Putting Out Fires without Getting Burned

November 4th, 2012

There is a lot of leadership talk going on these days.  Every time you turn around, there is a new book or another seminar being offered about how to be a good leader, what’s involved in good leadership or some other aspect of leadership deemed important for leaders or want-to-be leaders to read and know.  Many of these book and seminars are very good and offer much wisdom and guidance.  At other times, however, what is offered focuses on what to do, as if “doing” the stated things would naturally result in leadership being attained.

My contention, however, is that leadership begins and ends not simply with doing the right things, but with understanding who I am.  In other words, how I define myself not only determines what sort of leader I become, but what level of health I will enjoy.  I am convinced that good leadership is the result of a good understanding of self. Or, to put it another way, not knowing who I am often leads to bad leadership.

Over the years, I’ve learned (the hard way) some key elements to leadership by self-definition.  And, believe it or not, they have proven themselves time and again.  I share some of them below in hopes that others will find it helpful as well.  I must, however, give credit where credit is due. 

First, we must come to terms with the fact that peace and progress are incompatible.  Don’t think so?  The next time you want to change something in your life or work, take an honest assessment and see if not everyone supports it.  If everyone supports the idea of a particular change, chances are it is not real change, just rearranging the furniture.  If you want to make progress, the pursuit of peace will have to be secondary, at least for a time until the change has proven itself worthwhile.

There is an old saying regarding this principal in the life of the church: When the devil was kicked out of heaven, he fell into a choir loft.  That’s not to say anything bad about choirs!  It is to say that trying to make changes is often a peace-less process, like trying to change the hymn style in an established worship service. 

The second lesson I learned goes hand-in-hand with the first: we must possess a slightly higher tolerance to pain than those being led.  Living is not a pain-free undertaking.  Going into it with such knowledge might make it easier, but certainly not painless.  When the going gets rough, we must stand firm, even in the face of opposition.  How I respond to the anxiety/chaos around me will, in large part, determine how others respond.  If I react in anger or fear to someone’s subversive act, chances are good that others will react in the same way, causing the anxiety to rise even more.  But if I respond to that same act of subversion with calm determination, others will tend to respond in kind, knowing that the leadership is unperturbed by anxiety.

It is not the change per se that causes anxiety; it is the in-between time, the time between the old and the new.  It is in this “now-and-not-yet” time where anxiety escalates.  It is in this space where many become fearful and want to return to the way things were.  It is here that we must be able to tolerate the pain better than those around us.  We must not give in to the temptation to “go back to Egypt.”  We must remain strong in our stance to lead onward and upward in spite of the pain.

It is not “survival of the fittest,” but survival of the most adaptable that is the third lesson.  Leadership is not about who is stronger or who can out-last the other when anxiety arises.  Leadership is about being flexible and adaptable to ever-changing environment and variables that come along.  It is the ability to make necessary changes to plans so that the overall goal can be reached.  Being stubborn and unmoving only causes more anxiety in the system, which, in turn, results in more entrenched destructive behavior in others. 

This leads to the next lesson: We promote change not by our will, but by our presence.  The sooner we accept the fact that we cannot will change, the better.  In fact, the more we try to make people change - or accept a change - the more they will resist and revert to old behaviors.  The key is to live the change being introduces.  That is to say, the better able the one is to believe and confidently act on a suggested change the more likely the change will come about more smoothly.  Granted, there are always some people who will resist any change, even if they know it would be better, simply because it’s not the way “we’ve always done it” (remember the seven deadly words of any organization: We’ve never done it that way before).  And, again, trying to will those resisters to accept the change will only engrain their resistance more deeply.  Still, if one can remain confident and purposeful, the change will be smoother.

Next is a lesson that at first appears counter-intuitive: When a crisis arises, put on your own oxygen mask first.  Often, the first reaction to a crisis is to reach out to others…to relieve their pain or to assist them. 

When flying, the cabin crew reminds fliers that, should an emergency occur, the oxygen masks will drop from overhead and that we should put our own masks on first before we help anyone around us who may need assistance.  Why?  Because if we don’t make sure our own needs are sufficiently addressed in a crisis, we won’t be much good in making sure others’ needs are addressed.  In fact, we may do more harm than good.

It is best to make sure that in moments of crisis we are grounded, calm and clear-headed before we respond.  Otherwise, more damage than good can be done in leading forward.

Finally, the most difficult lesson for me to learn was: No system will ever be healthier than its head.  It does not matter what the “system” is - family, church, business - if the head or leader is not healthy, the whole system fails.  We have seen this time and time again in companies such as Enron, AIG and even churches.  The leaders, by whatever cause, were not healthy and the whole system suffered or even failed completely.

This is uncomfortable for me because it forces me to accept the fact that if the system I’m leading is not growing or progressing or meeting its vision and goals it may likely be the result of my own weaknesses or stubbornness. 

This lesson means that I must constantly be on my toes, staying in touch with God and keeping my spirit in top-notch shape so that when crisis or anxiety arises I will be better prepared to face it in a non-anxious way and thereby lead others through it. 

In other words, I don’t need to put my own oxygen mask on first when crisis comes; I need to keep the mask on at all times!

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