Most of us who take on leadership roles do so from a place of technical competence. The best player on the team often becomes the captain. The best teacher in the department is asked to become head of the department. The best sales associate is given a promotion to manager. And as I wrote in my last post, the best “lay leader” in a church is encouraged to become a pastor. This, of course, can be the root of the dreaded “Peter Principle”: "In a Hierarchy Every Employee Tends to Rise to His Level of Incompetence." Not every one who is competent at sales is good at managing (see Scott, Michael) not everyone who is a good teacher is a good administrator. But there is one core competency for leadership that is almost never recognized until it is too late: Disappointing people well or, as Linsky and Heifetz say, “at a rate they can absorb.” And this is the skill that requires such incredible competence: Disappoint people too much and they give up on you, stop following you and may even turn on you. Don’t disappoint them enough and you’ll never lead them anywhere.
In my last two posts I have written about the complexities of pastoral leadership and the confusion of the role of leadership that plagues most of us right from the beginning. I promised to take up some of the “adaptations” that are necessary for making the transition from “star player” to “coach” or leader. And with this post I want to begin some specific reflections on the necessary competencies of a leader.
First, leadership isn’t so much taking people where they WANT to go (that is more what management is all about.) Leadership is taking people where, in that great phrase of Lincoln’s, “the better angels of their nature” know that they need to go and yet resist going. Deftly handling resistance and the disappointment that comes along with it so that a community of people can accomplish a goal for the greater good is the core competency of leadership.
What does it take to disappoint people well? I’ll discuss those particular skills in my next post. But there is one internal adaptation of expectation that is necessary in order to leading through disappointment. By definition, the move to leader from a position of technical competence is difficult. And not just technically difficult (e.g. learning how to run a good department meeting, managing direct reports, setting vision and protecting values). The real challenge of leadership is that it is emotionally difficult for the leader. The first great challenge for the person who wants to go from player to “coach”, from star to leader is to determine whether you have the stomach for disappointing people.
Technical competence pleases people. When we hit our sales numbers, or teach a really good Bible Study, sing a great solo, run a really great program, or hit a home run and people cheer. Most of us who have been asked to consider leadership have big cheering sections. We are used to applause, affirmation and a feeling of success. But the minute you accept the call to leadership, you have to expect that most of the cheering will stop.
When you stand before people and tell them that in order to accomplish a mission, they have to change, adapt, give up something for the greater good, work with those whom they don’t like or compromise on something that they care about they get mad. They get really mad. And mostly, they get mad at you.
For those of us who are pastors, this is even harder. Note that the quote above from Linsky and Heifetz defined leadership as, “disappointing your own people.” (This is a huge part of the complexity that I wrote about previously.) Leaders want to bring change. We want to accomplish big goals. We gave up our cozy platforms of people-pleasing technical competence to take some big hill. But the real challenge of leadership is not anywhere “out there,” it’s among our own people. People whom we love. People who love us. People whom we consider “brothers and sisters.” People who are the “family” of God for us. People with whom we have found a place of belonging, camaraderie of beliefs, a sense of shared purpose and meaning in life. The call of leadership is learning how to disappoint THESE particular people well and that is not what most of us ever considered when a most pleased people asked for us to lead them.
Next Post: the skills for disappointing well.