Three Ways to Avoid Becoming a Suffocating Leader
A Personal and Professional Challenge for Holy Week
When I was a kid I had a big comforter on my bed that hung down to the floor and kept me warm in the winter. It had another very helpful use. When I forgot (or just neglected) to clean my room, and I would hear my mom coming down the hall to check, I could quickly pile all my stuff on the bed and throw the big comforter over it and maybe, just maybe get away with it. My room looked clean and tidy, but I knew there was a mess under that blanket.
I reflected on that old comforter this week when a friend commented on a posting of mine regarding religious freedom. His comment was that ‘its always about discrimination’. And there it was. Whoomph. A big blanket statement thrown over all the messiness of the issue. In his mind that settled the discussion.
By nature we love our blankets. They are, quite literally, comforters. They save us from the complexities inherent in difficult issues. We use them to cover up the facts and viewpoints that unsettle us. Lest you think I am pointing fingers, we are all blanket throwers. I am a blanket thrower.
Pulling back the bedspread is threatening. Its not that we don’t know what’s there, it’s that we don’t want to deal with it. In organizational life it is tempting for leaders to use blankets as a tool of leadership. Of course, it is nothing of the sort.
Here are three organizational blankets that leaders cannot afford to use or allow to perpetuate in their organizations.
1. We Don’t Go There
Every organization has painful history, unresolved conflicts and taboo issues. As a consultant these ‘danger zones’ appear quickly when we discuss mission, values and strategy. They exist in a vacuum created when leaders acquiesce to history or hysteria. As a result, messy issues get covered over with a convenient ‘we just don’t go there’ comforter. The organization moves ahead blithely believing that peace is best maintained by keeping the mess under the covers.
A favorite consulting term I learned from a colleague is ‘entering the danger’. Another way of phrasing it is ‘pulling back the covers’. The intent is to expose the forbidden issues that must be addressed for an organization to get healthy and move forward.
Leaders who throw blankets over tough issues and refuse to enter the danger suffocate their organizations. In the end it is not true leadership, but a cowardly form of capitulation to convenience. This is a telling sign of an owner leader. When we tie our reputation and identity to our job, we will default to glossing over the difficult issues lest people find the origin of the problem in us. Owner leaders are protectionists who depend on blankets to keep tough issues out of sight.
Steward leaders, on the other hand, are free to expose the core issues that are crippling their organization, even if some of the blame rests with them. Whenever they hear someone toss out the ‘we don’t go there’ blanket, their freedom as a steward empowers them to challenge the notion, pull back the bedspread and enter the danger.
2. That’s Just the Way They Are
Silos and divisions are the ruin of many a well-meaning and important ministry. I have talked to leaders who shook their heads and wondered out loud, ‘ how did we get here?’ The answer usually lies in a culture that was allowed to develop because no one pulled back the covers the first time someone threw out the ‘those people’ blanket. When divisive attitudes go unchecked, they stratify into cultural truths that become painfully difficult to unseat.
This particular comforter allows the user to depersonalize the people, issues, concerns and contributions of ‘those people.’ It may be another department, the head office, the board, the field, the leadership team, the finance office and on and on. You can identify this blanket by its familiar phrases, ‘they always’, ‘you know how they are’, ‘it’s just like them’, and ‘there they go again.’ Sound familiar?
Owner-leaders too easily fall prey to the temptation to use this convenient covering. By doing so we legitimize the blanket and give credibility to others who use it. The result is a suffocating environment where labels and preconceived impressions trump relationships and honest dialogue.
As steward leaders we must be attuned to the slightest appearance of this blanket attitude. When we hear it, we must act immediately and unequivocally. We must take seriously our steward’s responsibility to the true Owner and help our people pull back the cover and examine what attitudes, prejudices and biases lie festering beneath.
Once again we must enter the danger and help our people do the hard work of tearing down walls and rebuilding genuine relationships with ‘those people’. This requires humility, discernment and a complete dependence on the power of the Holy Spirit to change hearts. These are the marks of true steward leaders.
3. That Won’t Work
This particular blanket takes various forms. You may have heard it as, ‘we’ve always done it this way’, or ‘we tried that once and it failed’, or ‘people around here won’t go for that’. This is the blanket that suffocates innovation and smothers creativity. When leaders pull back the blanket they are likely to find a messy mixture of fear, complacency, turf protection and insecurity.
These are primarily leadership issues. I say that because leaders are creators and cultivators of culture. When a culture is allowed to regress back under this protectionist covering, it is often indicative of owner-leadership that is threatened by the new ideas of others, has become complacent with the status quo or has lost the drive to innovate and manage change. The resulting environment is suffocating.
Steward leaders do not allow such attitudes to formulate or fester. Steward leaders who have been set free to lead can name the fear, challenge the complacency, confront the ownership issues and build the needed security for their team to step out in faith as God leads. Steward leaders pull back the covers, enter the danger and release their people to innovate and create in bold new ways.
A Holy Week Challenge
Today is the middle of Holy Week, and the beginning of our journey to the cross and empty tomb. So allow me to add one thought on the very personal dimension of this simple lesson of our blankets.
I stated earlier that we are all blanket throwers. In the body of Christ this has polarized us to the point where we are no longer able to have civil conversation about the critical issues facing us. I admit that I recoil from the hard work of pulling back the covers on my own favorite blanket attitudes. It is so much easier to cover the mess and huddle with others who agree with me.
As I consider the cross and the ministry of Jesus I find it impossible to justify this way of relating to those with whom I disagree. Pulling back the covers on my own tightly woven blankets is a time consuming and threatening task. It is also absolutely necessary if I am to follow Jesus this week.
Before we are steward leaders, we are called to be faithful stewards in every area of life. That requires the complete surrender of everything that keeps us from hearing God’s voice and obeying His commands with freedom and joy. That includes our blankets.
As a follower of Jesus, what blankets need to be drawn back so that God can help you deal with the mess underneath? It may be attitudes toward those with whom you disagree. It may be your certainty of your rightness on critical issues of our day. It may be skepticism or cynicism or a defeatist attitude that smothers everything in your world.
I challenge you to get real and honest before God and ask him to help you look carefully underneath your attitudes and your platitudes. If you take them to the cross and lay them down, God will help you draw back the covers and deal with the messiness that lies hidden underneath.
Let me be clear on one important issue. Drawing back the covers on these issues in our lives is not meant to dampen our conviction but to increase our empathy and broaden our perspective. It requires that we not withdraw from substantive dialogue or take the easy way out of difficult conversations. Seeking greater understanding is not a sign of weakness nor is examining our assumptions an act of capitulation. What I believe the cross requires is engagement in love and conversation in fellowship.
I pray that our journey to the cross this week will include this willingness to let God deal with the hidden messiness in our life. As we do, may we, as the body of Christ, leave our Easter Sunday celebrations with a new commitment to fellowship, dialogue and engagement. And may we, as stewards and leaders, commit to do so in the freedom we have in Christ to speak the truth in love.