Control has a lot of appeal. It’s probably the reason most people get into leadership roles. But it’s overrated. The more complex the leadership settings I get into, the more I realize that there are so many factors that are utterly impossible to control. In Leading with a Limp, Dan Allender points out the illusions and pitfalls of trying to maintain control of complex situations, crises and chaos. Control is an illusion, he says. A controlling leader tries to limit chaos and uncertainty. Instead, they should be embraced as part of the creative process.

The only solution I’ve found to the pitfalls of control is to give it away. Not to have it taken by prying apart my dead fingers, but to consciously choose to give it away. Give what away? Over the next few posts, I’ll unpack a couple of ideas.

Give power away

Autocratic leadership is a trap. It is self-limiting. The only way to accomplish all that we’re asked to do as leaders is to empower those around us to make decisions.  In The Leadership Jump, Jimmy Long says:

Existing leaders have to realize that we are not the only ones who can drive; there are younger leaders who know how to drive better in this new and increasingly technological culture.

Long calls these emerging leaders “indigenous people.” To one who appreciates technology but is never completely comfortable with it, that phrase says it all. Call me “crosscultural.”The fact is that those from younger generations can do things in their sleep that require a lot of effort from those of us from earlier generations.

Long goes on to draw from a Harvard Business Review article by Deborah Ancona called “In Praise of the Incomplete Leader.”

As existing leaders are willing to admit that they are incomplete and need others, and are willing to share the leadership with others on the team, then together they can get extraordinary things done.

Team leadership breaks past any one leader’s limitations. But let’s get practical. How do you get started? Long suggests offering well-structured questions to draw emerging leaders into the process of discovering the answers together. Dr. Steven Sample offers another simple but radical suggestion in The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership: never make a decision that could be made by someone else. In other words, continually push decisions down. You’ll accomplish a lot more while you’re in your position, and you’ll leave your mark on the next few generations of leaders.

Long again:

We actually gain power by giving it away. It is a different kind of power. Instead of it being the power of control, it is the power of relationship, the power of shared decision making, the power of blessing.

“Stop wasting water!” One of my pet peeves is when I’m busy at something, vaguely conscious that my kids are doing something in the bathroom and then suddenly realize that the water has been running a long, long time. I’m not sure why wasting water bugs me so much. Is it the cost or the environmental responsibility of living in a state with a draining aquifer? I clearly value efficiency when it comes to water. If you have any doubt, just look at my lawn.

I recognize my hypocrisy, however. My kids are simply doing the same thing I did when I was their age. There’s no way to explore without a little waste. I used to love pouring water from one vessel into another, inverting a glass and pushing trapped air beneath the surface, finding the best way to turn my hands into a cup to bring water up to my mouth, or watch greasy water flee from a drop of soap. Water is fascinating, and you don’t learn about it without wasting a little.

The older we get, the more we value efficiency at the expense of discovery, joy and innovation. Organizationally, the bigger we get, the more we value efficiency, too. We love the economies of scale that come with standardizing processes. And in so doing, we squelch innovation.

As leaders, how can we assure that doesn’t happen? First, allow room for dreaming. I recently read a colleague’s summary of Leadership Divided – What Emerging Leaders Need and What You Might be Missing, by Ron Carucci. Here’s an excerpt that caught my attention:

The explosion of enterprise-wide technologies has fueled efficiency and standardization. A negative consequence, though, has been the tendency to approach challenges in terms of process compliance rather than allowing for dreaming. There exists a tension between standardization and innovation as a result. Incumbent leaders often view dreams in terms of precision rather than desire.

Of course, we know the tension that results when dreamers encounter one of these big, immovable objects. Too many  emerging leaders have given up on established businesses, churches or organizations and fled to start their own where they could dream, innovate and bring about the change they long for. But established organizations need dreamers and innovators lest we become dinosaurs.

What’s the solution? I think Carucci hits on a good start: “Dream first, set targets later.” I like that approach to planning. We should include a time for dreaming before getting down to process and rigid goal-setting. Leadership IQ wrote an article called, “Are SMART Goals Dumb?” in which they challenged the traditional view of goal-setting: to create goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely. The data shows that there’s a better way to create goals that will be implemented. Make sure they’re HARD:

  • Heartfelt – My goals will enrich the lives of someone besides me — customers, the community, etc.
  • Animated – I can vividly picture how great it will feel when I accomplish my goals.
  • Required – My goals are absolutely necessary to help this company.
  • Difficult – I will have to learn new skills and leave my comfort zone to achieve my assigned goals for this year.

Picture the end. How great it will feel. Leave my comfort zone. Not the traditional way we approach goals, but the territory of dreamers. Start with a vision of the future and then set targets toward making it reality.

