Sunday, June 14, 2009

Thoughts on Responsibility and Leadership

At The Episcopal Church's Province VI Synod meeting yesterday morning, I was elected to be the lay representative to the church's Executive Council for the next six years. The Executive Council functions in the interim between the church's triennial General Conventions, which are the governing body of the church. This is a significant position with great responsibility, and I am at once pleased, humbled and awed by the trust being placed in me by my province.

Over the years I've had the opportunity to take on leadership roles in various organizations, including on-the-job in insurance brokerage firms, trust departments and banks and as a volunteer for professional, charitable and arts entities such as the Eleanor Roosevelt Memorial Foundation, National Association of Bank Women, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Hawai Heart Association, Hawaii Women's Legal Foundation, Pilot International (a Rotary-club like organization for women), Asian/Pacific Women's Network, the Foothills Arts Center, Asian Arts Association of the Denver Art Museum, Amarillo Opera, the Amarillo Art Museum, and the 32nd Avenue Jubilee Center, among others. I typically was recruited to serve as treasurer, secretary or fundraising chair, and often worked my way up to the president and chairperson positions.

My service mentality is a direct result of my father's influence. Dad was a man who probably never thought of himself as a volunteer or of what he did for his friends, co-workers and their families as "service." In the '50s, '60s and '70s, Dad was often the only person literate in English among his Chinese restaurant co-workers, and he frequently helped with filling out immigration and income tax forms and accompanying families to their doctors' visits, especially when hospitalization was impending. As the eldest child who was expected to help at home by talking to the landlord or the utility companies, because Mom didn't speak much English in those days and Dad was at work 6-1/2 days a week, I learned to shoulder responsibility early, at around age 8. Mom still talks about a letter I wrote as a 10 or 11-year old that got a thorny trash and debris problem handled expeditiously by the landlord.

Those lessons learned understudying my father underscored for me a lifelong lesson about the right use of God's gifts. My father expected me to use my gifts of intellect, sense of responsibility and articulate speech to help take care of my family, and I rose to that expectation. Dad also emphasized measuring myself against the people who took care of things vs. people who didn't step up to the plate. It never occurred to me growing up that shirking my responsibility was an option. When my father died, my mother asked me to choose the words to be engraved on the marker for his columbarium vault, and I chose, "Duty and Sacrifice Beyond Reproach." A lot of Dad's sense of duty and sacrifice have rubbed off on me.

As a leader, I am not coy about my leadership attributes, assessing my gifts realistically, being honest about those things that I know how to do well. Likewise, I am also honest about the gifts that I do not possess and don't try to "fake" it. Being honest and realistic about one's leadership gifts means that you can avoid the "courtship" dance of being asked and demurring, being asked again and finally accepting an invitation to join and lead an organization. It saves a lot of time and grounds the relationship on something stronger than flattery and deference.

One of the things that I acknowledge about leadership right up front, which I think distinguishes my service from that of many others, is the fact that the very exercise of leadership means that my decision-making and implementation of decisions will sometimes inflict pain and even harm on some people. The only way that I know to ameliorate this pain and harm is by communicating with the utmost transparency, completeness and openness even at the risk of being overly communicative and verbose.

Leadership is ultimately about building a relationship with the people in the organization and the other stakeholders so that you and they regard each other in the light of day and in the fullness of each other's positions, needs, concerns and issues. Leadership is all about mutual respect and not at all about popularity or agreement on all or most of the issues. Caring deeply about the issues is not at all like being so invested in issues that you are devastated if decisions don't go your way. One can hold a fragile flower or tiny bird in one's open or cupped hand, but tightening one's grip will crush the flower and kill the bird.

Leadership is an art based on insight: seeking to understand; and dialogue: striving to share your analysis and motivation. The canvas of leadership will never be finished, because one's understanding, analysis and motivation will never be fully realized.


Deborah Sampson said...


Laurie Gudim and Rosean Amaral said...

These are great insights on leadership. Maybe someday, in your spare time (ha!) you'll develop them into an essay or even a seminar: training people with natural leadership ability, helping them to hone their skills.

You lead well, consciously and conscientiously. Congratulations, and thank you for all your work!

For my part, I am naturally a supporter and nurturer, and those talents are at your disposal as you lead us, my friend.