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John Cox on Actionable Leadership Development Frameworks

John Cox on Actionable Leadership Development Frameworks



John_Cox_podcastWelcome back to the unSeminary podcast. Thank you for joining us today. Our guest for this week’s episode is John Cox from Watermark Church.

Watermark Church is in Dallas, Texas, and has three campuses with an average of 14,000 people each Sunday. Watermark has set out to reach people who have been turned off by church in the past and invite them to come back and experience a real relationship with Jesus. The church has grown a lot since it was opened 15 years ago and John is with us today to talk about how they meet the needs of the community around them and develop leaders as they grow.

  • Open side doors. // For a lot of people at Watermark, their first interaction with the church isn’t on a Sunday. They have what John calls a “felt need”—another reason that brings them to church and it often happens during the week.Watermark is not primarily a Sunday-centric church and they have several ministries that serve the community throughout the week. For example, there is a recovery ministry on Monday nights and Tuesday nights have a big young adult ministry. Watermark also has a marriage ministry to help people make their marriage better wherever it is. Only about half of the people who come to these groups actually attend Watermark on the weekend. The others are people in the community who don’t have a church home at this point in their lives.
  • There is no perfect model. // Developing leaders to handle all of these different ministries and tasks at Watermark hasn’t been an easy job. But as John reminds us, there is no perfect model for anything, but you get to choose your problems. The problem Watermark has chosen to handle is how to develop leaders that they can throw into the mix and help them grow on-the-go as they lead. Watermark has found that the potential leaders coming in can usually be segmented into distinct groups. The top 20% are natural leaders and will figure it out on their own with little guidance. The next 60% want to be good leaders but can’t figure it out on their own. So Watermark’s solution has been to develop coaching that will give these potential leaders the right footholds to become great leaders.
  • Give people opportunities to lead. // Don’t be afraid to give people the chance to lead and show you what they can do. When you create these opportunities, people become teachable and thirsty for guidance, slowly transforming into that great leader you’re looking for. Focus on three or four key things that can grow and develop their leadership. It often begins with learning to lead themselves well in their relationship with Jesus. John says once a person can lead his or herself well, they’re already halfway there.

Listen in as John explains how to develop and grow leaders in their areas of natural giftedness and key questions you should be asking them. You can learn more about Watermark Church at their website You can reach John at or at his website

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Episode Highlights

00:39 // Rich introduces John Cox and welcomes him to the show.

01:03 // John introduces us to Watermark Church.

01:38 // John talks about the mid-week ministries at Watermark Church.

04:55 // John talks about developing leadership within their church.

07:20 // John shares his 3 keys to leading yourself well.

09:37 // John shares his beliefs of the essence of coaching.

10:47 // John talks about their observation process that supports development.

14:00 // John talks about the dangers of potential fatal flaws and highlights a personal example.

17:00 // John talks about creating a culture to change behavior.

Lightning Round

Helpful Tech Tools // SaneBox

Ministries Following // International Justice Mission

Influential Book // What to Ask the Person in the Mirror by Robert Kaplan. Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin

Inspiring Leader // Bill Hybels. Jim Collins

What does he do for fun // Coaching YMCA sports teams.

Contact //

Episode Transcript

Rich – Well hey everybody, welcome to the unSeminary podcast, my name’s Rich. I’m so glad that you’ve decided to spend some time with us, I know, as you’re heading into this weekend you’ve got a lot going on at your church and it’s really our honor that you would take some time out to listen in to today’s conversation and you are in for a treat. We are super excited to have John Cox with us from Watermark Church. This is a fantastic church, if you’re not following Watermark you really should be. They’re at Dallas Fort Worth, I think they’re averaging 13, 14 thousand people on a weekend. They have 3 different campuses, it’s really a great church. Welcome to the show John.

John – Well I’m glad to be here, thanks for having me on Rich.

Rich – For people who don’t know, give us a sense of Watermark, kind of what would people experience in your ministry?

John – Yeah well Watermark is a young church, it’s about 15 years old and the real focus is trying to reach people who have either been turned off by church or really walked away and inviting them back to experience what it means to have a relationship with Jesus.

So we started about 15 years ago and overtime it has just grown and grown. One of our big challenges has been obviously, how do we accommodate that growth?

Rich – We were talking a little bit earlier about what happens on the weekends, but then you also do a series of ministries during the week as well, that might be interesting for people to hear a little bit about.

