It’s Complicated — How Leadership Is Supposed To Work, I Think

I am leading a big project right now that I hope will come off well. I have a client who is learning leadership at his church and wants to “bounce ideas off me”. I have colleagues who are learning to be leaders. All of this gives me the occasion to reflect on the process of leadership and how I lead or don’t lead and it occurred to me that leadership is complicated.

Actually, that’s not right. Good leadership is complicated. Bad leadership is simple.

Bad leadership looks like this: 1) I have an idea about the way things should be.  2) I tell you to do it.  3) If you don’t do it, I force you to do it. I lead, you follow. It’s simple.

This form of leadership happens all the time in the world. It is efficient. It gets things done. No one thinks. No one takes other people into consideration. No one considers if the idea has merit. No one considers if the action should happen. Why is this bad leadership? Even it seems powerful at the time (and it always does to those involved), it doesn’t last. It makes the world worse because feelings get hurt and lives are damaged and later, revenge is taken for those hurts. It makes the world worse because just because something can happen doesn’t mean it should happen. The atomic bomb could happen and did. That doesn’t mean it was a good idea.

In the latest Iron Man movie, they explain that Werner Von Braun made a personal dream happen by creating the V-1 rocket. He said, “It worked perfectly. It was just used on the wrong planet.” He had originally envisioned it transporting people to another planet. Hitler, with his efficient model of leadership, used it differently.

On the opposite side of this is no leadership. In this case, nothing happens. Nothing changes. Nothing gets better. Of course, things don’t necessarily get worse, either, but nothing gets better. If nothing changes, nothing changes. Dreams don’t come true. God’s plan for a better future doesn’t move any closer to fruition. For leaders of any stripe, that drives us nuts.

So, leadership, if it’s going to happen at all, begins with an idea. Somebody sees the way things are and wants things to be different. There are two points to consider right off the bat, The first is “Whose idea is this?”.  If it’s your idea (or mine), for instance, it comes/is inspired.

As a matter of respect, the idea should be given merit by the person who has it. “Oh, that’s a stupid idea” should never come into your head or anyone else’s. If you believe in “inspiration”, which involves the Holy Spirit, it seems kind of dumb to say to the Spirit that its creation is dumb. If you don’t, then it’s a thought – neither positive nor negative. Downing it and yourself for having it just seems like a bad place to start. So listen to yourself and let the idea see the light of day.  After you think about it/listen to it, the question comes – “Is this about me or someone else or the larger community? If it’s your idea, follow it and do something with it. As the late Harry Chapin said,

“When in doubt, do something”.

Note that Harry didn’t say, make someone else do something. If it’s your idea, own it, don’t foist it off on someone else because 1) It’s not their idea so they can’t do it the way you would. They can’t see inside your mind, so they don’t know. 2) If it works, you get and deserve all the credit. The experience of success can’t be taken from you, and you now know how to do it. You have grown as a person. 

The next part is trickier – if the idea is about how someone else should do their task, you should stop there. It’s not your business. The best you can do here is say “I think you should… but that’s just me” or “Do you want my opinion?” and wait for the answer.  If the answer is “no”, so be it. Respect dictates that you let the other person live their own life and learn from their own decisions.

If the idea is for you and a larger community, you have the most nuanced of all leadership challenges – convincing others that it’s a good idea.

If the idea makes it past this stage, whether it’s your idea or now a group idea, the next question is “will it hurt somebody else?” Reality is that the idea could have unintentional consequences. If the answer is “yes, more than likely” or “in fact, that’s its intent”, stop there. Dylan Kleebold, the kid who planned Columbine could have done us all a favor if he and his partner had asked this question. It never ceases to amaze me how many people skip this step in their leadership/thought process. I like to think they have no moral compass and don’t know the goal isn’t moral or they wouldn’t do it. The other possibility I leave open is that the person is simply evil. How they got that way might be available for compassion on my part, but the act of intentionally hurting someone else or not stopping when you know that you are is somewhere between immoral and evil.

