Read an Excerpt
Introduction: What are You In For?
The assumption that guides what you are about to read is simple, yet for some reason it is almost always left unsaid. And when it is said, it is hinted at in terms that are far too polite and too highly polished. As a result the hints are not heard.
But this assumption is far too important for us to settle for window-dressing, for sugarcoating. So here’s the hard truth: if you’re a leader, you’re in the battle of your life. Nothing comes easily, enemies outnumber allies, and the terrain keeps shifting under your feet. If you’ve already tried the “easy” solutions, you have found that they come up empty. I know unvarnished truth like this is never easy to hear, but it’s the only truth that will help you lead with inner confidence.
And you need confidence because nothing is more difficult than leading.
Nothing else in life compares to the hardship of firing a friend or telling people that their work was necessary for a season but their employment has now reached an end. The graduate school I lead has been threatened with lawsuits, and my reputation has been sullied beyond repair by disgruntled employees.
At times, the cost of leading an organization doesn’t seem that different from the slow, insidious attrition of trench warfare.
Yet I have stumbled on moments of glory in the process of leading, moments that come from remaining in the game despite the apparent absurdity and incredible personal cost. At times all systems have hummed harmoniously– but only after days, if not weeks, of metal grinding against metal. At other moments complete failure has been imminent: the graduate school came within inches of being closed down because an absurd law was reinterpreted by a state employee who had just taken over the job from her predecessor.
(The predecessor, in fact, had worked to help us succeed.) A stay of execution came at the last moment, giving us a chance to mount a defense that eventually prevailed.
Grace. Loss. Fortune. Hardship. Victory. Sometimes the worst seat is the best seat in the house, and it comes as a result of leading. I have been asked many times if I would repeat the process of starting a graduate school. I’ve said, “Never. I don’t hate myself that much.” Yet while I have no regrets, I do have much grief and brokenness to show for the effort.
The bottom line is simple: it is in extremity that you meet not only yourself but, more important, the God who has written your life. It is through leading that I’ve known the greatest need for a deep, personal, and abiding relationship with Jesus. I wouldn’t trade that for all the money, fame, glory, and honor in this life. I suspect the same is true for you.
You may wonder how you arrived at your leadership position. You may wonder even more if you can continue in it. You may also be at war with wanting to be successful no matter the cost. But if you will ponder the call of your loving God as the core of your labor and life, I believe this book will guide you to a new and profound joy in leadership.
Leading is very likely the most costly thing you will ever do. And the chances are very good that it will never bring you riches or fame or praise in exchange for your great sacrifices. But if you want to love God and others, and if you long to live your life now for the sake of eternity, then there is nothing better than being a leader.
THE CORE ASSUMPTION
Since we’re talking straight, let’s cut to the core assumption upon which everything else in this book is built: to the degree you face and name and deal with your failures as a leader, to that same extent you will create an environment conducive to growing and retaining productive and committed colleagues.
Sometimes the quickest path up is down, and likewise, the surest success comes through being honest about failure. This is definitely not an easy path, but consider the alternative. If you don’t have the capacity to confess, acknowledging in real time how much you mess up, the result will be a workplace that becomes more cowardly and employees who grow more self-committed, more closed to you and to one another, and more manipulative. They will look out for themselves, not for you or the organization or their colleagues.
The leader’s character is what makes the difference between advancing or de-centering the morale, competence, and commitment of an organization. The truth about confession is that it doesn’t lead to people’s weakness and disrespect; instead, it transforms the leader’s character and earns her greater respect and power. This is the strange paradox of leading: to the degree you attempt to hide or dissemble your weaknesses, the more you will need to control those you lead, the more insecure you will become, and the more rigidity you will impose–prompting the ultimate departure of your best people. The dark spiral of spin control inevitably leads to people’s cynicism and mistrust. So do yourself and your organization a favor and don’t go there. Prepare now to admit to your staff that you are the organization’s chief sinner.
But there is more. Much of the current literature on leadership is swelled with the notion of self-disclosure, the importance of authenticity, and the need to own one’s weaknesses as a means of bolstering credibility. To connoisseurs of leadership literature, this is nothing new. What I am calling you to, however, is far more than the mere acknowledgment of your shortcomings. I’m suggesting an outright dismantling of them–in the open and in front of those you lead.
