When I was in my teens and twenties, I wanted to be a leader. Those who knew me well back then will remember how high those aspirations were. Whatever God had in store for me, I knew leadership was a part of it. And while I’ve not (yet) led any countries or Fortune 500 companies, my expectation to spend my life in leadership has come true.
In the course of my professional career, I’ve been a project coordinator, non-profit middle manager, private school teacher, department chair, the administrator of a small private school, and the pastor of two churches. And I can say this: leadership isn’t always fun.
With this blog post, I want to share six principles I’ve learned are crucial to understanding what leadership is really all about…
1. Leadership is based on responsibility.
Leadership is NOT about giving orders or being in the limelight. It’s about responsibility. You’re not a true leader, unless you fully and completely engage the people you’re working with and totally embrace the responsibilities you’ve been given.
2. Leaders get criticized.
Most of my life, I recoiled from, withdrew from, and tried to avoid confrontation and criticism. Unfortunately (for my sensitivity), leadership is all about agitation and confrontation. Why? Because leadership involves change. It involves moving people from one place to another and challenging people to do X or Y, when they may have other plans. It involves sticking your neck out. And, quite often, it means that you’ll get criticized — sometimes gently and sometimes not so gently. Sometimes, the criticism is based on a misunderstanding. Being misjudged and criticized unfairly is the hardest type of criticism. Of course, sometimes, the criticism has merit. And a good leader learns from it and is humble enough to admit when he or she is wrong.
3. Leaders disappoint others.
My nature is that I want to encourage everyone and make everyone around me feel good. It’s why I love to crack jokes and have developed a sense of humor (that is, at least SOME of the time, effective ). But there are times when the laughter needs to stop and tough decisions need to be made, and people get hurt or disappointed. And the leader is right at the center of it, and there’s nowhere to hide. A good leader has to stand up straight, make the tough decisions, and accept that he or she will at times be misunderstood. And that, at times, some people, including solid, good, wonderful people, might be hurt or upset due to his or her decisions or actions.
4. Leaders must be followers.
No leader can become a leader, unless he or she is first a follower. And not only that, but no leader can remain a leader, unless he or she remains a follower.
5. Leaders must be accountable.
As Harry Truman once said, “The buck stops here.” Earlier in my career, I had the privilege of being a part of organizations in which I exercised some influence, safely under an umbrella of managers and leaders above me. That’s not the case, when you advance in levels of responsibility. While a certain amount of lee-way and patience can and should be extended to leaders at the top (when it comes to mistakes, inefficiencies, problems, etc. within the organization), there comes a point where all eyes are on the leader to address situations and resolve problems. And there’s nowhere the leader can run or hide. The leader is…the leader. And he or she is accountable as such.
6. It’s easier to give an opinion, than to make a decision.
When I was lower in the leadership food chain, I had lots of opinions and ideas. And I would often share them. The higher up I got, the more aware I became that sometimes, leaders must say ‘no’ to ideas, even sometimes GOOD ideas, because of the need to maintain direction and balance in the organization overall. Giving an opinion is easy. Opinions are the cheapest commodity on earth. Making a decision is hard, because it affects more than simply your mood or state of mind or even your life. As a leader, the decisions you make affect a lot of people. This requires wisdom. And wisdom is not a cheap commodity. It is, in fact, more precious than gold and all the rare gems in the earth. And it’s something I pray for every day.