Leadership: building the airplane while it’s flying

Leadership: building the airplane while it’s flying

A few years ago, I was asked some questions on leadership by a graduating university student for a paper he was writing. I thought sharing what I shared with him might be helpful to you. No matter what you do or how old you are, increasing your leadership competency is always good. Everyone is a leader to some degree. I tried to think outside of the box on some of these questions. He asked me five. My responses follow.

As we explore leadership, remember there is no perfect leader or type of leader. Every leader is different, developing as they lead. I call it “building the airplane while it’s flying.”

Leader Bob Ehrich says, “I don’t know what leadership is. You can’t touch it. You can’t feel it. It’s not tangible. But I do know this: You recognize it when you see it.” Interesting. Now let’s explore some of the heart and art of leadership.

What makes a good leader?

John Maxwell says a good leader needs the convictions to keep focused, the creativity to keep relevant, the foundation to keep him/her solid, and the vision or faith to keep soaring. Also, an effective leader must be able to endure pain. A leader said it this way: “My level of leadership is based on my willingness to endure pain in making difficult decisions.” One pastor says every time your church attendance doubles, 50% of your staff can’t go with you. Whether in business or church leadership, people will come and go. Many can’t endure that kind of pain, yet effective leadership requires it.

How have you grown as a leader over your lifetime?

I have come to understand timing. Timing is as important as what to do and where to go. You can have the best idea ever but if it is released too soon or too late, the great idea will look like a bad idea. Alfred Sloan once said, “Success does not lie in your ability to adjust to change. Success lies in your ability to anticipate change.” In these dynamic, changing times, success will happen to those who know the times and what to do, who to do it with, how to do it, and when to do it.

I have also come to understand the power of “why?” I used to give my employees talks about “what?” Here’s what we do. Here’s where we’re going. Here’s how we do it. All the time my leaders and congregation were thinking to themselves, “Why?” Why are we doing what we do? “What” is knowledge but “why” is understanding. Once those I led understood “why the what,” they moved from information to revelation, their attitude and production elevated. In today’s world, clarity is a rarity. Understanding “why” changes everything. Insight gives the best sight, especially when it’s on-sight.

How important is character in leadership?

As someone once said, “Vision will grow a business, but character sustains it.” Character determines success. We live in an age where talent is valued over integrity and character. One of the biggest character issues I see in many leaders is using people for their own ego-driven ends without even getting to know the person. That’s called utilitarianism. Manipulating people is always wrong — always. What people do is not who they are.

Another character issue is insecure leaders. A leader cannot lead people if he or she needs people. Leaders who need the adulation of people, who use people to feel good about themselves, disqualify themselves from objective decision making. Steve Jobs once said, “If you want to make everyone happy, don’t be a leader. Sell ice cream.”

What would be your advice to me as to how I can grow as a leader?

I would say understanding there are paradoxes in leadership. A good leader knows what to do in the season in which you need to do it. For example, knowing there are times when a leader must serve (Matt 20:25-28) as well as times when a leader must rule (I Tim 5:17). A leader must be confident (Matt 7:29) as well as humble (James 4:10). A leader must be a man of action (Gospel of Mark) as well as a man of prayer (Luke 18:1). A leader must have a strategy (Luke 14:28-32) and must submit to God’s will (Acts 16:1-10). Knowing when to be “what” is effective leadership in action.

What should I avoid as a good leader?

Letting the fact that you are a leader go to your head. Pride precedes the fall. Also, the more a leader empowers, the more that leader gains power. The converse is true also. Finally, become a person of significance rather than a person of success. Madonna is a person of success. Mother Teresa was a person of significance. Many leaders pursue success rather than significance, both to their detriment and their communities’ detriment. Conquest without contribution hurts everyone, especially the one doing it.

There you go. I’ve created you a suit to wear. Now all you need to do is fill it.