Leadership is far from a walk in the park; it is a long march through a dark valley. In fact, leadership has been described as wearing a bull’s-eye on your chest during hunting season. Crises erupt at the least opportune moments, many times the result of poor preparation, a lack of planning, or faulty execution. Your people will keep messing up just like you do. And, yes, every crisis involves people, will be managed by people, and will be resolved–or intensified and prolonged–by people in your organization.
Few crises–and even fewer of your routine decisions–will be simple. Complexity is the byword of our day. Each decision you make is a jump into the unknown, creating challenges that cost your organization time, money, and possibly morale. Few leaders escape the second-guessing or, worse, the adversaries that materialize in response to their decisions. Many times conflict escalates into assaults and betrayal–with the heartache that comes when confederates turn against you. No wonder leaders feel exhausted and alone. No wonder they suspect that other members of the team are withholding the very information they need to make better decisions. No wonder the intensity of the challenge causes so many to burn out or quit.
I won’t be so naive as to say the long, dark valley of leadership can be avoided simply by learning to name your failures. In fact, new and, at times, more difficult challenges will arise simply because you begin admitting your status as your organization’s head sinner, and the normal challenges will remain whether you confess your flaws or try to hide them. But realize that most leaders invest too much capital obscuring their need for grace, which not only keeps their staff at arm’s length but also subverts their trust and steals energy and creativity they could otherwise devote to the inevitable crises that continue to arise. And, perhaps even more dangerous, hiding failure prevents leaders from asking for and receiving the grace they most desperately need to live well, not to mention lead well.
THE WORST REASONS TO HIDE
Why is it so rare for leaders to name their failures? What keeps leaders trapped in a siege mentality, cut off from the data they need in order to make better decisions? Three primary reasons–fear, narcissism, and addiction–come immediately to mind. If you are convinced that none of these affects your ability to lead, keep reading. You very likely will change your mind.
Most leaders avoid naming their failures due to fear, and fear is a completely understandable motivator. If a leader were to openly acknowledge that he is frequently mistaken, that he is deeply flawed, and that he will continue to miss the mark on occasion, the ramifications could be disastrous. A leader with that much candor could lose the confidence of his staff, his clients could take their business elsewhere, and his board could fire him. At least those are the fears that keep us silent.
But what actually does happen when we overcome this fear and come clean about our personal flaws? What happens when we begin to name our cowardice and admit our inclination to hide? Paradoxically, when we muster the courage to name our fears, we gain greater confidence and far greater trust from others. Still, confronting your fears involves risk. In certain environments any honesty about one’s failures can be the kiss of death. So if you love truth and are bound to its proclamation, flee the cults of pretense and Christian artifice.
Seek out a new context in which to lead. If you find a church or organization that is not bound to pretense but might simply be ill equipped to admit what the Scriptures teach about our struggle with sin, you will be in a place where honesty has the greatest potential to alter the culture of latent deceit.
A second reason we hide is narcissism. It takes humility to name our narcissism, and we’re too married to our image to come clean about how messed up we are. This focus on self strangles authentic confession.
What happens, then, when we finally find a way to divest ourselves of image and ego? When at last we admit flaws and failure, we gain a stronger personal center and greater peace. Fitness experts have emphasized the importance of “core” strength for years. Core strength is like the hub of our strength, and it is far deeper than our stomach muscles. Therefore, core strength isn’t gained by doing a few or a thousand crunches; instead it grows to the degree we work at creating disequilibrium while we exercise. A set of push-ups now includes holding a small ball in one’s hand while going down, and while coming back up rolling the ball to the other hand. Disequilibrium requires more core strength in order to return the body to balance.
The first set of push-ups to build core strength feels like one is balancing on a rocking deck of a wave-swept boat. It feels uncomfortable and awkward. But in time the rhythm of disequilibrium intensifies our capacity to find a new sense of balance and strength.
