Leading Together For 45 years – Interview with Eagles Founders

001-1968 - Peter Chao & gang conversionLeading Organization for 45 Years –  Peter Chao, John Ng and Michael Tan

What were your greatest moments in the 45 years serving together in the leadership of Eagles Communications?

John Ng: For me, the greatest moment for 45 years is: initially, everything was about Peter Chao; he led the organisation, he was such a visionary, he is a leader, but I think at the age of 17 we had a wonderful advisor by the name of Peggy Yeo who said to us in the leadership retreat, he said, “Look! Eagles equals Peter Chao, and Peter Chao equals Eagles. And if you want to lead for the long haul, you’ll have to change.”

And to me the greatest moment is Peter’s willingness to step aside to let a few of us leaders take the lead, and be in the forefront like a Jazz Ensemble. He is not always on the forefront and that’s why we can come out – myself, Michael and a few others – and I think that was the turning point of Eagles or else Eagles would have been a dictatorship.

Michael: For me, there are many great moments but in the last 45 years, the greatest moments were times of crisis, and failure, and brokenness, when we cried together, when we suffered the pains of betrayal and desertion by close associates and friends.

I think this is the reality of ministry, I think God is continuingly moulding us, even right now as we serve together. But for me the most significant moment in my life was when we were 16 years old (by the way we were all born in the same year); it’s the time when after grade 10 we would separate and pursue different ways, and we thought that would be the end of it, end of our fellowship.

But at the year-end camp, when the camp speaker challenged us to go into ministry, 3 of us amongst others stood up in response to God’s calling. So that was a great moment for me because God called me and it was an honour to be called by God to serve Him full-time, and God called them at the same time. Looking back, it was a double joy, it was a bonus for me to serve with them, to suffer with them, for the rest of my life [laugh]. That was the greatest moment for me.

Peter Chao: I guess the greatest moments for me are breakthrough moments. When you are at the front and look behind, there are people who have abandoned everything, their aspirations, their future, their ambitions to follow you, and you tell them that God will make a way when everything that we see seems to be no way.

And there were many moments at the crossroads when I thought to myself, “oh shucks! What if it doesn’t come through for me?” And that burden, the weight on my shoulders; It’s not just myself who will be disappointed but also others who have given up a lot to follow. But when those breakthroughs come, and all of us know that breakthroughs have nothing to do with our capacity or our ability. When those God moments came, it’s like “WOW”. And those were the affirmation milestones that I required to go on for the next mile, and the next mile, and the next mile.

Leading 45 years together is very unusual; you must have been through a lot. What would be, for each of you, one or two top lessons you have learnt out of this long journey? It can be personal or professional as a leader?

Michael: One of the things that has kept me going is that sense of calling. I think for ministry and for leadership, to go for the long haul, you need to have a strong sense of calling, because it gets tougher all the time.

Ministry doesn’t get easier when you get older. For our case, we were all called to be preachers, and preaching doesn’t get easier when you get older. In fact it gets harder to climb the platform every time, to stand in front of the lectern. Eventually, somebody has to carry me up, because I’m hoping to die while preaching [laugh].

Frankly speaking, there are a lot of challenges and trials – people abandoned us, friends just walked out of the ministry because they couldn’t share the same vision or subscribe to the same philosophy of ministry. So I think the sense of calling is very important.

Sense of calling entails 3 things. Firstly, it is the calling to Christ. It is not just a calling to do exciting things and be trail blazers but primarily, calling is devotion to Christ alone. I will always remember this statement by some preacher: “God will bless us not because of our talents, or achievements, or our gifts, but according to our Christ-likeness.”

That has been with me for all these years. My calling is primarily to Christ, and not even to the organisation as such, but the organisation is like the environment which I can express my devotion to Christ.

Then secondly, calling entails commitment. This year is our 45th anniversary. As we celebrated our 45 years together, we want to be faithful, and we pray to God that we can be faithful. Because of His faithfulness, our faithfulness is a response to God’s faithfulness and commitment to us in spite of ourselves. God is faithful to us in spite of the mistakes we have done, in spite of the people we have hurt, in spite of being hurt ourselves, all the things we’ve done together.

