Raymond L. Wheeler, DMin

Musings about leadership

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Beware your ascension to power

hand-fist-power1Motivations are sometimes difficult to isolate. The variety of experiences one gleans through a career of interactions with those in power has a significant shaping effect on how power is perceived. I have observed a sometimes benign and other times toxic reaction to bad leadership that sets the stage for amplified emotional impact at work.  I call this reaction, “backdoor leadership lessons.”

Backdoor leadership lessons are those insights one gains by watching leaders act in a way that contradicts constructive leadership action. Leaders who fail to manage their stress resort to manipulation, frustration, insults, or rage to force things through the system. Because they have power they have initial success as people comply out of fear. However, over time, the success are fewer and farther between as people feign compliance with a head nod, avoidance, and passive impertinence.

The benign and even constructive backdoor leadership lessons emerge from observation and an internal commitment to be a different kind of leader. If one could listen to the self-talk inside the emerging leader’s head they might hear thoughts like, “I will never treat my team like that. I will never cut innovative people off out of frustration. I will never be that headstrong.” These backdoor lessons often lead to constructive self-awareness and the development of emotional intelligence and skill. Stepping into benign or constructive backdoor leadership lessons requires the exercise of forgiveness and the rigor of critical reflection on both the actions of a toxic leader and oneself. Without forgiveness and critical reflection, a toxic backdoor lesson emerges in the life of the leader.

Toxic backdoor leadership lessons also emerge from observation but take a subtly different road when it comes to internal commitment. Instead of rendering a commitment to be a different kind of leader toxic lessons result in a commitment to expunge the influence and legacy of the toxic leader. Rather than forgiveness and self-reflection, smug self-confidence emerges that sees the eradication of a prior leader’s influence and legacy as a primary objective to the acquisition of power.  The self-talk that occurs in this emerging leader yields thoughts like, “I will destroy his/her toxicity.  I will redirect this organization to a more profitable or more effective strategy. I will pull this ship back into its rightful competitive position.”  Both forgiveness and critical self-reflection are absent in this response which yields hubris more than insight.

Hence, I state, beware your ascension to power. If you think the acquisition of power is the solution to the bad decisions, poor interpersonal skills, inadequate strategy, or abusive arrogance you are on the trajectory to be a step worse as a leader than the individual you react to. Why? Because that leader becomes the model of your leadership by an inability to step away to a different focus. I ran across this observation the first time in a heavy equipment operator in my first congregation. Jim (not his real name) was a man’s man kind of guy. He didn’t speak much but when he did he often had great insights I benefited from. I didn’t know the trauma that made up his personal life – that is until the day he dropped by my office.

Jim collapsed into one of the chairs in front of my desk and broke into sobs, the kind of sobs that men cry when they can no longer hold in the pain of their experience. “I hate my dad,” he blurted out between heaving agonizing howls of emotional pain. “And I have become him.”  Jim identified a connection that seems to me to be unyielding – the person you hate the most is the person you become because they are the target of your attention and affection.

In the words of one of my early mentors, “Ray, you will hit what you aim at.”

Beware your ascension to power. Strategy and vindictiveness are not the same. I have watched men step into roles of power with the only objective of erasing the memory and work of their predecessor. They present themselves as innovators and prophets of a new day. They tirelessly work on change. However, they don’t bring strategy, they bring destruction. They amplify the worst characteristics of their predecessors because they hit what they aim at.

Experience can teach leaders a tremendous amount of powerful lessons. But leaders gain little without the discipline of self-reflection and the exercise of forgiveness. Look in the mirror. What do you see? Do you see the dad, the boss, the mother, or the teacher that you hate?  Have you come to the revelation Jim came to?  Step back, consider your own behavior. Find a mentor or therapist who can help you walk back through the years of pain, bitterness, and the quest for revenge to get to the healing work of forgiveness. Don’t confuse vindictiveness for strategy.

If you talk with Jim today, you see a different man entirely. He emanates a grace, a wisdom, and life insight that is almost under spoken but has the effect of causing others to reflect on their own trajectory in life. He is no longer trying to not be his dad. He is discovering what it means to be himself. His ascension to power nearly broke him. Now, his ascension to power has become a source of dynamic innovation and healing. Those around him no longer give him head nods of passive impertinence. Instead, they engage each challenge with vigor, courage, and initiative – all of which they have learned from Jim. What are you aiming at?


Leadership – it depends on what you mean

starting pointSome of what people write for or against the concept of leadership suffers from the same malady – they assume rather than define the term “leadership.” I read a series of posts between friends of mine this weekend that illustrate the point and prompt me to write my own thoughts.

One group argued that the term leadership is a tired and overused concept that did more damage than good. They contended that efforts to train leaders undermined the necessity of getting things done in an organization. They preferred to train ministers whose character exhibits clear and growing virtues and whose behavior demonstrates the ability to name and address problems and opportunities without being directed to do so. Their argument inferred that “leaders” are little more than prima donnas whose only real aim is the consolidation of power and the exercise of privilege. Not only does their argument hinge on a straw man assumption of a negative view of leadership it fails to define their new term “minister.”

The other group argued that leadership was critical every organization. They contend that the failure to train “leaders” undermines an organization’s innovative drive and diminishes its execution. They prefer to train leaders who are capable of identifying and addressing problems, empowering and mobilizing people around specific goals, developing new capabilities in others, and recognizing new opportunities without being directed to do so. Their argument infers that without developing leaders, positions of power in the organization become dominated by self-serving political hacks whose concern is the consolidation of power and the expansion of privilege.   This too relies on a straw man argument that fails to define terms.

Both sides of the argument get at the same point – prima donnas, power mongers, hubris dominated stuffed shirts, and political hacks undermine morale, diminish employee engagement, and dilute the organization’s ability to perform.

Defining terms is important because of the variety of insights leadership studies seem to generate. One author lamented that there are as many definitions of leadership as there are people writing about it. I suppose this lack of uniformity in nomenclature might suggest a failure to define what leadership is. Or, it may show the situational influence that is part of defining the real work of leadership. Organizations exist in a variety of: development stages, market stages, demographic situations, and cultures. Given the wide number of variables and the required emphasis needed to discuss them effectively the definitions of what leadership looks like will vary.

I have found several definitions of leadership helpful in bringing clarity to discussions like the ones I see my friends engaging. Northouse (2008) attempts a definition of leadership that is often helpful. For him leadership is (a) a process, (b) that involves influence, (c) occurring within a group context, and (d) involving goal attainment.

One of my mentors defines leadership in a church context as: (a) with a God-given capacity and (b) a God-given responsibility to influence (c) a specific group of God’s people (d) toward God’s purposes for the group. (Clinton 1989:20)

The Apostle Paul offered his own word for leadership: προїστάμενς; nom. sing. masc. part. pres. mid. προῒστημι, met., To set over, appoint with authority; to preside, govern, superintend. Includes the idea of protection, care, and attention toward those for whom one is responsible. (Paul—Rom. 12:8)

Anderson at the University of Chicago gives an even broader definition for leadership i.e., the capacity of a human community to shape its future – a collective versus person.

Your organization does need leadership. So, before attempting to reinvent the wheel spend time thinking about how to define the deficiencies you see in human behavior.  A role of power does not equate to a de facto exercise of leadership. In my opinion once we decouple the idea of leadership from the roles or positions an organization uses to describe its coordination and control functions it frees itself to reconsider these functions in a way that leads to more effective behaviors. More importantly taking the time to define your terms will help you avoid the pendulum swings of popular thinking and their inherent waste of resource. Organizations need leadership. Leadership is not the only need an organization faces.