Leadership is tough. Much is expected of those who move to the front. That first step of courage is often the loneliest. I am grateful for the people, past and present, who have been leaders for me on this journey. Some of them have seen me at my worst and still believed in my potential. Now that I have led college/campus ministry for 10 years, I have seen both sides of this conversation. I have been the leader who was praised and the leader who was avoided. I have opened doors for some who did not know their own potential, and I have run over some who needed my support and encouragement. I have made many mistakes as a leader, but I am always determined to learn from them. As I think about my journey of leadership, I have found three things in particular that leader-types tend to forget about those who are following them. I hope these points are helpful for those of you in leadership positions. I also hope that these points offer some comfort to followers who have been burned by leadership.
1. We leaders tend to forget that our followers listen to us more than we realize. I used to think that those under my direction needed me to say things over and over. I used to think that those who were working with me tended to ignore me when I would cast vision or make decisions. And in some other contexts, this maybe the case. But in my experience, I found that the people following were listening…ALWAYS. And when I refused to acknowledge this fact, it created distance — distance that made communication difficult and held back progress. This was especially true when I would say to someone, ‘you clearly haven’t heard anything I have said!” The crazy truth was that they had listened; my words were echoing in their heads. They were trying to figure out how we would practically work out what I was seeing for our work together. They were busy trying to think through all the implications of this leader’s BHAGs (Big Hairy Audacious Goals). And when I acted as if that ‘behind the scenes’ work was not happening, it took the wind out of their sales. The lesson was I was so busy trying to open the ears of my followers that I never heard anything they were saying to me.
2. We leaders tend to forget that people really want to follow us. I kept forgetting that my employees and our volunteers had a choice about where they would invest their time, resources, talent and lives. I forgot that people are always looking for doers, thinkers, strategists and communicators; and these precious people chose to bring their best to the cause I was given the honor of leading. In my forgetfulness, I would make decisions and respond to conflict assuming that they were looking for a way out. Often, the tension between me and those who were following me was simply my inability to gratefully acknowledge that they really wanted to join me in pursuing a God-inspired dream. All of their disagreements, their better ideas (ALWAYS BETTER); even the impromptu meetings in the parking lot (that I was not invited to) were the result of me assuming that they weren’t on board. They were more on board than I even knew, and my blindness to that reality caused more pain than I care to admit.
3. We leaders tend to forget that we prove our love for our followers when they can no longer follow us. We all know that seasons change. There comes a day when new doors open, promotions are offered, opportunities in other cities present themselves and dreams can no longer wait. There also comes the day when doors close because resources have shrunk, demotions are called for because we’ve missed the mark too many times or our dreams do not align with the opportunities available to us. This is a part of life. I learned, however, that the best thing I can do when the seasons change is to love those who are leaving with compassion and genuine support. I often forgot that even though she was no longer my employee or he was no longer volunteering for our events, they were all still looking to me for leadership. Maybe a different kind of leadership, but leadership nonetheless. Calls, emails, FB posts, and text messages now carried a different significance. When I neglected these things, it made those who once made sacrifices under my leadership feel abandoned, forgotten, and even manipulated. I did not even realize the impact of not speaking when I saw them at Starbucks. To me, that’s just the way things go. To them, what the? (There are people reading this post who have felt this way in my regard. And to you, I deeply apologize…I can be the most awful leader at times). The lesson: leadership is relational more than it is seasonal, and the responsibility is on me.
I am still learning how to be a leader worth following. I want to honor those who have served with me in the past and those who are serving with me today by becoming a better leader. If you are a leader in any capacity, I urge you to use the above points and ask your followers if they have felt this way. Don’t comment. Don’t offer explanations or excuses. Don’t argue. Just ask the questions, listen, and thank them for their perspective. You will be all the better for those conversations. As Andy Stanley says, “Leadership is a stewardship, it is temporary, and you are accountable.”