Earlier this month, I spent a few days in Cuba.  It was my second journey to that island nation in the past eight months.  The first trip was eye-opening, we stayed in Havana the entire time and tried to soak in the scenes.  This second outing turned into an adventure.  My traveling buddy, Karl Roth and I had no translator or interpreter for the first two days.  The country was prepping for a visit from President Obama so somehow all of the hotels were booked.  And instead of staying close to Havana, we ventured into the center of the island for some meetings with locals there.  So we got a great behind-the scenes backstage pass to life in Cuba.

In the midst of the experience, I saw several leadership principles emerge.  Here are some things I learned from my time in the country dominated by Fidel and Raul Castro:


1.  Overreach Overwhelms

The government in Cuba controls…just about everything.  It is a lesson in the devastation of government overreach.  It doesn’t matter if you are a republicrat, A demoderm or a librarian politically, too much micro-managing from leaders squelches…just about everything.  

The more the government tries to do, the worse the government tends to do.

As I was feeling some disgust from a military regime gone too far, it suddenly hit me:  Do I do that?

Do I try to over-control, micro-manage and nit-pick so much that those who are following me are disgusted?  I don’t often get called a “control-freak” but sometimes I try to do too much myself.  And this trip to Cuba made me want to repent of not trusting others.

The Apostle Paul says that the leader’s job is to empower others:

Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers.  Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ.—Ephesians 4:11-12 (NIV)

Am I empowering or squelching?


2.  Incentives Inspire

At the Jose Marti airport, as we readied to head home we were able to spot our Aruba Airlines aircraft pull up and unload passengers from Miami.  Unloading the bags took forever.  There were a couple dozen airport personnel (I can’t call them, “workers”) who were standing around and chatting with each other.  Every so often one would break away from the conversation to take a suitcase or two from the conveyer belt and put it on the baggage shuttle.   Then they would join back in their group.  It was amazing how little work they actually did.  I mentioned this inefficient system to my friend Karl Roth, who said, “They are communists, what are you going to do, fire them?”

Again it hit me, do I do that?  

Do I de-incentivize the people I lead?  If there are a couple dozen “workers” standing around one of our meetings or services without paying attention, it may be a lack of vision, incentives and clarity.

Paul says:  Correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.

—2 Timothy 4:2 (NIV)


3.  Drivers Determine Disposition

We had scheduled a big meeting in the center of the island, but the person who came to pick us up reported that his car had broken down.  So, he rented an early nineties mini-van taxi with two taxi drivers.  The one riding shotgun was apparently there to spot the potholes, while the one driving was to make sure he hit them.  And they succeeded.  I’m pretty sure we didn’t miss any ruts on our trip.  When we arrived at our destination, we were exhausted.   

After subjecting myself to the herky-jerky driving, I had to ask, “Do I do that?’  Do I hit every pothole on my leadership journey so that those sitting in the passenger or back seat are exhausted when we stop?

Jesus didn’t promise easy street, but he did promise a restful journey:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”—Matthew 11:28-29 (NIV)


4.  Recognize Reality

Leadership guru Max Depree wrote, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.”

It appears that Fidel Castro strikes out on all three of Depree’s points.  Castro certainly isn’t an appreciative servant.  But perhaps worse than that, he doesn’t seem to have a good relationship with reality.  Castro has indoctrinated his people into believing their main problem is the United States and its economic sanctions on Cuba.   The reality that Castro is a murderous totalitarian dictator who abuses human rights is not apparent to the people of Cuba.  As a rebel, Fidel used firing squad executions to enforce discipline, punish disloyal followers and intimidate potential opponents.  His ruthless behavior isn’t talked about in Cuba.

It is becoming more apparent as more Cubans who have defected return with a better handle on truth.  But Castro has worked hard to make sure his constituents only hear what he wants them to hear.

