Leadership is contextual

I’ve blogged on this subject before, but I heard and read some really interesting thoughts on the subject in Leadership Rising, Wycliffe’s one-week, strengths-based leadership development program.

First of all, our president referred back to the last four presidents of Wycliffe USA. He pointed out that the board brought in each one of them for a specific purpose to transform our organization. Each one had his own strengths and weaknesses but was ideal for the role he was asked to fill. That reinforces to me the idea that there is no single pattern for a successful CEO. I suspect that in the room I’m sitting in, every single one of the Myers-Briggs types is represented. And yet, we’re all leaders in our own contexts.

Second, a friend of mine sent me a challenging new leadership book, The 52nd Floor: Thinking Deeply About Leadership. The following quote stood out to me, quoting from “a famous Gulf War general”:

The act of leading is a process that undergoes constant change. When you find what works, such as your “six keys to success,” you’ll eventually fail. All the elements in a leadership situation are constantly changing. You as a leader are growing and changing. Your workforce is developing. Some employees leave the organization, others enter it. The situation changes all the time. The easiest way for a leader to fail is for him or her to apply what worked yesterday to today.

Why reluctance part 3: criticism is easier than leading

Another factor in leaders’ reluctance is that it’s easier to deconstruct than it is to construct. Postmodernity is at its heart a critical theory. As Sarah Arthur and others have said, it’s not really an –ism because it isn’t really a philosophy itself (at least, not yet). So young people today are great at pointing out what’s wrong, but they often don’t know what should take the place of what they’ve critiqued. That, of course, leads to great frustration by established leaders who are taking all the risks. It’s simply easier and more comfortable to sit in the back row and shoot at the leaders. So the challenge is to find ways to get young people to enter the dialog. It’s not that they don’t have ideas or suggestions; usually it’s quite the opposite, and they don’t think anyone in authority is willing to listen.

A thirty-something friend of mine, who had developed an unfortunate reputation as a back-row complainer, has recently felt called by God to step up to the front and lead. It’s a different role, and it comes with risks. In taking on a new position of responsibility, this friend is adjusting to a different role, with new influence but different options available to her to voice frustrations and ideas. As she told me the other day, “If nothing else, I have no problem being a front-row criticizer who’s in on the planning as well.”

Leadership has its privileges and responsibilities. You simply can’t do the same things as the back row critics. But it’s contagious. As a mentor told me early on in my career, “Once you’re in the game, it’s hard to leave it.” If you want to change the world, there’s no better alternative to earning a voice of influence that gives you the means to do something about an issue rather than just complain about it. I’m not talking about a desire for power, but a tipping point where the desire to be heard overcomes your fears of responsibility.

My suggestions? As an established leader, find a way to give voice to the rising, reluctant and potential leaders. You need to hear their critiques and ideas. And they need you to hear them. And challenge them to step up. I watched a situation where one of my direct reports had a great idea to completely revamp the way we do our short term trips. I admire my boss’s response when he heard the idea: he asked the young leader if he believed in the idea enough to make it happen. It was a challenge to step up and show his stuff.

Why reluctance part 2: the hero myth

Another major reason for reluctance is the hero myth. In their article Encouraging Reluctant Leaders, Reidy Associates describes this myth as:

the view that leadership is carried out by a person, “the Leader”, who possesses a particular skill set. Included among the skills thought of as constituting leadership are charisma, courage, decisiveness, ability to delegate, time management, and so on. It is not surprising that people often hold this view. Many cultural myths and messages promote a view of leadership based on the hero, the knight in shining armor. The leader/hero has courage, skill conviction, clarity and he (almost always he) holds the responsibility for rescuing the rest of us from whatever threat we face.

This view, of course, is reinforced by superstar pastors or superstar CEOs who seem to have no weaknesses. Of course they do! We just don’t see them, or they never admit them. I worry about people like that, because they seem to fall harder.

Leadership development is a tricky subject, because it always seems to boil down to a bullet list of characteristics needed in leadership. No one person can ever attain such a lofty list of traits. And therefore young people loaded with potential don’t try. How do we create an atmosphere that breaks down this paralyzing myth?

Here are a few thoughts. One, established leaders have to be vulnerable. Pull back the curtain and let us see your weaknesses, your fears and your failures. Admit when you are or were wrong. Unveil your coping mechanisms. Reluctant leaders might learn a few things from your brutal honesty and might love and respect you even more.

Two, let’s publicize the fact that no one person has all the qualifications for any one job. And no one type of leader is perfect for any one job. Different combinations of giftings can match a position perfectly. Or, to put it another way, different combinations of weaknesses can match a position perfectly.

Three, let’s remind ourselves that leaders are simply the right person for the right setting. Winston Churchill was a masterful leader of war but a poor leader of peace. You could say the same about Ulysses S. Grant on our side of the pond.

Reidy goes on:

We think, “I can’t be a leader because I’m deathly afraid of public speaking.” Or, “How can I exercise leadership when I don’t have the: (pick one) college degree, title, solution to the problem, right image?”

