A number of pundits, including some who comment on politics and others who focus on religion, have recently bemoaned the lack of good leadership seen in 2011 (e.g., David Ignatius, “The year of the befuddled leader,” Washington Post, December 29, 2011).
Leadership is at least partially learned, even if leadership is as much an art as a skill. The rapid pace of technological change affects both individuals and society. I wonder if part of the apparent deficit of good leadership is that external circumstances and dynamics are changing faster than leaders can adapt and develop.
In the absence of good role models and helpful theory, trial and error becomes the primary way in which individuals acquire good leadership skills. Obama led well during the 2008 presidential campaign but has stumbled since then. Congressional leaders have done even worse, e.g., Boehner’s recent tactical reversal on extending the payroll tax reduction.
If I’m correct, then the occasional example of effective leadership is the result of a leader exercising prudential judgment or serendipitous / providential factors. In the Church, leaders have a less diverse, group of people with more of a common agenda to lead and thus an easier task than political leaders face. This explains why the Church has more, although still relatively few, effective leaders than the higher status, higher paid political arena. This also explains why one can observe the same phenomena among business leaders: employees share a common commitment to their enterprise’s success. But no business succeeds forever, e.g., Sears and K-Mart have failed to adapt to the twenty-first century marketplace in spite of having made some significant changes (ending catalogue sales).
How can a leader adapt to constant change?
First, good leaders expect change and intentionally expend time and effort on understanding the way in which current changes affect people, society, and their organization.
Second, good leaders constantly adapt and expand their repertoire of leadership skills. They dispassionately jettison ineffective techniques and styles, test new ones, and adopt what works. Feedback (listening) is integral to everything that a good leader does.
Third, good leaders are purposeful. That is, good leaders set measurable goals, plan to achieve those goals, and assertively execute the plan. Good results rarely “just happen.” Persistent and focused hard work produces good results.
Fourth, good leaders consistently practice healthy self-care. The sick leader, the leader with unhealthy or inappropriate relationships, seldom produces good results and never achieves good results over the longer term. Staying grounded – maintaining one’s balance and identity – is an essential element of self-care.
Fifth, good leaders cherish diversity, celebrate the abilities and accomplishments of others, and value people more than things or ideas. Diversity narrowly conceived involves physical differences such as gender, race, nationality, and religion. Diversity broadly conceived includes people who think in different ways, who see the world differently, and who respond with different emotions. No one person has every ability; large accomplishments are never one person’s solitary achievement. People, whom God created, are more precious than human ideas or products.
One of the twentieth century’s great leaders was Sir Ernest Shackleton, who led an ill-fated 1915 expedition to the South Pole. Although focused on being the first to reach the Pole, Shackleton planned poorly. Nevertheless, a recent New York Times article summarizing the Harvard Business School case that chronicles his misadventures recognizes identifies Shackleton’s tremendous leadership traits (Nancy Koehn, “Leadership Lessons from the Shackleton Expedition,” December 24, 2011). He paid attention to his circumstances, adapted to change, never lost sight of his mission, took care of himself insofar as was possible, and valued his people above everything else.
Almost thirty years ago, when I was the chaplain for the Marine Corps’ Officer Candidate School, I frequently told Marine officer candidates Shackleton’s story at prayer breakfasts. Symbolic of his leadership, Shackleton, need to abandon ship, powerfully demonstrated his priorities to his crew, hefting several gold coins in his hand before then flinging them away, then lovingly taking his small Bible, carefully tearing out the 23rd Psalm, tucking the Psalm into an inner pocket, and laying the Bible gently in the snow. Survival would depend on traveling light but also on faith in God and care for one another.
In time, new leaders with contemporary competencies will emerge, leaders able to inspire others to follow along paths that lead to life abundant.