John – What we would say is, Watermark is not primarily a Sunday-centric church. It’s really a church where a lot of people, their first contact is during the week, so they’re through what we would just called “side doors” and essentially what that is, is someone will have a felt need and they might think nothing about going to church as a first step but they want to deal with the felt needs. So for example, on Monday nights we’ve got a big recovery ministry. There’s a lot of people in our community who are saying, “Hey life is not working for me, I’m stuck and I want to deal with that and tangentially church may or not be a felt need for them.

Rich – Right.

John – Well on Tuesday nights we’ve got a large young adult ministry.

Rich – Okay.

John – So someone who’s moving to Dallas might think to themselves, “Okay, I have a felt need to meet people,” or, “I want to get plugged in and I want to build relationships.” So a lot of people will end up here. In both of those ministries what’s interesting is, only about half of the people that come are Watermark people.

Rich – Interesting.

John – The other half are largely disconnected from churches. So that’s the great thing, it’s really been the side door to experience our church and then from there that’s the point where they start to grow.

Rich – A lot of people wake up in the middle of the night worrying about those types of issues, they often don’t wake up worrying about what we’re talking about on the weekend, so I love that idea of a side door. What was the other night?

John – The other one is our marriage ministry. So several years ago we were in a position where we were just getting tired playing defense on marriage. When they would get to us they were already in big trouble.

Rich – Big troubles.

John – So we started in ministry, it’s just called Re-engage and it’s designed, wherever your marriage is, is to help make it better. So what happens a lot in our community, as you well know, is people’s marriages aren’t what they hoped they would be, so that will be there first point of contact. Usually it’s the wife, [Inaudible 00:03:32].

Rich – “Hey we need to do something here.”

John – Yes we do, so they’ll show up at Watermark to focus on their marriage and then that’s another entry point.

Rich – Now that’s interesting, that’s fascinating that about 50% of the people that are engaging midweek are actually Watermark people that show up on the weekend. Has that been pretty consistent over the last couple of years? That’s an interesting pattern.

John – It’s been very consistent and what’s interesting is, obviously in Dallas we’re kind of at the heart of the Bible Belt.

Rich – Right.

John – So what happens is a lot of people, not many people think of themselves as unbelievers.

Rich – Right.

John – That doesn’t mean that they’re engaging in their faith or growing in their faith but they’ve got some background that says, “Hey this is not a foreign experience for me.” So there’s an openness to show up at a church to say, “I need to make my marriage better.” So that’s what draws them in.

Then what happens obviously, is with a larger church sometimes, people that are at smaller churches don’t have these ministries, so they’re able to come as well.

Rich – Very cool. Well that obviously takes a lot of leaders to pull all of that together. I really commend your church for really stepping out and serving from a felt needs point of view and then obviously everything that it takes to make the weekend work in a church like yours. How are you developing leaders, and it’s obviously not a simple question, at Watermark, but why don’t we jump into some of the things that you’ve learned over the years?

John – What I’ll tell you, that’s been one of our biggest problems.

Rich – Right.

John – So what we would say is when it comes to anything, you know there’s no perfect model, but you get to choose your problems. So the problem that we’re choosing is, okay how are we developing new leaders on the go, who we can throw into the water and teach us how to lead as they’re going? What we’ve really found is that you can probably segment the leaders that are coming into your church. The top 20%, they’re naturally gifted.

Rich – Right.

John – They’re going to figure it out on their own.

Rich – Right.

John – So with experience they’ve got gifts in leadership and shepherding and they just figure it out. But there’s another big chunk of people, let’s say the middle 60% who want to be good leaders, they’re not going to figure it out on their own. It’s a process of coming alongside of them and saying, “Hey here are some footholds that will help you to become a better leader.” So with coaching that’s the targeted group where, if you can help those people to become leaders, now you’ve got enough leaders for your church. [Inaudible 00:05:56] on the gifted ones it’s not going to work for you.

Rich – No absolutely, I’ve said this to so many church leaders. So many times our church leaders are led by early adopters, so they think everyone is like them, they think everyone is just like a, “Go get it, let’s jump out there and make things happen.” The reality of it is that’s just a small percentage of the leaders in your church. Trying to really connect, like you say, that middle 60% is obviously really where the game is at, to try and get both enough and then also grow them. So what are you doing, what are you kind of working towards, what are the tactics you’re using to kind of attract and then interact with that middle 60%?

John – Well the first thing that we do is, we obviously give people opportunities to lead.

Rich – Right.

John – We’re not afraid to take chances, to put people, who might not be mature in their faith, into leadership positions.

Rich – Oh okay.

