A popular conception of leadership is inspiring a group of high-capacity individuals to work as a team to accomplish clearly defined goals and objectives. In this paradigm we focus on words like vision, mission and values while we fill our pipeline from a deep bench of developing leaders. We read books, attend conferences and write blog posts around this idealized picture of leadership. It is inspiring and fun to think about.
I just wonder if it’s real.
In my three-plus decades of leading and being led, I’ve seldom encountered environments that match this prototype. I don’t doubt the importance of vision, mission and values, and I believe in leadership pipelines and deep benches. The challenge is that very little of what I see in day-to-day leadership actually looks like the pictures in the books.
My new definition of leadership looks more like this:
Helping slightly dysfunctional people perform mundane tasks to accomplish fuzzy goals.
Before you write me off as an old curmudgeon, let me break down my definition.
Slightly dysfunctional people
Everyone I’ve ever worked with is dysfunctional is some way. (I’m dysfunctional in a multitude of ways.) The myth of leadership is that we need to find better people to accomplish bigger tasks. I believe we need to learn to work with the dysfunctional people we have to help them accomplish more than they think possible.
Look at the great leaders in the Bible. David led a group of misfits and rejects. Moses led a mob of complainers. Jesus led a mismatched group of fishermen, tax collectors and thieves. There are no greater leaders than David, Moses and Jesus, and they each spent years helping dysfunctional people perform mundane tasks to accomplish fuzzy goals.
Complaining about the people we work with and constantly trying to upgrade are a waste of time. Any leader can lead a team of A-players, it takes an incredible leader to lead the rag-tag group you inherited.
Perform mundane tasks
Leadership literature is littered (I LOVE alliteration) with images of “taking the hill,” “burning the ships” and “winning the war.” These are inspiring images, but they have very little to do with what we do day-in and day-out as leaders and as team members.
Rallying the troops to charge the hill is a piece of cake compared to inspiring everyday people to faithfully complete the hundreds of mundane tasks that make an organization run, grow and win. I love Jim Collins’ image of the 20-mile march in Great By Choice. The successful leader isn’t necessarily the one who can excite the crowd, it is the leader who can maintain the pace.
Accomplish fuzzy goals
We love sports analogies in leadership; scoring the touchdown, moving the ball, winning the game. We all want to win, we all want to hit the target. The challenge is that the “win” isn’t always clear. In fact, on the 20-mile march it is seldom clear.
I spent the first 10 years of my career in student ministry, and it was always difficult to know the right scorecard: big attendance? raised hands? bringing back as many kids as I took? We always set goals, but on a day-to-day basis it was often hard to know whether we were winning. In reality, I didn’t really know if we “won” at all until five to 10 years after I left student ministry.
My point isn’t that vision, values, mission, pipelines and benches don’t matter. They do matter. They are tools that help us improve and inspire. My point is that any leader with a team of A-players can get a well-defined, short-term win. Exceptional leaders inspire teams of B- and C-players day after day after day, even without crystal clear goals, to accomplish more than they imagine possible.
Remember when you are frustrated with your team, bored by your tasks and unclear on your goals, you are in the trenches of real leadership. This is where the important stuff actually gets done.
So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up. —Galatians 6:9 (NLT)