Tuesday, October 16, 2012

When Leaders Struggle

Leaders are always supposed to be strong right? They are the ones who are up in front, leading the pack. Or behind the scenes, pushing us ahead. They are the ones who know best, who are the smartest, the best educated, who have the responsibility to ensure the well-being of those who follow. Leaders are the ones who focus the rest of us on what really matters, who think beyond the everyday to what’s most important. We sometimes think of them as super human. Is it any wonder that they fall? That they fail to live up to our expectations? That so many in recent years have crashed to the ground or into jail?

Leadership, once claimed or owned, is a tremendous responsibility. And these common perceptions and the pressure to maintain them may be so great, that if we ourselves become leaders, we may feel pressured to keep others from finding out our faults and our weaknesses. We may not want anyone to see that we really are no different from anyone else. After all, the least mistake, if it becomes public knowledge, can send us sprawling from our pedestal.

So what happens when leaders struggle? When the company is losing money? What happens when the customers just don’t seem to be there? When a child dies or a wife leaves? What happens when tragedies hit her family or his company? What happens when the building burns down, or the equipment kills an employee? What happens when he or she leads the people into battle, and they fail to succeed, and so there are many casualties?

The phrase, “It’s lonely at the top” comes to mind. The phrase, “We are all human” comes to mind. The question, “Who’s going to be the strong one now, the one to make the decisions while I struggle?” comes to mind. Company presidents, ministers, single parents, school principals – all must ask these questions some times. Maybe that’s why some people just don’t want to take on leadership responsibilities.

But what if we decided differently about leaders? What if we really believed that all of us are supposed to be leaders of someone or something? That we each have a “calling” to fulfill, and that fulfilling that “calling” is so important to someone or some group that it makes us a leader when we are living out that capacity. Dennis Bakke, co-founder and CEO of Imagine Schools and founder and former CEO of AES Corporation, believed this perspective to be so important that he considered Joy at Work (the title of his book) to be possible only when people were in charge of something, when they were decision makers. He built a company around expecting everyone to be in charge of decisions – rather than considering himself to be the main decision maker. The Bible talks about “spiritual gifts,” those that God has called us to live out. When we fully live out these gifts, we are serving a special and important role in the church, a role that no one else can fill. We are “leading” when we are fulfilling that role. But that gift or those roles are God given, God empowered. And because all in the church are “called” to some role, all gifts are equally important if the church is to function as God intends.

Whether everyone shares this spiritual perspective or not, or whether we believe that churches are succeeding at this biblical mandate, might it not be a useful metaphor for companies and other organizations? That is, the person who looks most important, who has the most visible responsibilities, who speaks the most, or who is most intelligent would not be considered more important than the one who keeps the computers running, or the one who ensures that the sick receive their benefits. The whole organization would be made up of “essential functions” or roles that would be filled by people who were most gifted or suited to those roles. And “suited” would mean more than whether we were educated for the role or had held a similar role before. It would mean that we experienced a heart, soul, and mind “calling” toward that role. It would mean that we felt most fulfilled when carrying out that role.

Because everyone’s role would be essential to the functioning of the whole, we would be paying attention to people’s gifts and encouraging them to discover their talents. We would be helping them to develop those talents, and holding their hands when they were discouraged. We would invest heavily in the people around us; in developing their strengths; in asking for their input and support. We would have no justification for considering anyone more important than anyone else, because for the whole organization to operate best, everyone would have to be operating at their best. Or given that we would accept that no one is infallible, we would create systems for filling in and helping out those who were temporarily “dys” functional.

And best of all for the person with the formal title of leader, someone’s role would be “caring for,” supporting, restoring, and “being there” for the more visible leader, rather than the leader having to keep up appearances, trying to look strong when she wasn’t feeling it. The person in the role at the top wouldn’t have to fake it, but would have a coach to continually support him, challenge him to grow and become; someone to lean on when needed. What if, instead of leaders considering themselves better than others, or as having more rights, or as smarter, or more capable, or more responsible, or [feel free to fill in the blank], they instead saw themselves as servants. I remember a book called “Servant Leadership” – I think this was exactly its point.