Friday, September 11, 2009

What is Wrong with being a Leader?

I've been reading a lot in the past few years on leadership, trying to understand how to better encourage and equip others to make a difference with their lives. While everyone knows there are good leaders and bad leaders, I've never heard anyone question the value of being a leader, or trying to develop leaders... until this month.

In thinking about leadership development, I've had discussions (face to face and online) in which others I respect question the idea of leadership development. Others are uncomfortable with the very word 'leader', refusing to be called a leader, or considering it reflective of a dangerous mindset - a leader being someone who (sees themself as) 'above' others. These folks are bright, younger, and have a great desire to help others, so I'm left scratching my head wondering "What is wrong with being a leader?" What's the stigma? Is it semantics? A generational thing? Distrust of 'old school' authoritarian _styles_ of leadership? Or am I missing something important?

I have a feeling that much of the discomfort with 'being' a leader is a having a mental picture of a leader as someone in a role or position, telling other people what to do, without their best interests at heart. In this view, leaderhip = power. The 'effectiveness' is a leader is the ability to make people do what they don't want to do. Their style of leadership is probably the one more prevalent in days past: authoritarian, directive. The leader is the boss, the person in charge, and they tell others what to do, and their goal usually includes moving 'the organization' forward. If that's what people think of as a leader, and if leadership development is training people to be like this to meet corporate goals, then I'm with them - I sure don't want to be _that_ kind of leader!

When I think of the term leader, I think of someone who cares about other people, and influences them towards some towards the achievement of a worthy common goal. The authority of a good leader comes not from their position, but from their character, vision, competency, and care for those they lead. From a biblical perspective, the only legitimate form of leadership is servant leadership. Ken Blanchard describes two parts to servant leadership - The first is: Values, Vision, Direction - what's important to us and where are we headed because of this? The second is: how do you turn the pyramid upside down, how do you serve others? That's how Jesus led, and how He wants us to lead. This view doesn't eliminate hierarchy per se, but changes the nature of what it means to be a leader.

A leader then is first of all a servant, one who cares about others and helping to draw out the best from them. A leader believes in others, encourages them, and helps people come together to get something good done. The vision may come from the leader, or it might arise from those they serve, but they will cast that vision and clarify the goal such that it inspires others to action. For an effective leader, earning trust and being authentic are critical factors. Leadership = influence by serving.  It's inherrently relational.

Friends, if you influence others, if others look to you, if you want to bring out the best in others, you are a leader. The key questions (as they seem to me) are: What kind of leader are you going to be? Will you be a servant leader? How will you lead others to do great things? In what direction are you leading them? How effective are you? What do you need to do (or to be) to be more effective?

Why do we need leaders? I really like Mac Lake's comments on this at his blog today:
"Leaders make things happen.  Leaders change things.  Leaders question “what is” and dream of “what could be”.  Leaders learn from the past but lean toward the future.  Leaders are bent toward seeing possibilities and potential.  Leaders stir discontent, make people think and build teams that birth new realities.   Leaders are criticized but don’t give up.  Leaders push through obstacles, persist through discouragement and pay the price for the cause.  Leaders understand the journey is just as important as the destination.  Leaders take people where they’ve never been before."

So, does servant leadership sound like something that is worthwhile, or am I still missing something? If the former, I want to help people understand what it means to be a 'leader', not throw away the term; if the latter, I have much to learn. Or are objections to the term 'leader' due to rejection of authoritarian styles, or is it more than that - is it from a postmodern view that views any kind of hierarchy as inherrently dangerous?


Evan said...

Great post Larry!! I think that being a leader and a spiritual leader are very different for obvious reasons. I think, from what I have observed in the past, that some leaders lose sight of their purpose. When that happens, what you described as a leader quickly crumbles. What comes to your mind immediately when you think of a church leader? I think of someone who is knowledgeable and wise. To some people, that can be intimidating because they may feel inferior. But if I were to chew on that question more, I would definitely come up with something that resembles what you described in your post.
I think I remember hearing about a study done at a prison. They had guards, policemen, etc. to "play" prisoners and some to "play" the men and women in charge of the facility. Even though none of those people were criminals, the so-called leaders started to get on power trips and were treating their own friends like trash. Being a leader requires constant focus on the goal and an attitude that is close to parallel with what Jesus wants from us. We will fail daily, and being a leader may put you in the spotlight when mistakes are made, but in my post I was commenting on how people lose focus on that.
I am sure that being a leader is like riding a roller coaster, but someday I hope to be a great leader for Jesus!!!

Larry Baxter said...

Excellent points there! You're right in that the first 'image' to come to mind for spiritual leader is someone who is a holy saint, rather than simply as a person seeking to influence others in the spiritual realm (in the same way a community leader seeks to have a sphere of influence in a particular community).

Definitely true that leaders must constantly focus on the goal, not get puffed up, and parallel the attitude of Christ as servant. Leaders are also more likely to come under attack, whether external or internal. It's a great and holy ambition to seek to influence others towards/for Christ - go for it!!