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.

What does a leader look like? Part 1

That last post brings me back to the core of my blog: what does a leader look like in a postmodern context?

As I’ve observed my generation’s forays into leadership — including our new president, who was born on the cusp of Generation X in 1963 — I suspect a number of things will prove true about Gen X leaders as a whole. Granted, these are stereotypes and the characteristics may well prove to have positive and negative ramifications. I want to dig into what a leader looks like over the next month, but I’m going to be sporatic until I take my new position in April. Hang in there with me, and set your RSS feed.

I think Gen X leaders are not always immediately identifiable. They may not be the most vocal or the one up front. When you walk into a room of young people, you’re likely to note a few extroverts who stand out for being the most vocal. A few seem to command the ears of the rest though they’re not as outspoken. Others might carry the right technology or always seem to wear the right clothes. But the one in charge – the one who called the group together and did the behind the scenes work to get them there and subtly shift the conversation – may not be any of these.

Leadership is influence, after all. You can have a huge amount of influence without being the one in front. I gave an example of this kind of “back row leadership” in my very first post. Here’s another: do you remember in Amazing Grace how William Wilberforce was the vocal one in the House of Commons, but prime minister William Pitt was secretly pulling strings without offering any emotion from the floor? There was no question that Pitt was the power broker, though Wilberforce got the headlines.

So, why not lead from the front? There could be a lot of reasons, but let me suggest a few:

1. We have an iconic view of leaders. To be a leader, you have to have the complete package: a face for magazine covers, great speaking ability, amazing organizational aptitude and abundant confidence, empathy and wisdom. Who can measure up to the image? Either leaders are larger than life or they’re failing gloriously. Or both.

2. I think there is a strong preference for avoiding risk. It’s easier to sit in the back row and take potshots at the person at the front. The one at the front is putting his neck out, and that takes courage and confidence — two traits that seem to be lacking among many young people. Perhaps we’ve been too sheltered. Anyway, it’s easier to influence someone else to get out front and take the risk instead.

3. Younger leaders prefer facilitation. It’s a philosophical difference. We like to do accomplish things together, and sorting out the roles to recognize success gets messy when it was done as a team. Maybe it doesn’t matter who gets the credit, after all.

4. I think many in my generation see power as a trap. They’re not interested in all the perks that go along with position. No amount of power or money can make up for the long hours, the cost to family, the stress or the inability to wear jeans to work. Better to keep your freedom and your balance.

Senators in the Back Row

I came across a newspaper article the other day by this name. I think it was referring to a group of Senators who sat in the back row of the House to observe some controversial vote or debate. But it got me thinking.

Who are the Senators who sit on the back row of the Senate? How would someone come to have a position like that but sit on the back row? Are they politicians who really don’t want to be there? Or who don’t belong? Seems to me they need a club or a caucus or something.

This blog is an exploration of the dynamics of a generation with a fear and suspicion of leadership. What are the issues that hold leaders back and keep people from stepping out to use their gifts? I’m intensely curious about those issues, and as I explore them, I invite others to join the conversation.

Welcome to the back row leader

After some very helpful feedback from well meaning friends and my wife, I agreed to change the name of my blog. I’m really much more interested in exploring leadership than politics on this site. Senators in the Back Row, while offering an interesting word picture, created confusion. Meanwhile, I’ve received good feedback on this name.

I have a theory that you can’t always tell who’s leading a group by the person standing at the front. One of Wycliffe’s senior VPs shared an interesting story with a group of young leaders at Wycliffe. Reflecting back on her years of teaching, she recounted the first day of class one year when she faced an unruly mob that wouldn’t listen. Observing the dynamics, she realized that everyone gravitated toward one particular student.

After class that day, she asked that student to stay afterward. She noted that he was clearly the leader in that classroom, and she could either work with him or they would butt heads all year. If the latter was the case, she was going to make sure that was not a pleasant experience for him. He did not see himself as a leader, but he agreed to try an experiment: when she needed the class’s attention, she would give him a sign and let him call the class to order.

The next day, the class started out with the same mayhem. After a few minutes, the teacher caught the student’s eye and nodded. He turned to his fellow students and said, “Hey, let’s all sit down. Class is starting.” When they all immediately did what he said, he turned to her with eyes as side as saucers — wide in surprise but also some thought to the possibilities of the power he now had. The class went well the rest of the year because the teacher had realized that she wasn’t really the leader in that setting. The student was the power broker. He led from the back row.