Continuing to repost the series from 2010 that seems to spur the most conversations with pastors I coach. The key concept here comes from Peter Steinke and his work with Healthy Congregations.
In my last post, I suggested that the core competency for leading any “community”--from a family to a church to a country--is the ability to “disappoint your own people at a rate they can absorb.” (Heifetz and Linsky)
In this post I want to begin to lay out some necessary skills for becoming a good disappointing leader. And the word “good” here means both a sense of competence as well as character. In other words, if I am going to be a good leader, I need to be committed to “skillfully” disappointing people as well as doing so for genuinely good reasons.
Here is a summary of what I want to say and then over the next few posts, I’ll take it apart and we can look at each piece. (With thanks to Ed Friedman, Peter Steinke and Murray Bowen for the "organizational systems" research that is behind all of this.) If you want to lead effective change, in the face of resistance and even while disappointing people around you:
So, let's begin with the first clause: To be a good disappointing leader, you have to start by acting on a conviction.
Now the word “start” here is actually misleading. Before you can “start” by acting on a conviction, you actually have to HAVE a conviction. And this takes time. Think of the forming of a clear conviction as the "prerequisite for leadership". Clear good leadership that can withstand the disappointment of people is a product of maturity and differentiation (a term we’ll spend a great deal of time on in future posts). It is the result of study, conversation, humility and discernment.
Having a well-thought-out, values-based conviction—an “As for me and my house” conviction (Joshua 24:15)—is not easy. Most of us simply inherit convictions from those around us. We take up the concerns or passions of others, we even take on the mantle of leadership to please others, or as a default. How many of us have said, “Well, if no one else is going to do this, I guess I will (but don’t blame me if it doesn’t work out the way you’d like).”
I think many people become pastors or take on leadership positions for ego needs. We see the glint of admiration in the eyes of others, we hear the way they introduce us (“You know that my son is studying to be a PASTOR. Isn’t that great?”), we like the sense that we are somebody special and we take on a role that we may not even have that much conviction about. We imagine ourselves with our new titles. Spiritual writer Parker Palmer was invited to apply for a college presidency. When a “clearness committee” helped him think through his motives for pursuing the job, he finally admitted, “I think I am interested because it would be nice to get my picture in the paper.”And soon, we are like the dog that catches the car. We are dragged along by the sheer force and energy of others’ opinions and affirmation afraid to let go. And because we are not acting out of conviction, we fold under the disappointment of others.
But a clear, thought out conviction that comes from within one's values and is consistent with one's beliefs, is like a healthy spine and strong “core muscles” for the body. They enable us to stand without wavering, to keep our balance, to stay grounded without having to be overly defensive or attacking. We are like a well rooted Sequoia tree that can withstand the fires and the storms. Others may get blown away or consumed, but convictions help us stand in the midst of the disappointment of others.But having a conviction is not enough. Leaders act on their convictions. And perhaps the clearest indicator of the clarity of a leader is his or her willingness to do so whether others follow or not.
One of my favorite Jesus stories is when Jesus hears that his friend Lazarus is dying and he tells his disciples that he is going to Judea (John 11). The disciples are not excited. Bethany has been a dangerous place for them. They try to talk Jesus out of going. (“Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?”) He just simply restates that he has something to do and is going. You have a sense that the disciples had to figure out if they would go to. I imagine in my minds eye, the disciples spending the night tossing and turning, wringing their hands, arguing with each other, while Jesus likely slept like a baby. Finally, Thomas says the other disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
Now, I don’t imagine that the disciples were excited. And this wouldn’t be the last time that they would be confused and even disappointed in Jesus, (for example ALL of the events of “Holy Week”) but his clear conviction led him to ACT as a leader.
As a leader, to act on conviction is actually quite simple (though often not easy): I will only worry about myself. I will do what my convictions call me to do and will not worry about anyone else following. I will change only myself. I will not try to control anyone else. I will not try to convince anyone else of my conviction. I will just, with as much clarity and awareness as possible, start acting out of the conviction that I am committed to doing. I will, in the words of Gandhi, “be the change I want to see in the world.”
A most common, every day example: Very often one spouse in a marriage will come to me and say, “I want our marriage to be better and I want us to get marriage counseling, but my spouse won’t go. What should I do?” My answer every time: YOU go to counseling. You start working on yourself. Invite your spouse to join you, but whether they do or not, YOU take responsibility for yourself, only. (And as we will learn, systems-theory teaches us that this action of personal conviction stimulates change to the system.)
My friend and co-worker, Charlie Campbell is both a pastor and marriage and family therapist. Charlie has said, that “a leader is someone who would be doing what they are doing anyway.” It doesn’t matter if anyone follows, I’ll do it anyway, they say. It doesn’t matter if anyone likes this, I am going to do this anyway. It doesn’t matter if anyone else cares for the environment, works for better schools, is committed to their marriage, makes their church more welcoming to the stranger, tries to bring peace where there is conflict, speaks the truth to power, loves those who don’t love, or forgives those who are filled with enmity… It doesn’t matter if anyone notices, anyone affirms it, anyone even cares about it…this is my conviction and I’ll be doing it anyway.
In one respect, the clearest sign of a leader, is that leaders don’t begin on the basis of whether anyone is following or not. In one sense, followership is irrelevant. Leaders start being leaders by acting on conviction.
But what makes a leader really a leader is what we do when the followers start having opinions about our convictions. When we hear the grumblings, the criticisms, the second-guesses. When we see the glance of rolled eyes or hear the clearing of throats. When those around us start getting anxious about our convictions and we find ourselves naturally looking over our shoulders wondering whether we are heading off alone. The difference between Leaders and Lone Rangers is what they do next. And that is where we will pick this up…