What It Means to Lead

A few of my observations on what it means to lead...in no particular order and by no means exhaustive. 1. It means having courage.

A friend of mine, CJ Casciotta, tweeted this the other day, and I thought it was genius:

Leadership is doing what others are afraid to do until they see you do it.

Some mornings I lie in bed, fighting myself because I just don't want to lead. I don't want to be the person at the front of the excursion into the jungle, hacking at every tropical shrub, spider and venomous snake that stands in the way.

Leading is hard because anything worth doing will be hard to do. You'll hate parts of it. Resistance will declare all-out war on you. Every insecurity you've ever had will bubble to the surface and be seen in the harsh light of reality. But that's what it means to have courage. That's what it means to do something meaningful...and to give other people meaning.

2. It means asking someone to follow. It might seem obvious, but so many of us skip this step. If you're going to lead, someone has to be following, and sometimes that doesn't happen until you ask them.

I rarely have people come up to me begging to follow me. That's not usually the way it works. Instead, we as leaders, have to perceive them. We have to have vision for them. We have to recognize what they uniquely offer. We have to inspire them toward a vision. We have to be open to the way they will change the thing we're leading.

And we have to ask. We just need to ask. I've found that, while most people aren't begging to be followers, they'll step up to the plate if you can show them how their strengths merge with your vision. And remember, you're promising them more than just the task at hand; you're doling out meaning and relationship.

3. It means slowing down long enough to let them follow. I'm going to have to circle back around to this another time, but in short, be okay with a slower pace if it means that other people can be in it with you. The product will be better for it. They'll be better for it. You'll be better for it.

4. It means turning things upside down. I believe leadership is about service. Not everyone would define leadership this way, but this is how Jesus defines it. Everyday I realize more and more that my role as "leader" is really to recognize, release and cultivate what is the unique potential in those who "follow" me. I think I'm going to have to circle back around to this one someday too because I can't begin to do it justice.

5. It means getting messy. We're talking about dealing with people here, and people are messy. All of us are messy and when relationships get real we tend to get our mess all over everything. But real leadership is rooted in relationship.

Why would I say that?

Well, for one, being known in relationship means there's more allowance for being imperfect. And, really, isn't this the best option...since being perfect isn't an option? If you're imperfect and detached, you are not going to be easy to follow. Loving people well also means that even if your grand vision comes crashing to the ground you can get up again because you haven't failed at what is most important.

I would rather love well than accomplish well.

I'm only just beginning to unravel my thoughts on this, so I think I'll need to circle back to this entire topic a few times. But I'm realizing that I do have some things I've learned and that I'm still learning.

We're Not Hobbits

I watched Fellowship of the Ring before I ever began reading the books, and I remember being both bemused and amused by the hobbits’ aversion to adventure. They valued the easy life, the simple life, the life unfettered by the worries and stresses of the outside world with its dangers and adventures. There’s some of that—and sometimes a lot of that—in all of us, but deep down we want more, even if just a little more. We’re not hobbits.

We crave an adventure, an epic, a journey, and, yes, even a grueling task.

I’m in the midst of reading Leading Without Power by Max De Pree. It’s a primer on leading volunteers and volunteers leading volunteers. In most leadership situations we tend to rely heavily on the exertion of power, and that exertion of power often relies heavily on money. Salaries, bonuses, windfalls and bribes are often the dangling carrots of the workplace, but when it comes to non-profits and churches and their volunteers, well, there just isn’t the money. Thus, the paradigm of leadership must shift significantly.

So what do non-profits and churches have going for them? What is it that draws volunteers to them? They have causes. They have beliefs. They have obstacles. They have opportunities.

They have adventure.

De Pree makes the argument that most people volunteer because they’re seeking a sense of fulfillment, engagement and development that they’re not getting elsewhere. They want to be a part of something and believe in something bigger than themselves. They want to engage parts of themselves that lie dormant in their other spheres of life. They want to be developed and challenged with new obstacles and ideals.

But often we do a very poor job of inviting people into this kind of adventure. Most of the time, and I’m certainly guilty of this, we apologize for asking for help as we ask for help. Instead, according to De Pree, we should be throwing down a gauntlet:

One of the easiest mistakes is to tell people that you have a job for them, that you need them to do it, but that the job is not very hard and not much preparation is needed to be successful. This is clearly not the way to offer work. We should offer challenging work. We should offer work that’s difficult. We should offer work that’s risky, because through risky work we grow. We should offer work that’s meaningful. We should offer work that matches the gifts of the person. Easy work is as rewarding as steering a parked car. 

If I can return to my geek-tastic Lord of the Rings analogy for a moment: Hobbiton is a nice place to visit, but no one wants to be a hobbit. We want to be a part of the Fellowship. The members of the Fellowship weren’t only committed to the call because they believed in it; they were also committed because they knew what it would require. They knew that they had a unique role to play. They knew they were culpable for the success or failure of the endeavor.

When we call volunteers into our endeavors are we calling them to be moved and changed and fulfilled? Are we calling them into a process of learning and exploring? Are we calling them to encounter obstacles and devise ingenious ways to circumvent them? Are we calling them into a journey?

Are we really asking them to join us on an adventure?