Do I do that?  Do I spin what I don’t like, do I ignore hard truths, do I manipulate?  My friend, Willie Nolte is fond of saying, Facts are our friends.”  We have to face reality.

Jesus put it this way: He said to the crowd: “When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, ‘It’s going to rain,’ and it does.  And when the south wind blows, you say, ‘It’s going to be hot,’ and it is.  Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time?—Luke 12:54-56 (NIV)

And Solomon warned:  Do not pay attention to every word people say…--Ecclesiasts 7:21 (NIV)


5.  Nifty Negotiations

When Fidel Castro stood up against American presidents, Fidel seemed to come out on top.  

Dwight Eisenhower decided to play golf instead of meeting with Castro, who visited the United States in 1959.  Castro met with Vice President Richard Nixon instead.  Nixon hoped his meeting would push Castro, “in the right direction,” but Castro wasn’t persuaded.   Castro took full advantage of his 11-day stay.  He hired a public relations firm, ate hot dogs, kissed ladies like a rock star, and held babies like a politician. He even placed a wreath on George Washington’s grave. 

John F. Kennedy went up against Castro in the Bay of Pigs, which turned into a disaster for the U.S.  Kennedy may have come off as somewhat obsessed with this dictator from a tiny little island.  

In 1980 during a downturn in the Cuban economy, an uprising at the Peruvian embassy caused Castro to allow those seeking asylum to defect to the United States.  The “Mariel Boatlift” saw 125,000 Cubans get on boats at the Mariel port to immigrate to the United States.  But when they arrived in Miami, it became clear that Castro had emptied Cuban jails and mental health institutions and sent those folks to the states.  President Carter did not come out of that confrontation looking good. 

Recently President Obama has sought to open up relations with Cuba, and he traveled there last week.  But Raul Castro announced that this meant Cuba won the war.  And Fidel’s remarks about the president were not flattering.

Why does Fidel win these over-matched battles?  He is a skilled negotiator.   One of the marks of leadership is an ability to negotiate well.

Do I do that?  Do I give away too much, allow myself and my associates to be taken advantage of, and show my hand too early?

Years ago, one of my coaches encouraged me to spend a year learning how to enhance my negotiation skills.  It was an invaluable exercise.

Jesus commented:  For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.  I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.—Luke 16:8-9 (NIV)


6.  Look for Leaders

When Fidel Castro took over the island nation of Cuba in 1959, it officially became a nation of atheists. Castro’s regime would not allow the building of any new churches.

The Christians there did not let that stop them.  They meet in houses, which often limit their numbers to 30-40 people.  But instead of lamenting that large groups cannot gather, they look to plant new churches.  So, they are always looking for the next leader.

We went to meet with ten couples in Cuba, but 150-200 people showed up.  Why?  They were invited as potential leaders and planters.

Do I do that?  Am I always on the lookout for the next leader?  Or am I trying to build my kingdom.

They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas…--Acts 15:39-40 (NIV)


7.  Commitment over Conditions

How has Fidel Castro managed to reign for 65 years?  The bottom line is he refuses to give up or give in.  His commitment is clear.

Cuban Christians live with the constant tension between Romans 13: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.”—Romans 13:1 (KJV) and Acts 4: “Do you think God wants us to obey you or to obey him?  We cannot keep quiet about what we have seen and heard.”—Acts 4:19-20 (CEV)

Most Cuban Christians know that they may be putting their life on the line when they serve Jesus.  And there is a revival in Cuba.  Why?  The believers there refuse to give up or give in.

John Wesley is remembered for stating:  “Give me one hundred men who fear nothing but sin and desire nothing but God, and I care not whether they be clergyman or laymen, they alone will shake the gates of Hell and set up the kingdom of Heaven upon the earth.”

Do I do that?  Is my commitment that strong?

Jesus said:  And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.—Luke 14:27 (NIV)

My trip to Cuba was an adventure, and also an education and made me reflect on my commitment and my leadership.

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