Those who experience some leadership success run the risk of starting to believe their own press. After all, if I can make such successful ministry calls and grow a church, team or organization, I must be pretty good. And the better I think I am , the less likely I am to guard a humble spirit which is at the core of leaders of deep influence. How do we guard a humble heart?
First, always remember that our leadership is not about us. Each of us who leads are in a stewardship role. We steward the mission of the organization, the people who work with us (not for us), the strategies that will get us to success and the resources that are entrusted to us. As soon as we start to believe that it is about us, our leadership capital starts to dry up.
Second, surround yourself with highly competent people who will tell you the truth. Leaders are in a naturally precarious position. Many people will not tell their leaders what they are thinking and many leaders do not like to hear bad news. Some leaders actively work to stifle honest opinions. The result is that leaders often do not hear what they need to hear.
Wise leaders develop an ethos of candid conversation both with those close to them as well as throughout the organization. Sometimes it does not feel good because people can be unloving and critical in their critique but the alternative is to not know what we need to know.
Here is where unhealthy leaders flounder on the shoals. Because they see dissent, criticism or contrary opinions as a personal attack on them they stifle honest, open dialogue. Some actually respond in anger when contrary opinions are voiced. In shutting down conversation out of personal insecurity they both lose the intellectual capital of others and they don’t hear what they really need to hear. It is a net loss for the ministry and an indication that the leader thinks it is about him not the mission.
In our organization we have a rule that no issue is out of bounds for discussion as long as there are not personal attacks or hidden agendas. We don’t want any elephants in the room. At one meeting I was at early in my leadership of ReachGlobal I was told that there were many elephants in the room so I simply said, "lets name them.” The thing about elephants is that once you name them they are not elephants anymore.
Third, listen a lot more than you talk. Insecure leaders talk – a lot. They need to convince themselves and others that they have what it takes to lead although no one is fooled by their verbosity. Some time ago I had a lunch with a new CEO of a major Christian agency of which our organization was a member. In a two hour lunch this CEO asked me one question – at the very end. I walked away thinking, “he is not going to last long because it is all about him – not those he is serving. Within two years he was released from his position.
Listening carefully to others is both a posture and a builder of humility. It says, “I want to hear what you are thinking because you are valuable to this organization.” It indicates an otherness rather than selfishness. It sends a loud message that it is about “us” not “me.” I frequently talk to staff of Christian organizations who tell me that staff meetings are about their leader talking to them, not listening to them. It may be a sign of poor EQ, or insecurity or hubris, but it is not a posture of humility.
Listening also grows humility because we realize that there is a lot of intellectual capital beyond our own that we need to pay attention to. Those who listen well are far more likely to lead well than those who don’t.
Fourth, ask a lot of questions of a lot of people. The best leaders I know cultivate the art of asking questions. They are curious; they want to get into the heads of others. They want to learn and to gain different perspectives. Asking questions sends a strong message, “I don’t have all the answers and you are needed.” Ironically many leaders think that asking questions is a sign of weakness but the opposite is true. It takes a strong, self defined and personally secure leader to ask questions. They don’t need to pretend they have the answers and they are willing to be challenged by others.
In fact, questions work exceedingly well when one is being challenged or even attacked. Rather than bite back and escalate the situation questions can engage and deescalate the conversation. Saying “Talk to me about that” or “Unpack that for me” and “Help me understand your view on that” engage the other individual and keep the connection rather than cutting off the conversation with a rebuttal.
This is where good EQ matters. Internally we may be ready to take a big swipe and the individual may even deserve it. But wise leaders often guard their responses (and mouths) in order to manage what could otherwise be a problematic conversation.
Fifth, serve those who serve you. Leaders of deep influence serve those on their team and help them become the best that they can be as individuals, professionals and as contributors to the common mission. A great orchestra conductor helps to pull the very best music out of the group by coordinating, giving feedback, practicing and encouraging. We will only be as good as the team we lead so helping them become all they can be is foundational to our leadership.
Relationship also matters – not as one of the boys or girls – but genuine concern for those who are part of our staff. Staying connected, showing genuine concern and thanking them appropriately means a lot. People want to know that they are respected, appreciated and that their leader is more than just their leader. It is people who make ministry possible!
Too often leaders who are experiencing success move away from staying close to and serving those they lead. There is a temptation to move toward their own priorities rather than continuing to lead their team. After all, they are now important and influential! This results in a loss of leadership capital as their key team members feel abandoned or undervalued. As long as we lead others, the mission we serve and the people we serve must be our highest work related priority. When our personal success gets in the way of our leadership there is a net loss to that leadership. It has become about “me” not “us.”