John – What we realized is, when you do that, people all of a sudden go, “Oh my goodness, I’m in over my head.” Then that makes then thirsty, now they’re teachable.

Rich – Right.

John – So then what we try and do is focus on, what are 3 or 4 key things that if they focus on will be catalytic in terms of development of their leadership? So it’s trying to give them a framework that they can apply and it’s got to be simple, but it’s got to be simple on the other side of complexity.

Rich – Absolutely, tell us what some of those things would be, what would be those 3 or 4 pieces that you would try to work on?

John – Well what we would say is it all starts with leading yourself.

Rich – Okay.

John – So if you can’t lead yourself well you’re not going to be able to lead anybody else well. That’s the hardest thing for us to do in ministry, that’s the hardest thing for me to do. If I can lead myself then I’m 50% of the way there.

Rich – Yes.

John – So what we essentially say is, we think there are 3 keys to leading yourself well.

Rich – Okay.

John – The first is walking with Jesus and that’s just John 15:5 ‘you can’t do anything apart from Jesus’, but we’ve got a lot of people who think they can be ministry leaders without walking with Jesus.

Rich – Right.

John – You know?

Rich – Yes.

John – So that’s the start and really coming along and saying, “Look, if you’re with someone for an extended period of time, what you say doesn’t matter, it’s how you live.” So the people that have the biggest influence on me, I cannot really remember much of what they said, but I can tell you dozens of stories of how they lived that have impacted me.

Rich – That’s powerful, that’s powerful.

John – So that’s the first thing. The second thing is, they’ve really got to understand what their gifts are and then use their gifts. So one of the things that we’ve discovered is that the hardest people to work with in ministry are the ones that are deceived about what their gifts are.

Rich – Okay, yeah that’s good.

John – Look that was me. A long time ago, when I was starting a church, I thought I was a great communicator and so what happened though was, once you start speaking every Sunday you quickly realize that it’s not enough to be a communicator, you’ve got to be creative.

Rich – Right.

John – Because if you’re not creative, that sucks up so much energy.

Rich – Yes.

John – So you’ve told all of your best stories and all of your good insights into the scriptures and now you’re in trouble.

Rich – Right.

John – And that’s what happened to me.

Rich – Yes.

John – So it’s a discovery process. I think it’s stepping back and saying, “Okay what am I good at?” Then secondly, “Now let me go to my friends around me who will speak truth to me and get feedback and confirmation about that.” Then once you identify those things then working on them.

Rich – The thing I like what you’re talking about there is, I think so many times in this step we just say, “Here’s a test, take this online test, take this thing,” obviously that might be a part of your process but you’re also trying to talk about other people, what other people say, really the Bobby, speaking into what people’s gifts are. Help us understand how you help people discover their gifts?

John – Largely it’s by observation, so that’s really the essence of coaching, when I’m looking at someone trying to say, “Where are they adding value for us? Where are they exceptional?” So what I would say, on a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is someone who’s terrific at something and someone is a 1 and they’re terrible at it. It’s easy to spot the 1s and 2s, right, people that are just not gifted at all. It’s easy to spot the people that are 9s and 10s. Where you can wrap yourself around the axle is, is someone a 4, a 5 or a 6?

Rich – Right.

John – Okay?

Rich – Yes.

John – That’s where you get stuck. So I think the essence of coaching is saying they’re not worthy of 4, 5 or 6 and can I move them up, but it’s where can they be a 9 or a 10? That’s the question we really want to ask. So that is a discovery process. A lot of times it’s trial and error, it takes time, but it’s a commitment to walking with someone over a period, we’re just saying, “Hey I see this in you, I think you could be really good at it.”

Rich – Now how are you scaling that? Obviously you have a lot of people in your ministry.

John – Yeah.

Rich – How are you able to scale that observation process? That sounds like a great ideal, but how are you doing that on such a mass scale?

John – I’ll tell you what we do, we’re teaching our leaders to ask 3 questions right?

Rich – Okay.

John – The first question obviously is just, okay, what is this person doing that they should keep doing? Right so this is focused on behaviors but it’s, this is where I see where they’re adding value. This is where I see where they’re contributing to the team and this is where they should really lockdown. So the first question is, what do I want to reinforce or affirm and I want that behavior repeated?

The second question is the antithesis of that, where we’re like, what are they doing that they need to stop doing? What’s getting in their way? Let me give you an example. Several years ago we had a guy working for me who is as good at what he did as anybody I know. He was outstanding, but he had this one trait that was hurting his leadership and that is, when something went wrong he lost his marbles.

