I was engrossed in a sophisticated and utterly grown-up pursuit: lining up dominos on a coffee table. Over a hundred pieces stood like soldiers on parade, creating an intricate pattern that could rival the Longleat Hedge Maze. A palpable tension hung over the room as I inched one last piece into place. Then my dog Georgia, subtle as a tap-dancing elephant, bolted past the table, whipping her massive tail. I felt like a Keystone Cop trying to get ahead of the chain reaction but setting off new ones. I needed to slow down, pick a spot, and carefully remove a couple of tiles.
Good leadership steps in with a non-anxious presence. Breaking the chain of falling dominoes helps describe that kind of presence: it starts with being, not doing. Like a coach who sees panic on his players’ faces as they trail in the final minute of a game. He feels the same emotional pull, but it does not keep him from giving a heartfelt boost of confidence. Author Edwin Friedman calls it “self-differentiation.”
Self-differentiation does not just wear a poker face of professional distance. It’s not a calculated thing. So what is different about differentiation? I think of it as having the will to respond rather than react. Emotions have a say, but they are not in charge. The self-differentiated leader may show the face of compassion to an adversary or the face of confrontation to a friend. Past wounds or present insecurities may still have a voice, but they do not get a vote. A differentiated leader is self-aware.
If you’re still reading, then let me try to explain the difference between responding and reacting–which takes a lifetime to learn. I certainly haven’t arrived yet.
First, a word about leadership gurus
I used to get annoyed with leadership gurus. They came across like someone telling you how to be humble, funny, or clever. Funny people don’t talk about being funny. They just make you laugh. Nevertheless, since leadership principles can be learned, we need to risk being a little self-conscious about it. We need to know how to keep leaders healthy because they are always in the cross-hairs of potential conflict.
For example, Julie worked at a church I served years ago (not her real name). She was a volunteer and could not do enough for the place. Julie arrived before everyone else, so eventually we put her on the payroll. Within a few weeks she was in my office in tears on a regular basis. She had worked there for a long time as a volunteer, but now she wore a target.
Julie had built her own business and raised two boys. Many young women sought her wise, mature counsel. But she struggled to adjust to human nature entangling her in a web of unspoken expectations and emotion–including her own.
Here are the first three steps toward building a culture of healthier leadership.
Step one: Trust makes the leader
The only kind of leadership that does not require trust is a tyranny. Stalin did not need trust. But, if you’re going to have a healthy board chair, coach, or even spouse leading anything, then you have to take the risk of trusting that person. Trust makes the leader.
You say, “What about accountability?” Accountability is essential. But it cannot replace trust. Some people believe they can build a system so accountable that there is no need for trust. The word for that is bureaucracy. Locked up. Stuck. Healthy organizations empower leaders–individuals who are freed up to bring their very best.
Without individuals, nothing gets done; without institutions, nothing survives.– Michael Ignatieff
If a family, a team, or an institution is going to pursue a goal worth chasing, it will not start with consensus. It begins when someone takes the risk to dream, think, and cast vision. And then, it requires a social contract built on trust. A leader needs to be empowered to lead; therefore trusting the leader is square one.
Step two: Love creates order in the leader
Why would anyone with power use it to serve others? Usually, it’s because they love their people. By love, I mean “to will the good.” Healthy leaders often want more for people than they want for themselves. Rather than using one’s position to control outcomes, serving invites people toward untapped potential.
Andrew Carnegie said, “Take away my people, but leave my factories and soon grass will grow on the factory floors……Take away my factories, but leave my people and soon we will have a new and better factory.”
With identity rooted in the love of God, a leader moves towards the world to give and not get. As Kierkegaard said, “Christianity did not come in order to develop heroic virtues but to remove selfishness and establish love.” Even the smallest seed of “we” planted in the heart of a leader bears the sweet fruit of “we” rather than the sour mash of “me.” Hidden insecurities and fears can make anyone a little self-centered. In differentiated leaders, such emotions may continue to influence, but they no longer have the power to dominate.
Step three: Relationships keep the leader healthy
Some people want a system where trust is unnecessary. They want policy rather than relationship. They want fairness policed so no one needs to risk vulnerability. But a team cannot tip-toe on eggshells toward a goal and reach it. Power must be entrusted to someone who can bring people shoulder to shoulder facing the same direction rather than just keeping an eye on one another for any flinch of unfairness.
King Arthur was trusted. The people did not clip the wings of his authority in the name of fairness. They enabled a trustworthy leader who in turn built a round table. He used his strength to serve. Without trust, any organization can end up with a concierge to consult rather than a leader to love who loves them.
Identity politics makes it harder for differentiated leaders to bring their strengths into their roles. Identity politics is just the latest excuse to trust no one. But when a team trusts a servant leader, a culture of servant leadership grows. Accountability moves organically along healthy lines of communication.
Healthy leaders form partnerships for the same reason a river forms banks—to gather force in a common direction.
“Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant” Matthew 20:26.