Now, this is different than doing something someone doesn’t like. Controlling people will say your idea hurts them. This is not true. They may not like your idea, but if it doesn’t affect them, it doesn’t affect them. For instance, the Defense of Marriage Act, wasn’t about “defending marriage” at all. It was about telling some people that they couldn’t get married. If I have a marriage and you have a marriage, your marriage doesn’t mean I have to protect mine. I’m not even sure what I’d be protecting my marriage from. I get that people don’t like gay marriage. I get that some people’s religion says (or seems to say) that it’s wrong. Fair enough. If you don’t believe in gay marriage, don’t have one. If you don’t believe in abortion, don’t have one. If you don’t believe in owning a gas car, or a gas grill or gas stock don’t do it. And no one should make you go against your beliefs. But if it’s not hurting someone, it’s not hurting them. No harm, no foul.

Leaders are often confronted with people who don’t like their ideas, won’t sign on to them, don’t believe in them, are made anxious by them, etc. If you have an idea and someone doesn’t like it but you are convinced that it’s the right thing to do and it won’t hurt anyone, even if people don’t like it, you have the right to do it.  Mr. Obama is doing those things that he truly believes are right, even if people don’t like them, and won’t sign on to them, dislike them, etc. When they actually hurt someone, then they are wrong. Until then, he gets to exert his leadership and lead the country based on his vision. That’s his job. That’s what we elected him for, as it is what we elect any President for. That’s why we hire any leader.

OK, let’s say the idea has been presented and people sign on to it, but only a few. Then the few need to follow through with the resources. If they don’t have the resources and can’t come up with them, then they need to convince others with the resources to invest in it emotionally or the idea dies. If the idea dies, it wasn’t that good an idea or that important— at least in that time, in that place, with those people.  If the idea keeps popping up, listen to it. It’s important. It’ll happen at some time because The One who inspired it is important.  If it truly was inspired, you’re not going to be able to stop it anyway, so hang on for the ride. If it wasn’t inspired, well, ok. We all make mistakes. Something good came out of the trying. Keep that and move on.

If enough people can make the idea work and they do make it work, and no one was intentionally hurt, then progress has been made. This is a good thing. The community moves forward and leadership got them there. Is that the end of the project? No. Like my shop teacher used to say, you have to clean up at the end of the project. Were there unintentional victims? Were there details that need to be fixed? Were there people that wanted to be a part or could have benefitted but couldn’t participate for some reason? They have to be taken care of.

Here’s an ancillary thought, though, at least for me. We are imperfect human beings. We are never going to get it totally right. AA and other 12-Step groups talk about “progress not perfection” being expected from people in recovery. This is because, at least for me, if I waited for circumstances to be perfect I’d never get anywhere. I have a client now who talks about “doing the next right thing” and that’s about all we can do. Sometimes we can’t even do that for some reason. Leaders need to find that fine balance between being responsible and accepting their humanity moving forward. The community being led needs to understand that as well.

Walter Wangerin, Jr., in his story “Ragman” suggests that Jesus did this job of cleaning up by bringing everyone along and waiting patiently for each individual to heal, or helping them heal, believing that each person was important and that if the whole community couldn’t move forward, then the project isn’t done.  

One of the places where I really respect the military is the tradition that no soldier dead or alive – is left behind. I don’t know where the tradition came from, but I agree with it. This is leadership by compassion and I believe it is what Jesus would have done if he were a warrior. As it was, though, he wasn’t. Jesus took the model even further. He used the model of shepherd. The shepherd doesn’t lose people in the first place because the shepherd is never far away. The shepherd knows where all the sheep are at any given time and knows their needs. Extreme emotional distance and servant leadership don’t go together very well. Feedback and asking “will this hurt anyone?” need to be fairly continual. People need to be valued and feel valued.

These are my ideas about leadership and how I think it should work. I draw from various places in my life – Harry Chapin on getting things done at all, Deering influences and Christian influences on getting things done with compassion and morality, and family therapist Virginia Satir for how systems work.  I want to get things done, I want people to get what they need, I want the whole community to move forward and think it’s not fair if it doesn’t. I want to do things that make things better, not worse and I am aware that I’ll never get it all right.

Since I was a kid, I have always seen myself as a leader, or an egomaniac. It depends on which day you catch me. Because of the way my call came, I have never seen leadership as my idea, and yet I find that’s my mouth and mind that keep spouting ideas (like this blog for instance) I like being “unique”, not so much “weird”, though they are both sides of the same coin.

I’m in the middle of a large project right now and it’s time for reflection/input. Is it challenging? Yes, sort of. Is it good? Yes, I think so. .

Especially if you are involved in a project I’m leading, I would love your feedback.





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