Second, be sure to leave room in your business model for waste. Experimentation and learning are not always easy on the bottom line. For that matter, it’s almost always easier and more efficient to do things yourself than to pass on your knowledge. But a truly healthy organization is like a family. You have to be passing on and empowering the next generation. They’re going to make mistakes, and they’re going to waste resources as they experiment. Then, one day, they’re going to make a discovery that we “adults” never saw. That’s the way with innovation.

William Pitt the Younger details the life of “a penniless twenty-three-year-old with no previous experience in office” who was elected to England’s House of Commons in 1782. Within 18 months, he was prime minister. It’s a story that captured my interest since seeing a rendition of it in the movie Amazing Grace. At one point, author William Hague — a current member of parliament — asks a question I want to consider as well:

How was it that opinion in the eighteenth century would accept youthful seniority to an extent inconceivable two centuries later?

Was it really very different back then? He notes that 100 members of parliament in the early 1780s were under age thirty. 100 under thirty?!! It wasn’t just in politics. “The number of young prodigies in many disparate fields was far greater than it is today.” For example:

  • Alexander Pope wrote his first verses aged twelve, and was famous at twenty-three;
  • Henry Fielding’s plays were being performed in London when he was twenty-one;
  • Adam Smith was a Professor of Logic at twenty-eight;
  • the evangelist George Whitefield was preaching to crowds of tens of thousands in London when aged twenty-five;
  • Isaac Newton had commenced his revolutionary advances in science in the previous century at the age of twenty-five;
  • and Mozart had composed symphonies when eight years old and completed tours of Europe at the ripe old age of fifteen.

I guess we could point to Mark Zuckerberg and other internet pioneers, or Hewlett, Packard, Dell, Gates and Jobs in the generation before. But there seems to be more resistance to young leaders today, especially in established fields, businesses, organizations… or politics. The fact is that in most cases where a young leaders reaches high position, it’s because he or she founded the company.

Hague wonders aloud what was unique in that culture that so much was accomplished by people so young. Why did they get so much greater opportunity and empowerment? He explores a number of ideas, including the influence of aristocracy in bestowing “instant credibility.” Perhaps the most obvious example was a group of twentysomething monarchs in Europe, but it extended to people like William and Thomas Pitt building on their father’s name and reknown. It wasn’t just privilege; it was also early exposure. William Pitt the Younger gained incredible oratory skills at the feet of his prime minister father.

Those were important factors, but I think Hague nails it in his conclusion:

Perhaps the greater risk of early death produced an impulse of young brilliance, and certainly the intensive use of private tutors added to it.

To put it in today’s terms, the two greatest factors were urgency and mentoring. We no longer fear death before age 40. To require a young person to put in time in a job before taking leadership is a luxury they didn’t enjoy back then. On the other side of the coin, young people felt like they had only a few good years to contribute, so they gave it their all very quickly. Pitt was an extreme case, much of his brevity self-imposed. His physician concluded that he “died of old age at forty-six as much as if he had been ninety.”

Pitt’s private tutor was a man who would become a prominent minister in the Church of England. His father was prime minister. These mentors shaped a young man who dreamed of parliament as his next step, straight out of college.

My question today is this: Is there room in your organization for young leaders? In Servant Empowered Leadership, Don Page challenges how leaders are selected.

The typical pattern for moving people into leadership positions must be changed. First, nice people who are good at what they do are thrust or promoted into a position of leadership, without regard for their ability, or sometimes even their desire, to perform in a leadership capacity. Secondly, they are evaluated on their ability to produce short-term results for the organization and finally, if at all, on their ability to lead people. Yet this ability to lead others is the long-term basis on which those results can be sustained or improved upon.

If leadership gifting, competence and calling are all clear at an early age, why aren’t more organizations willing to allow young people to work in their sweet spots rather than promoting good practicioners with seniority? Experience in a field is simply not the same as leadership gifting. So, do we feel an urgency to find the best leaders available, to pour into them and to give them space? Until we do, we’re not going to gain the benefits of this generation’s William Pitts, Adam Smiths and George Whitefields.

My only angle in diversity is my age. One day I will wake up and discover that I’m an “older white male.” It’s my future, whether I like it or not, so I operate with some sense of urgency. Because age diversity is so tenuous, I spend a lot of my peer mentoring time encouraging other young people to step up and offer their gifts. Organizations need young people who are willing to use their leadership gifts!

But here’s the thing: we’re all destined to get “old.” I recall a talk by Mark Driscoll that drew my attention to a couple of obscure verses at the end of Ecclesiastes 4.

It is better to be a poor but wise youth than an old and foolish king who refuses all advice. Such a youth could rise from poverty and succeed. He might even become king, though he has been in prison. But then everyone rushes to the side of yet another youth who replaces him.  Endless crowds stand around him, but then another generation grows up and rejects him, too. So it is all meaningless—like chasing the wind. (NLT)

I think this parable has incredible relevance today for all those with titles and those who aspire to lead. Note that the spotlight in Solomon’s story is on the one who is rising, not the one who has made it. Solomon is not saying that it’s meaningless to aspire to lead; but he is saying that power is an illusion, and striving to hold onto it is like chasing the wind. By all means, take advantage of the moment that God has given you. Step up, express your voice and use your gifts.

