on several important corporate boards, like Starbucks, and is the Chairman of Mercy Ships. He runs with the Big Dogs.

I am in Dallas for a Leadership Network learning community for rapidly growing churches, hanging out with other leaders. Mike Ullman spoke to our small group of pastors yesterday, but he doesn’t come off like a Big Dog. In fact, he is disabled, and walked with the aid of a rolling chair. He was a terrible student as a child, dyslexic, and didn’t read a book until he was 25.

Driven to succeed, he determined to overcome his weaknesses by working his tail off. He earned an engineering degree and got an impressive job at IBM. Rising through the ranks, he landed a big job at a University with 13,000 employees under him. That’s when he realized he was in an impossible situation and his limitations would catch up to him. In one of those life-pivot moments, he reached out to God for help in his weakness in a prayer that every person NEEDS to come to: “Lord, if you’re out there, I really need you. Because I’m about to fail. I’ve worked as hard as I can to overcome my weaknesses. But now I need you.” 

God met him in those days with grace and strength, and Mike began to live out of the strength of the Lord through his weakness.

Then he got weaker. Doctors are not sure how to diagnose Ullman’s condition, but it leaves him disabled with a progressively debilitating disease. Still, he came out of retirement to accept leadership of a struggling JC Penneys a few years back. On his first day stock went down 11%, and he was invited to meeting with 800 key employees. To his surprise, someone put a microphone on him and told him he should say a few words at the end. Through that 2 hour meeting he worried because between him and the stage were 6 steps. He knew there was no way he could get up those 6 steps in front of 800 people. He was simply incapable of doing what he, as a leader, was expected to do. 

When the time came for him to speak, he stood on the floor and said one of the reasons he was drawn to JC Penney was because of the integrity of the leaders in the room, and that he wanted to test that integrity. He asked everyone to close their eyes and put their head down until he told them to open them. With eyes closed, Mike Ullman, the new CEO crawled on his hands and knees up those six stairs and over to the lectern. Using the podium to pull himself up, he brushed himself off and told people they could open their eyes. “You have passed the test,” he said.

Then he went on to say he was glad they hadn’t had their eyes opened, because that way they didn’t have to watch him crawl up the steps and across the stage. “I can’t walk,” he said. He explained that he had plenty of other weaknesses as well. He said he couldn’t be a CEO in the way they may be used to thinking of a CEO. Then he thanked them for their belief in the vision of their shared mission. Mike said, “Right from the beginning, God would have to give me strength.” 

Together, the leaders in that room worked to turn the company around. Mike Ullman’s influence (which is strength) skyrocketed that day. Not through a show of strength, but through an admission of weakness.

The great leaders are not the ones with more strength. They are the ones who know and show their limitations, which frees them up to receive God’s strength, and find the gifts in others God has placed around them. 

When we pretend we are omnipotent, we are seeking credit for success, and desiring to shirk responsibility for our failures. That’s the MO of many would-be leaders. But it is only when we acknowledge our weakness that the door to God’s strength is opened. 

This is the way Jesus led – not as a super-power, bigger than life CEO. He crawled across the stage and told everyone about it.

The once-powerful Paul didn’t use his resume to impress. He had limitations which God would not remove, saying, “My grace is enough for you, and my power is made perfect in weakness.”

What about you? What kind of leader are you? Do you try to hide your limp so others think you are stronger, better, smarter, wiser, more capable than you are? 

Are you okay with crawling across the stage so that the gifts of others and the strength of God can shine?

“For when I am weak, then I am strong.” — 2 Corinthians 12:10

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