Let me suggest a different approach, taken by my sister-in-law, who keynoted a seminar in Atlanta this weekend. Here’s the bio she used:

Emily Bruso is a 28-year-old wife and mother of two young boys. She has a modest education, a messy house, and an imperfect life. She has no awards to her name, but she loves Jesus, loves the Word of God, has experienced the healing that comes from a Godly forgiveness, and wants you to experience it too!

Jeremiah’s reluctance

The following sounds like a typical conversation between a reluctant leader and God:

The Lord gave me this message:

“I knew you before I formed you in your mother’s womb. Before you were born I set you apart and appointed you as my ___________________.”

“O Sovereign Lord,” I said, “I can’t _____________________! I’m too _____________________!”

The Lord replied, “Don’t say, ‘I’m too ____________________,’ for you must go wherever I send you and say whatever I tell you. And don’t be afraid of _____________________, for I will be with you and protect you. I, the Lord, have spoken!”

— Jeremiah 1:4-9

Why reluctance part 1: fear of failure

I’m back after a short absence. I’ll try to be more timely in my blogging again. Over the next few posts, I want to go back to the reluctant leadership idea. In particular, what causes reluctance to step up?

I suggest there are a number of reasons. Perhaps the foremost is a fear of failure. Young people with potential for leadership need to be identified early and mentored. Part of the strength of the mentoring relationship is the commitment between mentor and mentee – a commitment that can be the difference in a young person stepping up.

They say delegation without support is abandonment. Well, it’s the same with mentoring. Even if the mentee seems ready, that commitment may still be the lifeline. Throwing a young leader into deep water before they have the tools to swim will only reinforce their deep-seated fear that they weren’t really able to do the job. When failure happens, as it certainly will to some degree, how will they handle it? Often, it sets Gen-Xers back for years and causes them to flee responsibility at least until the setting seems right to try again.

A young man knocked on my door one day. He hadn’t shown interest in the Threshing Floor when we first started it. I suspected he had leadership gifts, but he’d actually moved downward in the hierarchy at Wycliffe since I first met him. Recently, however, he had showed glimmers of interest. He came to our group with his Gen-X supervisor, and now he was at my office wanting to talk. He said he’d been talking quite a bit with his boss about leadership and she suggested he might get a lot out of The Threshing Floor. After being around other young leaders, he was so excited and wanted to soak up all he could. He unfolded the following story.

A few years before, he’d been put into a position of leadership with the promise that he would be mentored by his predecessor for two years. But within 6-9 months in the position, the mentor left him due to various reasons and eventually moved to another position. This young man quickly became overwhelmed and asked to move back to his previous role. He’d tried leadership but wasn’t prepared or supported adequately and had a bad experience. It took him years to come back around to wanting to try it again.

Shortly after our conversation, his supervisor – who was equally young but had a broad range of experience and success in various positions – was promoted. Now, in a much more supportive setting, he agreed to move back to the same position he had burned out on before. He’s doing great, and we’re seeing even greater leadership abilities emerging.

What does someone like this need? A safe, supportive environment to cultivate their leadership gifts. A setting that allows failure and provides a chance to get back up again. And a mentor committed to making sure they’re really swimming before letting go.

What can I do for you?

I was meeting with a friend recently in Atlanta when he took control of the conversation with a great question. Paul is the CEO of a small mission organization, and I get together with him every time I’m in town. I appreciate his wisdom and experience, and our conversations seem to be mutually beneficial, though I’m quite sure I get more out of it than he does. Anyway, the last time we met, he suddenly asked me, “What can I do for you?”

I sure wasn’t expecting the question, but I won’t say I wasn’t prepared. I knew I had an opportunity, so I asked him if he would be willing to be a mentor. Jim Collins suggests that every leader should have a “personal board of directors,” and I wanted Paul to be among that small group. To tell you the truth, I don’t know what it means or how it works, but he had some ideas. We’re going to talk monthly by phone in addition to our face to face visits.

I love that question. Of course, it’s not a new question. I skimmed Bruce Wilkinson’s Prayer of Jabez book a while ago and missed it. Only recently did I became aware that he recommends that question. Whenever he prays that God would expand his territory, he turns and asks the person immediately behind him, “What can I do for you?” It always leads to a ministry opportunity.

But it’s even older than that. Nehemiah had just been wrecked by news from Judea that Jerusalem was still lying in ruins. He prayed for days that God would do something and that the king would be favorable to him. When he finally got an opportunity to tell the king his heart, Artaxerxes responded with that question. Nehemiah was ready with a request.

I think that question is the key to mentoring. It opens the door between established leaders and rising leaders. It gets past the walls we set up to protect ourselves. It begins the unloading of wisdom and resources between the generations. There are a large number of established leaders who are willing to be mentors but don’t know how to get started. And young leaders who would love a mentor. Often the initiative comes from the latter, and that’s probably appropriate; I can’t imagine someone saying, “I’d like to mentor you.”

Setting up a mentoring relationship is like a dance. Someone has to take the first step. That question lowers the guard and starts the dialogue.

What can I do for you?