But as you do, remember that it will be someone else’s turn far too quickly. All of us are destined to become foolish kings, when we find ourselves out of the limelight. There is always another generation rising up behind us. So hold power loosely, and spend at least part of your moment investing in the next generation.

The key to the parable is this: what makes a king foolish is the refusal to receive advice. There is no age limit to being a learner. Older, established leaders should make it a habit to keep young leaders around them. Perhaps the most valuable thing they bring to a team is the ability to understand the times. Mentoring should be two-way; there’s always something wise youth can teach established leaders.

I pray that whether I’m a young, emerging leader or an established leader, I will always be willing to learn from others. I pray that as a young leader, I won’t think of my own perspective more highly than I ought. And I pray that as my body ages, I will always reflect youthfulness in my attitude and mindset. As Douglas MacArthur puts it:

You are as young as your faith, as old as your doubt; as young as your self-confidence, as old as your fear; as young as your hope, as old as your despair.

Those who have authority can bestow it on others.

There are a few verses that talk about this kind of loaned authority. In John 10:18, Jesus says he has the authority to lay down his life or pick it up again at will. In John 17:2, he points out that the Father has granted Jesus the authority to then give eternal life to anyone the Father has given him. In John 19, Pilate tells Jesus he has the power to release or crucify him. Jesus quietly responds that he wouldn’t have that power if God (Jesus) didn’t give it to him. So, who is the one really in charge of that situation?

Those who have power have the ability to give their power to others. The Roman Centurion certainly understood this. The reason he believed Jesus could heal with just a word was because of his own context and ability to exert authority over those subject to him. But the way he says it is not, “I too have great authority.” Instead, he says, “I myself am a man under authority.” In other words, being under authority gives you authority. Who you represent or speak for makes a difference. When I was a project manager for a senior VP a few years ago, I understood that I was a peon in a room full of VPs. But occasionally, I would enter that room with a message from the senior VP. I had huge authority at those times.

Established leaders have authority. With their position, experience and networks, established leaders have a great amount of power. But, with power comes great responsibility. I believe one of the primary responsibilities for established leaders is to  use their authority on behalf of young, emerging leaders.

Consider the story of Jesus at a Pharisee’s dinner party. He’s interacting with a crowd of power brokers when suddenly a hysterical prostitute crashes the party. She debases herself, crying at Jesus’ feet and then using her hair to dry the tears and then anoint his feet with expensive perfume. The guests begin to murmur. At this point, Jesus has a choice. He can recognize her and give her status in the group. Or he can ignore her, protecting his own status. Of course, he chooses the former and even elevates her at the expense of his host. He lends her credibility.

Another example from my own life. I know my 3-year-old daughter’s personality very well. When we host a community group in our house, she’ll often break away from the kids in a back bedroom and run into the middle of our meeting, interrupting the discussion. As the leader of the group, I have the power to crush her by telling her to go away, in which she will become very shy and hurt. She’ll leave, but she’ll be inconsolable for ten minutes. Or I can look at her and acknowledge her, in which case she gets a big smile and runs to me. That’s what Jesus did. That’s loaned influence.

A reluctant leader is like my daughter. When she takes a careful step forward, established leaders have the ability to snuff out that flame or fan it by loaning their influence.

I’m reading a great new book by Jimmy Long, called The Leadership Jump. It’s an attempt to depict the leadership styles of the generations and then build bridges between the two. In other words, it’s the book I was going to write. There’s a great chapter on authority that got me thinking.

I’m sure you’ve heard the line from John Maxwell, “A leader without any followers is just taking a walk.” One of the best measures of whether a person-of-title is a leader is to ask whether anyone would be following them if they didn’t have the position. A leader will influence whether or not they have a title.

There are two types of nontraditional authority that mean everything to emerging leaders: moral authority and spiritual authority. These are the lenses ermerging leaders use to take the measure of established leaders.

My working definitions, inspired by a few web searches and conferences, are these:

Moral authority — the ability to influence others based on a leader’s character, wisdom or experience. Moral authority comes from such traits as integrity, vulnerability, consistency, persistence and willingness to guide and mentor others. Often we lend a huge amount of moral authority to someone who has personally gone to great lengths through great pain to accomplish something.

Spiritual authority — according to Steve Moore of The Mission Exchange, the right to influence given to a leader by his followers based on their perception of spirituality in the life of the leader. In churches and parachurch ministries, this power-base can be very powerful (consider Jim Jones, for instance). No wonder then that when a ministry leader is caught in duplicity or hypocrisy, the fall from power can be very sudden  and complete.

Neither involves the use of force, title or position. These are types of power given from below. They are accumulated slowly and lost quickly. That’s why Long calls them “earned authority.”

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!