Our attempt to not feel off guard actually leads to greater self-absorption and the foolish conviction that we can control the world. True core strength is willing to feel helpless and disturbed, and it results in a self-disciplined and passionate life rather than in a controlling life that fears what may surprisingly arise.
The lie of narcissism is that we can control a world that is spinning out of orbit by narrowing the field of ambiguity into a simplistic perspective. We choose this perspective–a path of rigidity and dogmatism that limits options and lets us deny complexity in the world. We do this even though complexity is inevitable, and no leader will succeed if she closes herself off from it. Only by letting go of dogmatism and embracing complexity can a leader open her mind to a greater capacity for creativity, leading to success.
Finally, the beleaguered leader can easily isolate himself and fill his loneliness with the cancers of addictive substances and behaviors, ranging from sex to alcohol to simple workaholism. To avoid this trap a leader must name his loneliness and his tendency to detach from others, then leave behind the addictions that promise to fill the void. Only then will his heart be freed both to receive and to offer care. The result is a healthier and more humane person, well connected with others in authentic relationships, not to mention a more confident and powerful leader who enjoys the benefits of having others invest in his life.
Every one of your weaknesses is the doorway not only to better character but to leadership dividends so enormous that avoiding the necessary risk is utter foolishness. So face your fear, your narcissism, and your addictions, and begin to enjoy the freedom, the peace, and the power of leading with a limp.
THE COST AND THE BENEFIT
The Bible offers this central paradox about life: If you try to keep your life, you are fated to lose it. If you give up your life, you will find it.1 Whether you believe the Bible or ignore it, whether you think it’s a collection of wisdom or insanity, you can’t deny the irrefutable logic in the paradox of giving up your life in order to find it.
Think about trying to fall asleep: the harder you try to nod off, the longer you stay awake. Or say you forget someone’s name. Ransack your brain trying to come up with it, and seldom will the name appear. But stop thinking about it, and often the name will surface. Even these simple examples reveal that life requires surrender for us to gain what we desire.
Leadership falls in this category, and leading with a limp will definitely cost you something. The cost involves naming some very painful realities about life and leadership, about others and yourself. Perhaps in these pages you had hoped to find pithy, uncomplicated steps guaranteed to turn your work and your personal life around. Get a grip. If life worked that easily, no one would need a book on leadership.
Life and leadership are anything but simple, immediately rewarding, and pain free. Leaders must deal with what is, not the rosy fantasy that we’d prefer.
To find life, you have to lose it. To broaden your effectiveness, you have to narrow your focus. To grow in confidence, connectedness, and success, you have to admit for all to hear that you are a failure. Remember that this truth does not define success the way we’ve been taught, yet it is the only path to authentic success as a leader.
Few leaders operate out of confidence built on anything but the crumbling foundation of arrogance. Few know peace that is not dependent on performance. Few exercise freedom and creativity that are not bound to conventionality. And few possess the capacity to care for people that is not shadowed by either the urge to please others or to knuckle under to the tyranny of “should.” Take a different path. As an act of leadership, consider the risk of giving up your life through facing, naming, and bearing your weaknesses, and imagine the paradoxical yet promised benefits. Let’s walk into that reality, but it’s imperative to remember that all movement into reality requires enormous faith.
THE LEADER’S THREE-DIMENSIONAL LIMP
Given the chaos and complexity of leadership, there is no straightforward chart that can offer an accurate visual representation of the primary leadership challenges and the most effective responses to each of them. The challenges do tend to be universal, but the solutions vary according to the leader, the organization, the circumstances, the makeup of the team, and multiple other considerations.
Plus, a solution that is presented as the best response to chaos, for instance, might end up being, in your context, the best solution to loneliness or betrayal. Maybe if these words were printed on a cube and not on flat sheets of paper, I could come closer to creating a chart that would adequately present not only the challenges of leadership and the various solutions but also the multiple combinations and pairings of effective ways to address each challenge.
As it stands, however, I suggest that you picture a Rubik’s Cube as you look at the charts to follow. The process of limping leadership is so organic, so paradoxical, and so multifaceted that you would need a chart that could be folded, turned, twisted, and realigned in many different combinations to get the full meaning and complete application of what follows.