Looking up the word “leadership” in the dictionary has often been a lackluster experience for me. In the pages of dictionaries, we find stale depictions of what is an unceasingly dynamic enterprise. Here are just a few:
Leadership (noun): The action of leading a group of people or an organization. ‘different styles of leadership’
Leadership (noun): the position or function of a leader, a person who guides or directs a group: He managed to maintain his leadership of the party despite heavy opposition.
Leadership (noun): the office or position of a leader. 'recently assumed the leadership of the company'
In the half a lifetime I’ve spent leading projects and teams in high school, undergraduate and graduate school, a 3-year stint in retail management and now in Christian ministry, I’ve learned that leadership is much more complex than the mere ‘action of leading’, the ‘function of a leader’, or the ‘office’ of leadership. I’ve learned that leadership is, at minimum, the bearing of responsibility and the commission to influence a group of people toward an end goal. It is the cultivation of fruitful work, the collective creation of a new thing from an old thing, the nourishment of a living organism of structured persons from the inside out.
I’ve learned that leadership can never be done alone. Being a leader requires that someone— at least one someone— is being led which means leadership is an enterprise of people. Before it is influence or cultivation or nourishment, leadership is an undertaking of relationship.
And because leadership can never be done alone, it can never be done perfectly. No matter what we try as leaders or just regular humans sitting on a futon watching Netflix with the roomie, failures will come.
But it’s always good to try and avoid them if we can.
Here are three ways a young, imperfect leader has learned to avoid failure while occasionally failing to lead.
1. Don’t be ruled by your preferences.
Preferences are sneaky, sticky things. Over time, they subconsciously become the things and people we favor over their alternatives because they appeal to our senses. Preferences make us feel good; they’re appealing to the eyes, the ears, the touch, the smell. And because of the pleasure preferences bring to our lives, we’re automatically drawn to them without spending the time to ask ourselves why they’re preferred and whether they effectively fit within the matrix of the current situation.
Preferences also render tangible the path of least resistance. Because preferences are inherently appealing, they don’t usually present obstacles that are unpleasant and require a conscious effort to adjust. They are usually the things and the people we’ve always chosen, the places we’ve always gone for lunch, the things we’ve always thought about the ideas we’ve always thought about. There’s no resistance necessary because we’ve already packed solid the path toward them.
A leader who is ruled by his or her preferences tends to be less creative and less open to new ideas. This leader will craft witty arguments against trying the new guy’s idea or will duplicate the same processes regardless of efficacy. This leader sabotages innovation for the sake of comfort and tends to consciously or inadvertently squelch opportunities to mentor because the preferences of a mentee or aspiring leaders are too threatening.
But it’s important to remember that the world of preference is subconscious. People don’t purposefully construct their preferences which means our best weapon against them is self-awareness.
Here are a few ways to avoid being ruled by your preferences:
Regularly ask your peers and team members a variation of the following question: “What is one thing that I tend to do that doesn’t make sense, doesn’t seem to have a solid rationale, or tends to get in the way of reaching our overall goal? Describe it to me and recommend an alternative choice.” Seems risky, doesn’t it? It is! And it’s likely that the first several times you ask this question, you’ll get off-topic, insensitive or unhelpful answers. But the beauty of frequently engaging in this exercise is that you’ll likely begin asking yourself this question automatically. You’ll learn to frequently turn in toward yourself and consciously examine your habits— maybe even to the point of being able to anticipate constructive feedback about your preferences before people even offer it.
Regularly verbalize and reference the highest prioritized goal or mission of your team’s work. A lot of organizations accomplish this by creating and frequently mentioning their mission statement. And the more the mission statement is mentioned, the more often the organization’s leaders can measure their preferences and priorities against the highest prioritized goal. Regularly verbalizing the goal consequently becomes a natural calibration method, an informal way to evaluate the processes that are being used to reach the highest prioritized goal.