Rich – Okay.

John – So in our language we say, he was a stress amplifier.

Rich – That’s good.

John – So he would start blaming people and he would start being critical and the end result was people didn’t want to work with him. So the essence of coaching someone there is saying, “Hey you know what guy, here is everything that you’re good at, keep doing these things. Now here’s just one thing that you’ve got to stop because it’s hurting your leadership.”

Rich – Right.

John – So it’s just like discipleship where you say, “Hey there’s some things that you do that will help you grow in your relationship with God and there are also obstacles that can potentially sink you.” Right? So it’s what should they keep doing, what should they stop doing?

The last question we’re trying to teach them to ask is, what is the person not doing that if they started to do would make the biggest difference in their performance?

Rich – Very good.

John – So if we can just identify one thing to make them better. We find those 3 questions are simple.

Rich – Right.

John – They’re memorable and we can teach our people to apply them. So what I want them to do is just every time they’re interacting with a leader, be thinking about those 3 things okay what do I see this person doing that I want them to keep doing? What do I see them doing that I want them to stop doing and then correspondingly, what are they not doing, what one thing, if they started doing, would make the biggest difference in their leadership?

Rich – Very cool, that’s great, that’s great. What’s next, what’s kind of the next, the third piece of this puzzle as you’re working with leading yourself?

John – Well the third piece of this puzzle is, I think what we would say is when it comes to giftedness you want to focus on your strengths.

Rich – Okay.

John – When it comes to character, you want to focus on your weaknesses. So what we see in leadership is that people have potential fatal flaws. These are the things about them that God needs to refine, to hone, but when they get into trouble, this is the most likely reason why they’re going to end up in a ditch.

Rich – Okay.

John – So we want to come alongside of people and say, “Look, if you’re going to disqualify yourself, if you’re going to discredit yourself, what is the most likely reason and then what’s your plan for dealing with that?” So let me give you a good example.

Rich – Yeah, exactly.

John – I’ve got 5 kids, so one of the issues I have in my house is dealing with anger.

Rich – Okay.

John – My typical pattern is, “I’m calm, I’m calm, I’m calm, I’ve had it.”

Rich – Right, we can identify with that, yes.

John – So several years ago, my wife’s family lives in Tennessee which is about 700 miles away.

Rich – Right.

John – So we load up our family of 7 in our little Mini Van and we started the trip back to Tennessee and in the far back 2 of my kids are getting into it and I could just feel my blood pressure starting to go up. So I’m threatening them, I’m cajoling them, I’m thinking about bribing them and it’s not working and this is about 10 minutes into the trip and I’m like, “I’m not going to make it.”

Rich – Right, yes.

John – So I think to myself, “Okay, what am I going to do?” So one thing I can do is I can stop the car and get out and deal with it right? But I’m a typical guy, I am not stopping the car; we are going to Tennessee.

Rich – Right.

John – So then I think, “What can I throw back there to get their attention?” So I look down and I see this full water bottle right next to me.

Rich – Oh no.

John – And I’m like, “Okay that might hurt,” right?

Rich – Right.

John – But then I see a tissue box.

Rich – Right.

John – So I’ve got one hand on the wheel and I just launch it back at the one child who is the genesis of all of this conflict.

Rich – Oh no.

John – And I miss her but I hit her sister, who breaks out hysterically crying.

Rich – Yes.

John – Me in all my maturity I’m thinking, “Well good, at least she has something to be upset about now.”

Rich – Oh no, oh no.

John – So I’m still driving the car, it’s like, “1001, 1002, 1003,” and the tissue box comes flying back at me, right?

Rich – Oh no.

John – It hits the dashboard and my first thought was, “Okay who wants a part of me?”

Rich – Yes.

John – But then I thought to myself, “Oh my goodness, what am I teaching my kids about how to deal with anger?”

Rich – Right, right.

John – You know?

Rich – Right.

John – So Rich, the issue that I’ve got being a father, the thing that can sink me, is if my kids grow up thinking they had an angry dad. You know?

Rich – So true.

John – So at home, that is my Achilles heel, that is my potential fatal flaw and if I don’t have a plan to deal with that then I’m in big trouble. So my plan is, I’ve got an accountability group of guys, who just about every week will say, “Hey when was the last time that you raised your voice with one of your kids?”

Rich – Right.

John – So that helps, scripture memory helps in that, so hopefully God is transforming me, but I think identifying that issue is a big part, because if you don’t identify it and if you don’t have a plan in place, it’s going to catch you unaware.