Then, lastly calling requires constant renewal. Our corporate verse, Isaiah 40:31: “They who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength and mount up with wings like Eagles.” There have been many times along the 45 years where we were tempted to “close shop”, to quit, to call it a day. But it is the constant renewal of the mission that God has called us that sustain us through difficult moments.

005-1969 - Eagles RetreatJohn Ng: I think the biggest lesson for me is that we lead out of our humanness. “To human is to err”, that is why we have to lead in community. Ministry and leadership are always exercised in the context of community. I don’t know any other way to do leadership. You can never lead alone. And this is the testimony of what we’ve been going through for 45 years.

I think each one of us would have quit long ago, except for the fact that we have people, shoulders that we cried on. I remember when Peter left for Fuller Seminary and I was entrusted upon the leadership. And in that very first term of leadership, I had one of my closest associates, a high-flyer whom I led to Christ, left us because I wanted to hold him accountable to the way he treated people.

That leaving was very traumatic for me because here I am, doing leadership first time, and the very people that you love left you. It was very painful. In fact it was so painful and I was in shock, and anger and sadness for a year! I couldn’t lead, I didn’t want to do anything else until Peter came back, I had a community who said, “John, its ok. We are behind you, we still love you. We want you to lead us”. I think that was the most fantastic thing.

Therefore, I will never lead alone. It is the community, it is friendship with common visions and passions, it is accountability that we are open to one another; there are secret things that we know about one another; but we are all vulnerable. I have my own failures too.

The wonderful thing is that we accept one another. So, the biggest lesson: don’t lead alone. We lead out of humanness because you are a human, all of us need a community.

Peter Chao: the biggest lesson for me is the realization that people never stay the same. We all evolve, we all are at a different place, will be at a different place tomorrow than where we are today. Where we are today was not where we were 45 years ago.

But not only that, I found out that we all evolve because there is always a tension between our own personal needs and this desire to serve God. We all start out very nobly; we all make plans and decisions because of a very high and noble desire to want to please God. And in the emotional heights of this desire to please God, especially in the very affectionate and affective community, where they encourage you to pursue what God has for you, suddenly you realized all of the expectations laid upon you because of your calling go against your personal agenda. And then, those tensions, depends on how you handle it and how you express it, they change the community.

So right now whenever we recruit people, there are only 3 questions that we ask (and I learned this from Michael):

  1. “Do you have the competencies to perform?” – can you perform?
  2. “Do you fit?” – In every community, there are cultures, there are “sacred cows” – the question is whether you fit into this.
  3. “Can we tolerate working with you?”  – Because the truth of the matter is, (I learned this from Max DePree), we always hire for reason of competence, in other words, you want a good CV, you want to see the person has the correct education, correct disposition to do the work, you hire for competency, but you always fire most of the time, for reasons of relationships…”I don’t get along with you; I don’t like you”.

So people never remain the same. That’s my biggest take-away. Having said that, it also means that I’m not the same person I was 45 years ago. So if it is a given that people evolve and that we’re being shaped all the time, then let’s determine where we will be at the end of this journey. If we cannot stop the journey or the process in getting there, we can always determine where we want to get to.

So we have to start early by deciding “what kind of a person do I want to become?” – we all decide how much money we want to have by age whatever it is. But the truth of the matter is that we do not know what will happen in the future. And exactly because of all these permutations in the evolution of who we are, who we will become, why don’t we make a decision of the kinds of people we want to become and then we can plot our journey.

There’s no use talking about strategy. Why talk about strategy if you have no goals? Because if you have no strategy, any road will take you there. That’s my biggest take away.

For leadership it means to say that you have to accommodate the changes in people. You have to anticipate, predict and deploy (delegate), but you cannot control how people evolve. That’s the challenge in leadership.

We have to accommodate and we have to build organizations that are strong enough with parameters that are dynamic. You cannot draw your lines so hard and fast, that your organization/ministry does accommodate the changes in your people because the people that you trust the most, your high-performance leaders and associates, they too will change.

Having said that, finally I will say, in leadership, you have a wonderful opportunity to help shape people in the evolutionary process and hopefully since we’re on the subject of evolution after having worked with you, they don’t become more of a monkey at the end of the process.

