To recap, Ronald Heifetz and Martin Linsky wrote, “Leadership is disappointing your own people at a rate they can absorb.” To do so well, I have suggested is to live out the following maxim:
Start by acting on conviction, stay connected, stay calm, stay the course.After spending some time on the first two parts of that statement in previous posts, today we’ll look at what may be for many of us the hardest bit of all: Staying calm. Especially, staying calm while staying connected when others about you are most definitely not.
First of all, why? Why even stay calm? Aren’t there so many great illustrations of passionate and prophetic leaders who lose their cool? Indeed, isn’t this what most of us think leadership is? From the 1970's movie Network to so much political discourse today, we assume that if change is going to come, somebody is going to have stand up and yell, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”
While that kind of passion is often very prophetic, it’s not necessarily effective in terms of leadership. It may feel good to shout down the crowd, but it actually tends to only make things worse.
While the Lone Rangers and John the Baptists have the luxury of leading a loyal Tonto or two, most of us called into leadership must do so with constituents and congregations who are often very resistant to being led. A firm denouncement or a stirring call to action goes from being an act of a prophet to an act of a leader when those around us follow our lead. Most of the time when things get heated, people stop following and start fighting or fleeing. While passion has its place for inspiring the committed and prodding the hesitant, (see Braveheart or Henry V, for example), far more often the call of the leader that is disappointing his or her “own people at a rate they can handle” requires a more calm, confident presence in the middle of a highly anxious, instinctively reactive situation that threatens to burn everyone.
To better understand this, think of bringing good, healthy change to an organization, family, church, or business like cooking a stew in a Crockpot. Every person is a like a hard raw vegetable or a firm piece of uncooked meat. Each has their own identities, opinions and beliefs. And in order for the pieces of food to become a meal that will feed a hungry tribe, each bit must be transformed at least a bit. Each vegetable must become softened, the meat must share its flavor and each morsel must contribute to a good healthy sauce for all to share. Without enough heat, nothing changes. Too much heat and it burns. In either case, nobody is fed.
A leader’s job is to regulate the heat. It’s to be a thermostat on the Crockpot. To keep enough heat in the system so that things begin to change, but not enough that individual parts get scorched. When we are all so calm that we are comfortable, we don’t want to go anywhere. When we are camped under a tree in the shade, even staying in the wilderness seems better than heading off for the Promised Land. But when the heat turns up, we begin to move toward the land of milk and honey that we really long for. At the same time, if the sun is scorching, it saps all motivation for moving. In the same way, the heat of the Crockpot, properly regulated over a long period of time lets the transformation occur naturally without ruining the whole thing. (How many good ideas have been shelved because the system got so “burned” that we vowed “never to do THAT again”?)
Regulating the heat is a delicate art that is built around one crucial leadership skill: Regulating ourselves. We don’t ACT like a thermostat, we ARE thermostats. We regulate the heat by monitoring and regulating ourselves in the middle of the stew. (Think about it: It really is impossible to monitor anyone else’s anxiety and anger, isn’t it? It really doesn’t do any good to tell someone to “Calm down!” does it? Don’t believe me? Try it on your spouse next time you two are in a heated argument.)
Calm, like anxiety, is contagious.
If the system is too “cool” and needs more heated urgency to change then the leader’s own ‘heat’ (when they are connected to followers) begins to get things "cooking" (which is what stirring speeches and prophetic denouncements CAN do). But, when the system gets too “hot” and people are in danger of burning each other or bailing out of the change process, the very presence of a calm, connected leader cools the system down so that people can tolerate staying on course.
Now trying to be perfectly calm can create it’s own stress and anxiety. The very last thing I need to do is to put more pressure on myself to “calm down” when I am getting anxious enough already (Just try and stop sweating or stammering when you are starting to “feel the heat” in the middle of a conflict) So, as a leader who often gets to walk into “hot kitchens” (what is a church patio but a big family kitchen table?) I try to focus on a more modest goal: Not being perfectly calm, but being just a bit less anxious than everyone else. All I want is for my presence to turn the thermostat down one click on the dial.
Peter Steinke again (link): “The leader’s ‘presence’ can have a calming influence on reactive behavior. Rather than reacting to the reactivity of others, leaders with self-composure and self-awareness both exhibit and elicit a more thoughtful response" (emphasis mine).
And getting the family, organization, board, Session or company to make “thoughtful responses” to move toward goals and objectives is the main work of the leader trying to bring change. In my next post, I’ll write about how “staying calm” is about detecting lions and deciding about waterholes, but between now and then, consider this:
If we are going to ‘stand the heat and dance in the kitchen” this stay-connected and stay-calm two-step, is more about staying put and staying self-aware than anything else. What do I need to do within myself to be the least anxious presence in the room?