A LEADERSHIP CONFESSION
Flight Is the Only Sane Response
I don't pet stray dogs. I was bitten on the hand when I was six. I recall watching this immaculately coiffed collie bound out of a neighbor's yard to greet me. Its elegant, effortless movement mesmerized me. I put my hand out and, in a split second, went from being a dog lover to a child wounded in hand and heart. Since that day I've never fully trusted a foreign pooch. I am dog scarred—a tad suspicious, but still open to man's best friend.
The same is true in my approach to leaders known as pastors. I seldom pet a strange or even a well-known pastor. This came about after I was bitten at age twenty-six. As a lowly intern in a local church, I was earning a whopping fifty dollars a week for services that included leading a Bible study, visiting church members, and walking the senior pastor's dog. I worked with the pastor for more than a year, and after I graduated from seminary, I came back as an assistant pastor.
The senior pastor and I often played tennis together, and after one afternoon match, we sat and talked about some of the things he wanted me to tackle in the coming year. He was my mentor, and I was his apt disciple. But it is also true that even though I had graduated from a fine seminary, I had the maturity of a street kid who had barely escaped death, jail, and excessive brain damage due to illicit drugs, and I had little idea how to function in the business of organized religion. The church was as foreign to me as the Junior League.
I was grateful beyond words to have a job and a future with this man and his church. We left the tennis court at five o'clock and reconvened in an elders' meeting at six. An hour into the meeting, the senior pastor said to the leaders of our church, "I've come to the decision that it is best for Dan and the church to part ways." He offered no explanation. It was a clean, simple bite. Several of the elders felt the decision was abrupt and without due diligence, so I kept my job for another eighteen months. But the handwriting was on the wall.
Leaders are dangerous. They can bite without provocation, or at least without logic, and it is best to stay out of their way or you'll have to deal with the consequences. Leaders can seem capricious, aloof, narcissistic, and self-interested.
I wanted little to do with their world, so I left the complex world of church politics and the rough-and-tumble culture of leadership to work on my doctorate. But I didn't escape political turmoil.
The academic realm involves politics similar to the clan warfare of early marauding tribes. It is all about loyalty—allegiance to the tartan, flag, and set of convictions that mark your community as unique. If you can wield a broad-ax or sword well enough and speak the language of the clan, your position is secure until death. This is called tenure. I entered the clan convinced that I would never again lead any group, community, church, school, or sports team as long as I lived. In fact, one of the great advantages of being an academic was that I was expected to complain about the administration, but I didn't have to take on any leadership responsibilities beyond teaching my classes.
Umpteen years later, six colleagues and I wrestled with the decision of whether to apply for accreditation for the graduate school we had haphazardly started in Seattle. We were in a quandary: The school that had allowed us to be a branch campus no longer wanted us. If we chose to disband, we would face humiliation as well as the possibility of lawsuits stemming from the school's inability to fulfill its promise of offering degrees. We decided to apply for accreditation. The application required the signature of the school's president—a position we had never discussed. We really didn't think we needed a president because we planned to operate as a non-hierarchical guild of peers without a central, decision-making figure. We would be a community, not an organization.
When the moment came for the president to sign the application, all heads in the room dropped, including my own. An awkward half minute ensued, and I looked up. Someone noticed my movement and said, "You are the oldest and the best known." I said, "Okay, but you all know I'm not really the president." Everyone laughed. It was as obvious as a scream in the ear: I'd take the title, and we would all share the power and responsibility.
The dream of a non-hierarchical community of peers collapsed under conflicting expectations, bruised feelings, immorality, and—thank God—a board that intervened and began naming failures upon failures, and called us to become an organization and leaders. We've been in the process for six years, and I am still president. I don't deserve to be. Perhaps that is one of the reasons I am still asked to serve in this capacity.
Everything I despised in other leaders I have replicated in our organization. Many times I have acted precipitously in panic before gathering sufficient data. Many other times I have failed to act at all. If in one circumstance I act too slowly, it seems that I act too quickly in the next. Leadership feels like playing the slot machine in a casino. You put your best capital into the machine, pull the lever, watch the wheels spin, and come up empty handed. The question lingers: what am I doing wrong?
My colleagues and I have gone through enormous heartache and tremendous change. We are still in the middle of profound transformation, and there are days I wonder if I will survive to see the sun rise again. Last night I tossed myself through a midnight aerobics workout that continued to the early side of three o'clock in the morning. I worried, prayed, and thought about personnel matters, finances, future hires, the school's reputation in the community, tensions among the faculty, and a host of other concerns that zapped my mind like moths flying into a bug light.
No doubt every leader feels the constant and chronic weight of obstacles, but it isn't one problem or even a whole set that eats our lunch; it's that each problem requires a response that seldom resolves the issue. Instead, the response simply creates multiple new problems. The weed-like problem seems to have a pod stuffed with countless seeds that will be sown the moment it is pulled, seeds that will result in a host of new weeds. And if that trouble isn't hard enough to swallow, the real issue is more personal—having to do with the decisions and choices a leader must make, alone.
Few decisions are simple. In fact, simple decisions are better called choices. Do I want to eat now or wait for my wife to get home? Do we cancel classes when there is a foot of snow in Seattle? We make choices every day that require little thought, have few consequences, and are completed without much need for reflection or counsel. Leaders choose daily, but the real weight on their shoulders lies in the need to decide.
And there are no easy decisions. To decide requires a death, a dying to a thousand options, the putting aside of a legion of possibilities in order to choose just one. De-cide. Homo--cide. Sui--cide. Patri--cide. The root word- decidere means "to cut off." All decisions cut us off, separate us from nearly infinite options as we select just one single path. And every decision we make earns us the favor of some and the disfavor of others.
Budgetary decisions, for instance, seldom involve equal distribution of the finite resource we call money. The child who begins college may require most of a family's disposable income. As a result, the rest of the family can't take their summer vacation to the mountains. The decision blesses one and alienates others.
A good leader will, in time, disappoint everyone. Leadership requires a willingness to not be liked, in fact, a willingness to be hated. But it is impossible to lead people who doubt you and hate you. So the constant tug is to make the decision that is the least offensive to the greatest number and then to align yourself with those who have the most power to sustain your position and reputation in the organization.
Leadership is not about problems and decisions; it is a profoundly relational enterprise that seeks to motivate people toward a vision that will require significant change and risk on everyone's part. Decisions are simply the doors that leaders, as well as followers, walk through to get to the land where redemption can be found.
Copyright 2006 Dan Allender. WaterBrook Press.