You’ve had more than your shares of sufferings and failures, but as you think about the legacy you want to leave for the next generation – a young generation of leaders – what is the legacy you believe that God has given you to pass on to leaders in Asia and beyond?

John Ng: the legacy that I want to leave behind for young leaders is to have emotionally healthy spiritual family. I believe that emotionally healthy spiritual organisation starts with an emotionally healthy spiritual family. An emotionally healthy family starts with an emotionally healthy marriage, an emotionally healthy marriage starts with an emotionally healthy self.

If we can leave a legacy that build the health – the emotional health and spiritual health – that is so integrated and so holistic, I think we have done a great job to bring values to our society where marriage is breaking down so quickly today, and family lives are breaking down.

That’s why I’ve invested so much of my time dealing with marriage and family issues. I want to get out there to tell people that you can have a great marriage even though your marriage is bound to fail. Unless you put in effort and time, and trust God’s grace to see you through.

015-1974 - SPEN Spiritual Encounter

Michael Tan: For myself, the legacy I would like Eagles to leave to the next generation or others would be that if you are serving the Lord you must give your best, your 100% and more. Excellence, passion and fire. It doesn’t mean that you will always be successful – we are failed-again leader, and if we can bring the analogy down we are also a failed-again organisation but God can still use us in spite of our brokenness and pain.

I think the legacy I would like people to get, to embrace, to adopt as they look at us and see how we have served God in the last 45 years and on is that whatever we do, we give our best. Sometimes we have been accused; “Eagles, they are a rich organisation, they have money to spend. See all these expensive things and all the hospitality.” but it is not just that, we have simple tastes – simply the best. Our tastes are simple but it’s because we want to honour God and honour people and respect them and love them by giving our very best.

At Eagles, we embrace 4 core values:

  1. Humility – We lean on God, we depend on God’s grace and point people to him
  2. Authenticity – Be real, that is our vision, our motto: Eagles, True to life. This is what we want to be, true to life, true to the gospel, true to God, true to ourselves, true to others. This is also what the world is looking for, isn’t it? Not image management, not facade but authenticity.
  3. Community – I think John has shared that we want to share life, we want to commit together to uphold a common vision and to support one another, to accept one another in spite of all our weaknesses and idiosyncrasies.
  4. Creativity – We want to do the best for God in the articulation of the gospel. As we proclaim the gospel we want to be as creative as possible because creativity is an aspect of God’s image. Walt Disney said this “if you can dream it, you can do it.”

And Elbert Einstein, the greatest genius of all times said, “I have no special talents. I’m only passionately curious.” So creativity for me is that we have to be always learning, never being learned.

Warren Bennis, a distinguished professor of Leadership Institute at the University of Southern California said this “There are two ways of being creative. One is you sing and dance yourself or you can create an environment in which singers and dancers flourish.” And I think in the last 45 years some of us could sing and dance, but we have also created a platform for other people to shine and to be in the spotlight. I think that would be a great legacy to leave behind.

Peter Chao: The legacy I want to leave behind is that there is a possibility of a better tomorrow. It’s the legacy of hope. Because we have hope that is eternal, and that’s a hope that we must always live out and if we live out that hope we become harbingers of hope, we give people hope.

We believe in more than the second chance, because we have fallen more than twice, more than once, so not just the second but the third and the fourth. We believe in that, and that’s the legacy we want to leave behind.

Because every time I come to God for forgiveness He forgives, and there is assurance of that. If God gives me the umpteenth chance, how can I do less for other people? It means to say that there is hope for development.

We think of potential, we remember that a potential is like a rainbow. A rainbow is actually a circle, it’s just that we cannot see the rest of the circle. And if we say that there is hope, we are telling a young person that “you have a future in this. We can help walk with you towards your future, where you realise your own rainbow – the circle of your own rainbow.”

Hope also means to say that if we are marked up today, tomorrow can be a better day. And our presence gives people the hope. That’s what I’m hoping for. That when we are present, our very presence signals the arrival of hope. That is the legacy I would like to leave.

This interview was transcribed from a moderated leadership dialogue at the Eagles Leadership Conference 2013.