I recently attended two elementary school events. At one, the pastor spoke before and after the event, even leading the crowd in a full-scale rendition of “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.” At the other, the leader was no where to be found, opting instead to attend another commitment and send a proxy representative.
The impact of the first leader: a community that felt both at ease and confident in their future.
The impact of the second leader: a community that felt abandoned and confused, wondering where their leader was on the night of an important event.
The lesson is simple: leaders need to practice what is commonly known as the ministry of presence. In other words, show up and leave the rest to God. Strangely, many people who rise to the top forget that people are watching.
Stanford professor Bob Sutton talks about this in his book, Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to be the Best and Learn from the Worst. I once worked for someone like this. She took tons of days off and seemed to feel that no rules applied to her. The rest of us were left wondering if this was what real leadership was supposed to look like.
The great leaders I have known have managed to balance two important (even essential) qualities: humility and an understanding of the community’s need for strong leadership. Unfortunately, some confuse humility with meakness but I like the definition of Vincentian missionary Fr. Thomas Judge who said, “Humility is truth.”
What Fr. Judge was saying is simple enough: accept who you are and thank God for the ability to lead. If you are funny and someone tells you so, say thank you and be glad that you’re not boring and dull. If you are attractive and someone pays you a compliment, smile and thank them, knowing on the inside that God blessed you with good looks. Hey, it could be worse.
Instead of faking false humility and clinging to the back wall so that you can “empower others to lead,” accept your role as leader. People want you to be present and authentic and visible. As Michael Hyatt says, “Real leaders go first.” It took me a long time to understand this as I used to sit in the back of organization meetings, not wanting to be seen as the “fat cat” who got special privileges. This was false humility… which is only pride in disguise.
The fact is this: leaders need to be seen by their community at particular moments. Here are but a few moments:
- Major community events: whether it’s the Christmas pageant or the annual company barbecue, leaders need to be seen. Work the crowd, sit where people can see you and be friendly. You can do that, right?
- Moments of crisis: When someone dies, is in the midst of tragedy or is struggling with crisis, a good leader enters into the situation and responds appropriately. He doesn’t do too much or too little but he does show up. Written notes and phone calls are also critical factors for a leader’s success. In an age of email and texting, nothing beats a nice handwritten note.
- Moments of service: Here’s what I call The Trash Test of Leadership. No leader is above taking out the trash, moving a table, or helping with some other seemingly basic task.
- Moments of the mundane: From holding open a door to answering a phone, leaders don’t shy away from the smallest of duties. They balance this with an incredible ability to delegate. It’s an art form, to be sure.
All of this adds up to something profound: there’s little room at the top for shy leaders. You can be quiet, reserved and thoughtful but there is still one thing you must do.