In this season of reflection, I have been thinking continuously about the part I play in the dramas of my life. Being a leader would be easy if I didn’t care so much for doing right by the people with whom I interact. I watch television dramas with overbearing bosses and larger than life characters, and I know that I can’t emulate those leadership styles anymore. When I was younger, first starting out as a manager and bank officer, I thought that the goal was the acquisition and wielding of power. Now I know the goal is much more important than what passes for power and more complex than gaining acquiescence to my schemes.
There is a great difference between leading people where they willingly desire to go and coercing people into following the leader’s mandated path. Many years ago I read a book entitled "Son Rise" by Barry Neil Kaufman about his then-five year old autistic son. Kaufman, through his experiences in trying to reach his son and lead his son back into relationship with the rest of the family, learned to define love as “desiring to be with.” In my reflections on leadership, I think that a true leader is someone who gains the trust and concurrence of people so that they “desire to be with” or to follow the leader.
The exercise of leadership could be analogized by gift giving. I know a very dear person who loves broadly and generously and would help a friend in need without hesitation, but he doesn’t get very high marks as a gift giver. So often his selection of gifts falls short of what would bring real joy to the recipient. The gifts selected do not lack for expense or special qualities, nor for lack of time, trouble and care in their selection. So, what’s the problem? It’s really quite simple. They’re not the gifts that the recipients desire to be given.
A great gift giver pays close attention to the desires of the gift recipient. Observing his interests, how he spends his own time and money, and listening to the energy in his voice when he talks about his passions, that’s how the gift giver knows how to make a gift selection. A poor gift giver makes assumptions about what the gift recipient wants, frequently projecting her own interests and desires onto the recipient, choosing gifts that turn her on, but leave the recipient flat.
Leadership that attempts to lead where people don’t want to go, to achieve successes that people don’t have any energy on achieving, is failed leadership. At its most benign expression, such leadership is ineffective and irrelevant, and people simply ignore the messages of such leaders. At its worst, such leadership equates to dictatorship, being a control freak, in which case people spend inordinate amounts of time, resources and energy plotting to circumvent and resist such leaders.
Too often, there is a mistaken understanding of leadership, that it somehow equates with good management. Contrary to what many so-called leaders think, leadership is not about promoting one’s own agenda, but rather about helping people to live into their own best and true selves around a shared, community-based agenda. A leader inspires and helps people to focus energy on their own motivations around the shared agenda while a manager guides the tactics to accomplish the phases of a strategic plan.
Persons in leadership roles walk a very fine line between helping groups to identify a shared agenda and projecting their own agenda in the mistaken belief that it reflects the group’s shared agenda. The former is an organic give and take process, that doesn’t conform to any linear timeline or plan; it is by definition messy. The latter tends to feel like a struggle on everyone’s part: the leader feels frustrated that “they” just don’t get it, the group feels manipulated, and there is a lot of push-pull activity and tension.
My reflections have brought me to an awareness that I have been engaged in leadership from the sidelines of the mistaken variety. I recognize a need for me to pull back, to step aside and to allow the give and take to happen without my interference. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that I don’t have some important gifts to offer to the process. What I am saying is that I need to stop being part of the drama and start being a non-anxious presence that holds light rather than power in my metaphorical hands. Much, much easier said than done, but well worth trying for.