“I’m a very firm believer that experience is not the best teacher, but an evaluated process experience is the best teacher.” -Lindy Black
[00:00:00] Lindy Black: Through the encouragement of several different people, I learned to be a student of people. And in doing that, they often don’t realize that you are studying everything about them. You’re looking at their facial expressions, their non-verbal body language.
You’re looking at their tone or listening to their tone and more than all of those is that you’re listening to the words they’re saying and, in a sense, becoming a student of who they are. When you do that, you can remain in a posture of a learner.
Tommy Thomas: Our guest today is Lindy Black. Lindy is transitioning into her leadership role with The Navigators. She stepped off the National Leadership Team after the tenure of 12 years at the end of 2022. Her new role is walking alongside men and women serving in the background as a coach and developer of existing and new national leaders.
I first met Lindy when I was conducting the Vice-President of Development search for The Navigator several years ago. When we conduct a search, we typically interview members of the senior staff as part of our due diligence. Lindy was an easy person to interview. And as I remember, she gave us a lot of valuable input for the search.
Another thing we have in common is our love for Auburn University. Lindy spent several years serving on The Navigator staff at Auburn. And I took my electrical engineering degree from Auburn and came to be a Christ follower doing my sophomore year. Let’s pick up on my conversation with Lindy Black.
[00:01:44] Tommy Thomas: Before we go too deep into your professional career, let’s go back to your childhood. I’m always curious as to how people got their start. What’s your most memorable experience from childhood?
[00:01:54] Lindy Black: I don’t know if I would be able to just say one, because our family moved about every two years, and in that process, my dad, who is still living at 93, was a football coach. His goal was to be a head professional football coach.
And so consequently we moved a great deal and in that, there was every single place we lived, there was always the reality that there was something new and fresh there. I didn’t always think it would be, but every time God came through and put a new situation that was very… I don’t know if I’d use the word developmental, but it just helped me be more of the person I have become today.
So, all that moving around and having a football coach for a dad produced some things in me for sure.
[00:02:52] Tommy Thomas: Staying on that theme for a minute, what would you say was the greatest gift that you got from your parents in your childhood?
[00:03:01] Lindy Black: I would say they were so different. My mom was so merciful and kind and listening and caring, always seeing the one who may not be seen.
And my dad was driven. He was a Vince Lombardi fan to the max. His motto was, winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. The blend of those two things that’s their gift. To me, they were so different. And on a good day, I like to believe I have the best of both of them, at least at work inside of me. I’m not exclusively one or the other. But that was their blending of themselves definitely was the greatest gift.
[00:03:43] Tommy Thomas: What’s something that people are surprised to find out about?
[00:03:46] Lindy Black: If they haven’t been around me much, I think they will be surprised at how competitive I am. I guess that comes from being the daughter of a football coach, Tommy.
But once they’re around me a little bit, then they’ll understand that oh yeah, they’re not surprised then. So, I would love to think that being competitive, can have a real negative connotation for sure. But for me, I think it was a push to excel.
Tommy Thomas: Yeah, sticking with that for a minute, I interviewed Dr. Linda Livingstone at Baylor recently. She was an All-American basketball player at Oklahoma State. I asked her about the competitive nature and how a Christian either resolves or lives in the center of the tension of that.
So, I would pose that question to you. How, as a Christian, do you live in the center of the tension of being competitive?
[00:04:39] Lindy Black: I think there’s a competitive spirit where you want to be all that you can be and that can be very healthy. I think when it becomes unhealthy, at least in my own experiences, when by being competitive you put down others.
Now on a ball field, you want to win on a basketball court, on a track meet you want to win, being the best you can be and somebody will lose. However, in real life, that same spirit, which is what I’m describing in me, I think it’s healthy when it provokes you to excel. Still, the unhealthy part comes in when it is to the detriment or the putting down, the oppressing, the powering up over someone else.
[00:05:28] Tommy Thomas: When you joined The Navigators did you think it would be a career?
[00:05:33] Lindy Black: In a sense, I had my original career first, which was being a secondary math teacher. And so, when God called myself and Vic, my husband out, he was a systems analyst working in a computer company, and I was a school teacher when he called us out of that, I think there was a deep sense that we were all in for a lifetime if he wanted to change the path that was up to him. We saw it as a lifelong calling, but we were a little older when that step took place.
[00:06:08] Tommy Thomas: So how long had you been in public education?
[00:06:10] Lindy Black: About seven years at that time.
[00:06:11] Tommy Thomas: So you were probably in your early thirties when God called you.
[00:06:14] Lindy Black: Yeah, I was in my late twenties. Vic was in his early thirties.
[00:06:18] Tommy Thomas: Go back to your first management role when you actually had people reporting to you. What do you remember about that?
