The package

We have the idea that the top leaders in an organization have to have “the package.” They have to have well-rounded leadership ability, a lengthy track record of success at every level and a long list of desirable characteristics paired with a very short list of weaknesses. When we look for that kind of well-roundedness, I think we’re playing it safe. Leaders like those are not only hard to come by, but they don’t come with as much upside. It’s about risk management rather than seeking to make huge gains for the kingdom.

The result is that most innovations in a large organization don’t come from the top; they come from risky individuals not trusted with leadership whose ideas are embraced and supported from the top. The way to make that strategy work is to invert the pyramid and have the leaders support those ideas. I’m not saying that is a bad idea at all. But too many leaders shut down the good ideas and the radicals before they get a chance. Consider the movie Braveheart, where the leaders withheld support for William Wallace time after time until he led his own revolution.

Most organizations are founded by radicals and then stewarded by “packages.”

As Eddie Gibbs says in Leadership Next: Changing Leaders in a Changing Culture:

It is sobering to reflect that the most conservative institutions in the church today began as radical movements at their inception. Yesterday’s radical leaders become today’s conservatives who are seldom prepared to pay the high price of innovation a second time around.

What if, instead, we looked for people who couldn’t do everything, but would assemble a team around them to cover their obvious blind spots? What if we found roles for single-strength afficionados? What if we interviewed using questions focused on evidence of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life and awe at what Christ has done to transform them? What if we looked for failure and loss in a candidate’s life and asked what God had done to redeem those situations? What if we looked for weaknesses through the lens of how Christ has and could show his strength?

I have to admit I’m not comfortable with this way of working. Comfort is risk-averse. I like “packages” as much as the next person. In fact, I desire to be a “package.” And I am afraid of the Holy Spirit. He’s unpredictable and too often challenges my comfort. I think to take bold action with an organization requires a crisis, a point when motivation becomes stronger than resistance or reticence. More and more, I think these are times when bold action is required.

Where angels fear to tread

Steve Moore’s list included a good indicator of early leadership that’s worth commenting on: individuals who are willing to take on a challenge others won’t. The ones who show initiative to take advantage of opportunity. The ones whose resistance to risk is overtaken by a compulsion that someone has to do something.

Leaders sometimes appear to come out of nowhere with a sudden success. I suspect I know what Malcomb Gladwell would say: that there are no overnight successes, and the individual has put in a lot of hours beforehand that led to such “instance success.” I agree. I think it’s easier to spot failure than to spot competence, and individuals like these have likely shown signs of potential along the way. What gets them noticed is the turnaround situation where they made something out of nothing.

There’s a well-worn piece of advice that seems relevant: Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. Remember that line from Amazing Grace, where a 24-year-old William Pitt first proposes to William Wilberforce that he thinks he can make a run at prime minister?

Wilberforce: No one of our age has ever taken power.
Pitt: Which is why we’re too young to realize certain things are impossible. Which is why we will do them anyway.

Some watch that movie and get inspired by Wilberforce; I get inspired by Pitt. Wilberforce succeeded through persistence and endurance; Pitt succeeded by sheer audacity. Perhaps he was a fool, but maybe that’s the point. In Moore’s recent book, While You Were Micro-Sleeping, he makes the point that experts and elitists “can’t ask the dumb questions that often trigger new ideas.” Most innovations come from fools.

Certainly, the pessimism born from experience becomes a block to innovation, but I think there’s another factor at work than just being too young to show caution. I think it’s a matter of conviction and motivation — that sometimes a situation is so dire, with no one willing to take it on, that a young person decides the worst they can do is fail. They have less to lose. Or that a frustrated young leader who never gets opportunity sees in a challenge a chance to go all in. With great risk comes great reward. We can probably all think of young leaders who took on big challenges and came out of nowhere to lead a new era. These are the kinds of stories we love.

But what about the other side? The stories of those who try and fail — or who never try — don’t get told. The younger generations have been long characterized as having an unhealthy fear of failure. Pessimism and skepticism is just as rampant among the young as it is among the old. I’ve had conversations with three young leaders in the past month who have recently faced choices: one relatively safe and one with greater risk. In all three cases, the young leader has opted for safety. There are good reasons for their decisions. No one would question their logic. But I’m disappointed.

Here’s the thing. Organizations need young leaders to step up. Hierarchical organizations need young leaders who master relational influence over positional authority. High-process organizations need young leaders who push back on bureaucracy and ask uncomfortable questions. Monocultural organizations need trailblazers who easily bridge cultures. And older, established organizations need age diversity.

What it comes down to is that the world doesn’t need an older you. The world needs young leaders who are willing to step up and take on the unique challenges we’re facing… today.

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.