Not Just Leadership

Over the course of my career, I’ve been without leadership on a number of occasions. As executive leadership turns over in organizations, there can be a fair degree of confusion and turmoil. Different individuals and groups react to the leadership vacuum in different ways. Some may simply plod ahead doing the work they have always done. Others may see the absence of leadership as an opportunity to make changes (when the cat’s away…). Still others may stop moving altogether seemingly incapable of moving forward without someone in front of them.

However people end up reacting, every time I’ve seen leadership turnover in an organization, someone inevitably says something like, “We will be ok, we just need to find our next leader.” I really only have one problem with this sort of thinking…the word “just.” Here’s why.

I don’t view “just” in this statement as a an innocent manner of speaking. In my experience it reflects an underlying belief that a community’s leader is the solution to the community’s problems. Leadership is a critical piece of the puzzle. Leaders influence and move their organizations in significant ways, but leaders don’t do it alone.

The “just” creates an unrealistic expectations for incoming leaders. After the initial honeymoon period, what everyone begins to realize is that “just” getting new leadership doesn’t resolve the core issues and problems facing the community.

It is true that part of the leader’s role is to mobilize those in the community to address the core issues and problems facing the community. It is equally true, however, that communities condition the type of individual that counts as a leader…the community often defines the limits of what a leader can do. Stanley Hawuerwas’ comment on this dynamic is instructive: “…many of the proposals about leadership are quite perverse exactly because it gives the impression that you know what leadership is abstracted from communities that make leadership possible.”

The community and the leader have a mutually reinforcing and shaping role on one another. The leader seeks to guide the community (church, country, organization, family) toward a future vision of reality that is not limited by the constraints of the present. At the same time, the community regulates the leader’s ability to do so through it’s relative willingness to suffer loss, adapt, reframe, or otherwise change.

The willingness of the community to adapt to, not simply survive, the forces that challenge it is crucial to the success of that community and its leadership. As Heifetz notes, “Generally, people will not authorize someone to make them face what they do not want to face.” Unfortunately, that sort of authorization is exactly what is needed.

Leaders can’t simply tell people what they want to hear. There has to be a willingness to push and prod those within the community, help them to recognize that “the way we’ve always done it” isn’t going to cut it, and mobilize the community’s resourcefulness and creativity to drive toward a new future state.

As members of a community (and each of us are members of multiple communities), it is up to us to rethink our notion of leadership. Leadership is important. No doubt…but it isn’t the only thing that a community needs to thrive. A community open to revising (if not completely renovating) the status quo and demonstrating a willingness to suffer loss as it charts a new course into the future is as important as the community’s leadership.

As you consider the communities of which you are a part, don’t get caught up in the “just leadership” myth. Take stock of just how willing you are to face the core challenges facing your church, country, family, or place of employment…because communities require more than just leadership, they require members willing to face the challenges of reality.