[00:06:27] Lindy Black: My first team that I led had four men on it, and they were all older than me and they had more experience than me. The first tangible emotion that came to mind is I was nervous, and I felt insecure. Now, many years later, I read the best article on leading people who know more than you do.
What I was learning in that early first management was that I needed to lean into the expertise and actually the greater knowledge of my teammates. And in doing that, not only was I learning, but it gave me an opportunity to affirm and encourage their development in what they were bringing.
But I don’t think I could have articulated that in the first couple times we met together. So, leaning into people who know more. There’s an art to that and I think I was early on in learning how to draw others out, how to affirm them, and how to bring their best because then the team is at its best and I get to grow. So that was my first memory.
[00:07:43] Tommy Thomas: So fast forward to your most recent assignment before you began to go into this next season of life, if I could have been present at a team meeting and we dismissed you and I asked them what would be the most challenging thing about working for Lindy? What would they say?
[00:07:58] Lindy Black: The most challenging, they would say sometimes she drives too hard to get to closure. And because of that, she can push us faster than maybe we want to be pushed. That would be one thing. I think they would, that’s probably in the team context. That would’ve been the thing they would say.
[00:08:20] Tommy Thomas: So can you think of, without naming the names of the guilty or the innocent, can you think of a time when you did that and looking back how that went down?
[00:08:29] Lindy Black: I think what happened is that the decisions, the endpoint of the discussion, that we didn’t get to the best landing point, because I pushed for closure there. In a sense, we truncated some of the creative thinking and the deeper thinking because I was more concerned that we had an end to it versus the depth of the discussion. I’m picturing a particular situation and I think that was the case.
We didn’t get to the best conclusion and then we had to come back to it and it’s always harder to come back. So that was a hard balance for me to learn because I’m a closure person and I want to see a process finish and not just stay up in the realm of ideas and in the clouds, but actually get to a point where we can move forward together as a team.
[00:09:26] Tommy Thomas: If we flip that question, what would they say was the most rewarding part of working for Lindy?
[00:09:33] Lindy Black: They would say, if I know Lindy’s leading the meeting, we’re gonna be okay. She will draw out people, she will listen. But she has an intuitive sense of when to stop the discussion most times and when to let it go a little bit longer.
[00:09:51] Tommy Thomas: Successful people are always asked, what makes you successful? I want to maybe frame that question a little differently and maybe the question would read what is a factor that helped you succeed that people on the outside probably wouldn’t realize?
[00:10:08] Lindy Black: I don’t know if they would be able to observe this, Tommy, or not. But I think through the encouragement of several different people, I learned to be a student of people. And in doing that, they often don’t realize that you are studying everything about them. You’re looking at their facial expressions, their non-verbal body language.
You’re looking at their tone or listening to their tone, and more than all of those is that you’re listening to the words they’re saying and, in a sense, becoming a student of who they are. When you do that, you can remain in a posture of a learner, which is a high value for me, is to stay in the posture of a learner.
So I don’t think people know how much I’m absorbing about their outward look as well as their thoughts that they’re communicating and the emotion that I perceive. So perhaps they don’t realize that everything they’re doing is helping me to understand either how to draw the best of them out, how to posture them for their next assignment, or a variety of other things.
[00:11:25] Tommy Thomas: Did a mentor teach you that, or do you learn by reading and how did that come to pass?
[00:11:30] Lindy Black: I have to give my mom first credit on this one. Especially as a teenager, I had words. I really had lots of thoughts and my mom was the best listener because she would be fully present to me.
And what I’ve wound up realizing later, not initially, is that as she listened to me and continued to pull out more from me, I actually worked my way to a good place, a place of security, or I talked myself to the right decision, or I was able in processing friendships to be able to realize, oh, okay, that friendship probably isn’t the best.
But it was rarely because she told me. She gave me enough time and space to be able to be to process that out that. That was the foundation of being a learner an observer and a learner of people. And then realizing if people are given long enough, very often with good questions and a very present listening posture, they actually can come to some of the best solutions all by themselves.
Now, that’s in a one-on-one situation. So, I think also, though probably the negative has influenced me just as much. And when I say the negative, I mean watching what happens when people don’t listen well, the implications are, they usually lead to a very unhealthy team or an unhealthy working environment.
So some of that is by watching the opposite of what you want to see and learning from that.
[00:13:14] Tommy Thomas: Were you a trailblazer in The Navigators relative to women in senior leadership?
[00:13:19] Lindy Black: I am not the only one, but I would say yes.
[00:13:22] Tommy Thomas: My early reflections were when I was in my early twenties, that it was probably a pretty male-dominated, is probably the stronger word, but The Navigators I knew were, were men. How did you break into that?
[00:13:37] Lindy Black: If I were being honest, Tommy, back in our early years on staff, we joined navigator staff in 1981, and in from then until probably for at least 10 years, maybe longer, maybe closer to 15.