Rich – Absolutely, wow.

John – As you know, we could talk about dozens of biblical leaders who were sunk by their fatal flaw.

Rich – Absolutely. Well I love that you’re even just raising that, you’re having your leaders raise that with people, because I think it’s those kind of crucial conversations that it’s easy to steer away from, that it’s easy to say, “Hey I don’t want to ask you about this…” because a lot of times, I know at least in my life, I feel like other people see my flaws a lot easier than I do. Like other people who trust me and I trust them, they see it more clearly than I do. Are you providing a forum for those conversations or are you kind of saying, “Hey this should be a regular part of your pattern with the people you’re leading,” what does that look like?

John – Yes and that’s exactly right. I think again, what we’ve got to do is say, people can’t do 50 things but they can do 3 or 4 things.

Rich – Right.

John – So if I’m training my leaders to saying, the people underneath you, are they walking with Jesus? What are their gifts and are they doubling down on their gifts? Then correspondingly, what are their potential fatal flaws and how are they dealing with them? So one of the questions we’ll often ask is and we’ll just go around in a circle in my community group and we’ll say, “Hey here’s where I think you’re excelling, here’s where I think your potential fatal flaws are and here’s how I see you dealing well with that now, or not.” But it’s a part of that dialog and I don’t know about you but I grew up in a family where you projected strengths and you hid weaknesses.

Rich – That’s so true.

John – So the whole idea that you would talk about what you’re not good at, you know, which is not a good thing.

Rich – Yes.

John – Now I was the opposite.

Rich – Okay.

John – So early in our marriage we would be out at dinner with another couple and she would be telling a story which would cast us in, like a less than favorable light, I’d be kicking her under the table, “I can’t believe you’re just doing that.” But I think that understanding that that is a process that God uses to create growth in us and then coming to grips with my own imperfections, that’s something that we’ve got to transfer, so that people are comfortable when talking about those things.

Rich – Absolutely. Well this has been incredible, lots of great value here, good kind of tools. The thing I don’t want church leaders to miss is, I think the beauty of what you’re doing here is you are trying to get it down to the irreducible, the smallest piece possible and really trying to push that out to folks and saying, “Let’s actually have these conversations. Out of the hundred conversations we could have, these are the 3 we’re going to talk about, let’s focus on these things,” which I think is a huge value for folks that may be listening in today on the podcast.

Anything else you’d like to share before we move onto the rest? There’s a lot we could cover in this whole area, but anything else you’d like to share before we pivot and move on with the rest of the episode?

John – Yeah I think there’s just a couple of things.

Rich – Yes.

John – One thing I would say is, you know you’re communicating something well when people begin to mock you.

Rich – That’s so true.

John – If people are not mocking you, you have not talked about it enough.

Rich – This is so true.

John – So I think one of the keys with these 3 principles, or any principle is, I’ll feel like I’ve said it once and everyone gets it.

Rich – Right.

John – What I really need to realize is, unless I’m reinforcing that at every turn, then I’m not doing it enough. Once I’m being mocked, now I can feel confident that people are getting the message.

Rich – That’s so true you know, I know sometimes as leaders, as we’re formulating these, it’s been baking in our minds for a long time, so by the time we actually say, “Okay let’s roll this out,” whether it’s a change initiative, or whether it’s these sorts of conversations, we’ve lived with it for a long time. Our people, the first time we talk about it is literally the first time they’re even thinking about it.

John – Yes.

Rich – So we’ve got to repeat it time in and time out. Anything else you want to share before we move on?

John – Yeah the other thing I think I would say is just, look a lot of this is creating a culture where this becomes normal and so I think a lot of times, when church leaders run into problems, their first thought is, what’s a program to solve this program? I think average leaders think program first.

Rich – Yes.

John – Good leaders think, what’s the value first? So just a quick example, if I’m struggling with evangelism at Watermark, an average leader would say, “What’s an evangelism program that I can teach my people so they’re sharing?” Right? One of my group will say, “No, no, no, you have a value’s problem and the value is that people are not grasping at a heart level that their next door neighbor, who doesn’t know Jesus, is going to end up separated from him forever.” Once they have the value, then it’s much easier to create the behavior. So in this leadership, whether it’s dealing with your fatal flaws and saying, “Look we have a value of authenticity and we as leaders are going to model our weak points, so that people understand that’s accepted more and more and okay.” So the behavior that the leader shows is what’s going to get repeated and repeated, so we’ve got to model it.

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