Delegate projects to skilled peers and team members. This is arguably the most effective way to ensure that your work as a leader isn’t ruled by your preferences: replace your preferences altogether. If there is a project that you don’t absolutely have to spearhead, hand it over to a fellow leader instead. This offers an opportunity for a different set of preferences to impact the outcome of the project. And you’ll also get an opportunity to observe someone’s rationale in action so you can reflect on the efficacy of your own perspective in real time. As you observe your peer or team member in action, you can ask yourself introspective questions like, “How might I have made that decision? Would my process have been more or less effective and why?” Delegation offers both practical and developmental advantages.
2. Never claim to be the expert.
Notice the phrasing here. I am not saying that there are no experts. You and I have probably seen the phrase “…leading expert in…” countless times on the internet and in situations when the people called experts were actually the most knowledgeable curators of a subject.
But what I am saying is: when you have the urge to say out loud that you are the highest standard of knowledge for a particular subject, that there is no one who knows more than you about something, no one who can more effectively execute a procedure than you can…
…fight that thing with all your might.
The ego is a slippery slope of affirmation, a self-inflating, bulbous receptacle of self-assertion. It’s that thing within us that both helps us know our capabilities while swearing against our most relevant limits. It relentlessly guards our equilibrium against the emotional discomfort that lies between our desired self and our actual self. It often lies to us, deceives us as the consequences of our actions speak the truth about who we are.
When we claim ourselves to be the standard of anything, we risk deafening ourselves to the sound of being "out-known". It immediately becomes more difficult to hear the words of someone who is actually the expert. Our arrogance becomes the fence that keeps open dialogue just outside of the door.
But maybe you’re not the type who is susceptible to the tumultuous flight-pattern of an inflated ego. Maybe you’re incredibly humble as a leader but you just happen to know that you know more than anyone else in a particular genre of knowledge.
Still fight that thing.
Not only are the people who claim to be experts at risk of deafening themselves to outside knowledge, but they’re also at risk of silencing peers and team members who want to share alternative ideas and perspectives. If someone in the room has already declared their expertise, what good will adding my two-cents do?
There’s no reason to declare your expertise— just demonstrate it. There will be times when you’re in a meeting and it’s already an unspoken truth that you’re the most knowledgeable about a particular topic. Show your peers and team members they are still welcomed into a collaborative process by asking for in-the-moment feedback and unconsidered alternative factors that may influence a potential decision. Claiming to be an expert creates a relational obstacle. It has more to do with how effectively your team relates than it has to do with proving whether you know how much you know.
3. Always believe you’re not the best version of yourself.
The lie that our sneaky, sticky preferences and our slippery egos often tell us is that we are as we should always be right now. The things we prefer are the optimal things to desire— there’s no reason to prefer anything else. What we affirm about our desired selves, who we deeply long to be, is more true and covetable than our actual selves. Our internal experience fights to preserve itself because pursuing change nullifies what we believe about ourselves now. Change makes us out to be liars to ourselves and the world around us so it’s much truer-to-self to remain as we are, right?
Certainly, we all have strengths and talents that help us effectively bear responsibility, cultivate fruitful work, create, and nourish. But we also have blind-spots, weaknesses, and incompetencies. There are always things about ourselves that others can see better than we can, skills we don’t have and information we don’t know.
When I have let my preferences rule me as a leader or when I have made the mistake of claiming I was the expert in a subject, it has always been embarrassing. Those are moments when my foot ends up firmly planted in my mouth and I have to quickly and genuinely apologize and repair my team.
But in the moments when I’ve allowed myself to believe there’s no more improvement to be made, when I’ve grown enamored with my own reflection and convinced myself that coasting on autopilot is an effective way to approach the dynamic enterprise of influencing others, I have robbed myself of my own potential and forbade my peers and team members from participating in my best leadership. This is why I force myself into daily examen, into a moment-by-moment investigation of the habits and automatic thoughts that need pruning from my life.
The best thing a young leader can learn from occasionally failing to lead is that there’s always room for improvement, for movement toward the lived-out Good. And the best leaders in the world deeply believe this about themselves— even when everything else around them tells them it's not true.