If you had told me that one day I would be a Senior Vice President and Associate US Director of The Navigators, I would’ve said in your dreams, that will never happen for me or probably any other woman.
It was going to take too long to see women being able to have the opportunity to contribute who they are and their gifting and strengths. So when I was, it was 1994, and the man leading the campus ministry at the time c called the house and it was in the days when the phone was connected, you couldn’t walk around.
It was connected. And he called and I said, hello and we chit chatted. And I said let me go get Vic. And he goes Lin, I don’t want to talk to Vic. I want to talk to you. And I said, okay. And he goes, I want to invite you to, it was a Campus Net event going on in London, England a number of months later.
And I said, I remember saying, you want me to go? And he said, yes. And he went on to say some reasons why. And it was not just for my benefit, it was for me to benefit the people around the world from around the world that would be there. Honestly, Tommy, I would’ve said, I didn’t think anybody saw who I was, I didn’t, I just thought, I’m doing my wonderful campus ministry with my husband here in Auburn, Alabama. I loved what we were doing, but actually somebody else. There were others watching and I didn’t know that. So that opportunity was my first of being invited to bring something that I didn’t actually know I could bring.
They asked me to stand in front of the group, and I don’t remember the subject, but it was absolutely terrifying to do this. But I began to see, wait, I do have something to offer. So then fast forward about five years my kids were finishing high school and a door opened for me to be engaged with staff training in The Navigators.
And I realized, oh, I’m a people developer. I love this.
And by that time, we had a staff team of about nine men and women and seeing them become more of who they were or who God created them to be. Then that became a niche, and I realized if, especially as a woman, I’m, it’s probably true for men too, but to you, you need to find where you can excel and then do it with all your might, because bringing excellence actually opens doors, and that is what happened to me.
So that was an initial place of contribution. Now, as I began to excel in training, then I had I think it was three other doors open up to be an associate director of a particular team. And that was actually new ground for The Navigators at that time. This was in the early 2000s and up until my current role.
So I think in that there were places where I was able to excel and people realized I could bring a contribution that was broader than just the local or just among women, but it would bless the whole of the work.
[00:17:21] Tommy Thomas: Let’s stay with this team thing and leading people. What’s the most important quality you’re looking for when you bring somebody onto your team?
[00:17:29] Lindy Black: I think, and foremost is they don’t think they know everything that, that when you see that quality in someone that they think they know a lot or perhaps they know quite a bit, or even everything about the area that your team is focused on, that would be someone I would not want to invite onto a team because that prevents learning from others, learning from God, learning together as a team, because it can often be paired with a strong sense of independence and
People who are going to serve well on a team have to be strong in interdependence.
So that would be one thing I would not want to see. On the positive side, EQ in emotional intelligence, if that is strong, which the beginnings of emotional intelligence, the foundational piece is self-awareness. If a man or woman has a high degree of self-awareness knowing where they have strength, where they have vulnerability, that person will be much more likely to be an excellent team member because they’re not independent, but their emotional intelligence brings that deep level of self-awareness, then that can lead to being a good student of other people.
[00:18:50] Tommy Thomas: But say you do make a mistake along the way, and somebody has to leave their job. What have you found to be the best way to terminate somebody?
[00:18:58] Lindy Black: For one thing, I would have asked someone to step out of a role, that should never come as a surprise to them. By the time you get to the point you’re saying you can’t be in this role any longer, you’re done. If that is a surprise to them, then you have definitely failed as a leader.
When you fire someone, if it comes as a surprise to them, you have definitely failed as a leader.
Definitely. So there has to be periodic evaluations and I found being able to have thoughts in writing ahead of time notes to go back to, that’s life or death. Because if you’re a busy leader, you can’t remember all the conversations. And giving people opportunities, whether it’s formally in a performance improvement plan or informally just in coaching them to give them the opportunity, every opportunity possible to be able to overcome weaknesses that could potentially remove them from their job.
[00:19:55] Tommy Thomas: What’s the most effective team-building exercise you’ve ever used?
[00:20:03] Lindy Black: Boy, that is a tough one. I think what I would say is when people tell their stories, let’s say you’ve got a fairly new team, engaged. But when a team begins to hear one another’s stories, their background growing up, the realities in their home, and things they’ve had to overcome as team members begin to do the listening to what shaped this person?
It has a high degree of beginning to sow the seeds of being compassionate toward one another to realize what I see today is a product of other things that have happened in their lives. If you start there, you begin with a deeper understanding and potentially respect for one another. If you start there, it’s gonna be easier to go deeper and to build trust in the future.
So, telling their stories is probably one of the, that’s probably the most effective beginning point.
[00:21:09] Tommy Thomas: Have The Navigators noticed any difference in maybe you as being a leader in training the generation of people that are coming through your early ranks now than say 15, 20 years ago when you broke into leadership?
