Lament of the reluctant leader
Thanks for your patience while I took a couple of weeks off. January and early February were beyond challenging for us all.
Now comes the hard part… the work. In the past week I’ve received five phone calls from people suddenly thrust into leadership by their peers. In each case, they were overwhelmed. Each one was balancing disparate needs, being asked to make Solomonic decisions; each standing in their personal Golgotha moment. Their choices would define pivot points in many lives.
Leadership often comes to those who crave it least, especially in times of crisis. Why? Because they are usually the ones with sleeves rolled up, doing the work, quietly proving their skills, their empathy and, perhaps more important of all, their integrity. While those who self-style themselves as leaders of this and that are prancing their public personas and privately revealing their fakery, the real leaders, the ones everyone trusts to actually get things done, are slowly rising in everyone’s consciousness.
Suddenly the spotlight unexpectedly turns on them and the calls come. “Please help us.” “We’re not sure how to move forward.” “People trust you.” So they smile, say, “yes, of course,” and quietly panic. Here are the things I tell them.
Leadership is inconvenient. It’s invasive. Set boundaries, by all means, but understand your wants and needs will come second to the community’s needs, especially during crisis. The true, long-standing standard of your success will become, "How did this empower community?" Make it the core of your decision-making.
It’s a calling in the most literal terms. People are calling on you to solve a problem, to be their voice, to show them a new way. How you respond defines their expectations. You can say, “Yes,” and do what you think is best, leaving them to second-guess your motivations and processes. You can say, “I will partner with you,” and create a collaboration. You can develop mutual language, identify shared values and set parameters of independence/collaboration. However you do it, you will make mistakes. Learn to truly apologize, make reparations and do better.
Your choices are nowhere near as important as understanding the reasons why you are making them. No matter what you choose, there will be consequences. Know which consequences you can live with or ameliorate. Understand the difference between short- and long-term consequences. Be clear how each choice will impact your constituents, collaborators, friends, family, and opponents.
You will never please everyone. It sounds so simple, but what happens when you stand between two vastly differing opinions each held by people with whom you have long-standing, mutually respectful, even loving, relationships? Know why your allies stand beside you. Their motivations will help define the parameters of your effectiveness. The moment of this tension is the moment your moral center is revealed. It will always be flawed because you are part of a flawed species.
Remember this one thing – only one person is guaranteed to be present at the end of your life: you. Do the thing that will make you proud to face yourself in that moment.
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Welcome! I am an essayist, poet, and facilitator, passionate about social justice and integrity, who lives and works in the Pacific Northwest. These observations are based on a lifetime working in the private and non-profit sectors, in a variety of organizational development capacities.