A bookmark of mine carries a thought that has stayed with me throughout my years in leadership. It reads:
It doesn’t matter if the world knows, or sees or understands, the only applause we are meant to seek is that of nail-scarred hands.
Leaders are exposed to opportunities to generate applause. It can come in the form of commendation from the board, approval of our decisions by employees, recognition of our institution’s work by constituencies, admiration of our leadership abilities by co-workers, and words of appreciation from family and friends.
As public figures, we receive both the undue criticism for the failures of our institutions, and the unmerited praise for their successes. The true calling of leadership requires us to accept the former and deflect the latter. That is, our job is to take the blame for mistakes made by those under our leadership and to deflect the praise by re-directing it to those most responsible for our success. In this way we keep ourselves in balance, never taking the criticism too personally and not accepting the praise too easily. This balance is very difficult to maintain, yet keeping this balance leads to the relatively unusual experience of finding freedom in leadership.
We can be freed from the tyranny of the exhausting work of preserving our self-image and advancing our reputations only as we are willing to accept criticism and deflect praise. This is the freedom of the steward leader! The success of the steward leader lies significantly in their ability to keep this two-fold movement of leadership in balance. Leaders who inflict pain lose trust and dishearten their people. Leaders who absorb praise produce resentment and sacrifice motivation.
Two significant temptations come to play here:
- The fear of rejection that causes us to run from confrontation.
- The desire to make everyone happy and to measure our performance, our effectiveness and our ‘leadership’ on that scale.
The two are very closely related. The first temptation is motivated by the idea that good leaders will not generate conflict, and that criticism or failure in our performance as a leader is a rejection of our person-hood and character. It is generated from that deep-seated desire to hear the applause from all with whom we live and work. The problem comes when we end up leading and managing in pursuit of that applause.
The second temptation is to lead by reacting. We see which way the wind is blowing and steer that direction, regardless of the situation. We do not want our people to be anxious, to question our decisions or disagree with our reasoning. We want harmony and unity, which is commendable. But left unchecked, this desire will cause us to sacrifice courage, vision and risk-taking. It will bring us momentary applause, but will ruin us in the end. To use a variation on a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Some leaders worry themselves into nameless graves, while here and there some forget themselves into immortality.”
So we must ask ourselves just what kind of applause are we seeking?
If it is human applause that serves to validate, affirm and encourage us, we will also find that same desire for applause binds us, boxes us in and ultimately strangles the life out of us. When our sense of self-worth and our measure of success come primarily from the reaction of those with whom we work, then we are finished as leaders.
Consider how many decisions you are called upon to make in any given day; some in private, some in meetings and some in the public arena. Every day there are multiple opportunities to make ‘applause-generating’ decisions. And sometimes the temptations to make them are enormous, especially when considering the price that would be paid if other alternatives were chosen.
Now consider how often God’s will and following His word points you down a different path. I believe this path is the journey of the steward leader. It is at that intersection between doing what God is telling us to do vs. doing the expedient and popular thing that true leadership takes place. It is there that we know to whom we are looking for our affirmation.
The goal of the steward leader must be to go to bed every night with a clear conscience and a right heart with God.
God only asks one thing of steward leaders, that they we seek with all their hearts to know His will we respond obediently and joyfully.
Before taking on one of my leadership positions I spent a couple of hours with a man whom I respect for his wisdom and leadership abilities. He gave me encouragement and good advice, and before I left he told me something that both inspires and haunts me to this day.
He said, “Scott, in whatever you do, always strive to be a man that God can trust.” I now believe that a man or woman that God can trust is one who seeks only the applause of nail-scarred hands.
He or she is also one for whom the protection and cultivation of reputation carries no value.
That is true freedom.
R. Scott Rodin, Ph.D. has been in not-for-profit leadership and consulting for twenty-five years. He has served as counsel to over 100 organizations across the country and in Canada and Great Britain including colleges, seminaries, schools, churches, para-church ministries and other not-for-profit organizations. Visit his blog at Kingdom Life Publishing.
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