[00:21:23] Lindy Black: Our millennial staff they, those men and women, I believe were forerunners of changing a number of things, be moving more toward community engagement, community learning, not just me and one other person, or me and Jesus, but that they ushered in a much more partnering mode into where we currently are now.
That is a good setup for Gen Z who are now graduating from college and beginning to enter the workforce. And some are entering our staff. The place where I believe we are really struggling. And how much of this is the result of the Covid years, and how much is it, would it have been this way regardless of Covid and that?
I’ll just call it a healthy relationship, lack of skill. When you think about The Navigators, which is a ministry life to life, if you can’t carry on a conversation or initiate with a new person or have the confidence to initiate activities, those types of things,you’re going to be in big trouble.
So, the relational aspect and having confidence in knowing how to relate to other people, seem to be one of the biggest challenges today for sure. Now interestingly, I was just recently with a younger group of women, and as we were interacting, I found that their longing to have practical skills in life, in ministry, in all areas, practical skills, learning practical know-how was much higher than I’d noticed for the last two decades in groups of people.
It seems as though they were avid learners and wanted to understand how they could better engage and become more effective in the roles they were filling.
[00:23:31] Tommy Thomas: If we learn from our mistakes, why are we always so afraid to make a mistake?
[00:23:38] Lindy Black: Oh, my goodness. I might be at the top of that list.
I don’t know how much you’re familiar with the Enneagram, but that has been a significant help to me, both in understanding my strengths, but also in under also in understanding the places where I need to continue to grow and mature. In Enneagram one of the words they use for that is a perfectionist. I have a very high level of inner critic in my person of telling me things I’ve done wrong.
I have a twofold answer to your question.
I am always thinking how I could have done something better, how you could have done something better, how a process could be improved, and God has really used that and bless that.
Now, sometimes it just gets into a gear. People are just like, couldn’t we just do good? Does it always have to be changing and becoming better and better? I put that on myself, and that can be very debilitating. So that’s more on the inside of me. On the outside, I think as someone is facing the reality of failure, if you think you have failed and you just press on, you take application from that, apply it to the next situation, you will more than likely miss the meat or the good part of what God would want to teach you.
I’m a very firm believer that experience is not the best teacher, but an evaluated process experience is the best teacher.
I think you can do that by yourself. But if I were to wave my magic wand in this arena of failure and say, what is the most needed situation, tool, or experience, and that is to have someone sit with you, ask you several just basic questions to help you understand what did you intend to do, what went well, what went poorly, what did you learn from it, and that process has helped me not be so afraid of failing because I know nobody’s going to do everything perfectly, but when you do assess, evaluate what went on, oftentimes you are the richer for it, and that failure becomes far less debilitating in your own soul.
[00:26:16] Tommy Thomas: Where does that come from?
[00:26:17] Lindy Black: Actually, it was a man, a staff person in The Navigators. His name is Jim, and I happened to be at a workshop he was giving on giving and receiving feedback, and because of my hunger, both to learn personally, and to help other people be learners. It was a skillset or, he just had a basic process where he could walk someone through, and they were able to answer questions. If he was present, then he could actually give them feedback. But this could be, you could walk with someone, and you didn’t even have to be there when they had the experience.
Just the question asking and helping them dig deeper and understand what may have been under that. I was so led up, Tommy I thought, that’s been probably 25 years ago, and I have been able to both equip others but practice that where people don’t even know you’re actually helping them in a feedback experience or an evaluated experience.
[00:27:27] Tommy Thomas: What’s the most dangerous behavior or trait that you’ve observed that derails leaders’ careers?
[00:27:33] Lindy Black: From my own vantage point, it’s people who, their vulnerabilities or their weaknesses. A leader whose vulnerabilities and weaknesses have been overlooked because their strengths are so strong, they’re needed, they’re valued, and they can be esteemed, platformed, and pushed further on because what they’re bringing is of value and ignoring their weaknesses and vulnerabilities because someone didn’t have the courage to talk to them and say to them, this is my observation.
Or this is how I’m perceiving you and their weaknesses are overlooked. There are a number of my peers who I believe have not been able to excel to the degree God longed for them because no one was able, it may be other people’s choices or their choice to come alongside and say, this is how I experience you.
I believe this is a real vulnerability. So I think weaknesses unlooked at, unchallenged, those things in their character will be the things that will be at the top of the list of derailing them.
Join us next week as we continue this conversation with Lindy Black. One of the topics we will discuss is how she got into journaling and how journaling has impacted her life.
Until then, keep doing the good work you’re doing to help make the nonprofit sector more effective, sustainable, and scalable.
“I am always thinking how I could have done something better, how you could have done something better, how a process could be improved.” -Lindy Black
Links and Resources
Next Gen Nonprofit Leadership with Tommy Thomas
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