Whole Leader Reformation
Few of us would deny that our world is in the midst of a reformation - a radical change in values and dividing polarities. Whether it’s the tension between relativism and fundamentalism, liberty and security, justice and mercy, love and truth, or diversity and unity - these are the paradoxes of our time. These tensions are not only political and ideological, they are also practical, structural and even theological.
While global and organizational shifts in cultural assumptions are important, just as important is the impact of these shifts on leaders. If we focus on oversimplified leadership principles and ignore the polarizing context within which they lead, we risk prescribing overused leadership clichés that that will leave leaders underprepared and under supported. It’s not enough to talk about leadership. It’s time to talk about leaders – and more specifically – improving our efforts to develop whole leaders. Whether it’s a leader emerging from poverty, a business leader desiring a deeper connection of faith in their work, someone called to ministry but challenged to lead an organization, or a young adult on a university campus, it’s time to change the paradigm.
For those of us attempting to model our leadership on the character of Jesus Christ, the implications are even more serious. Jesus himself rarely minimized learning and development into clichés and three step programs or lists of virtues. Jesus was the ultimate leader provocateur. He asked the hard questions of those on his short list. Who do you say I am? Do you love me? Do you want to get well? Why are you so afraid? Why did you doubt? Why do you still not see or understand? Who touched me? These are the questions that overconfident leaders will dismiss and reluctant leaders may hide from, but they may be the keys to our search for wholeness.
While a revolution is a movement against existing realities, a reformation is a movement of change based on a reality that’s right in front of us. To that end, a whole leader reformation is a strategic and intentional focus on the needs of leaders, and away from leadership as an abstraction from the real and gritty experience of leading.
The whole reality of leaders is that they are human. They ask themselves hard questions, they make mistakes, they fail, and they have fears and even moments of hopelessness that can either define or inform them. The difference for leaders is that their mistakes happen in public and their fears are easily labeled as weaknesses. A leader, whether by choice or by necessity, is responsible for the experience of many others and for our progress forward. With that burden comes a whole different level of responsibility.
What can we do to better prepare a generation of thoughtful and courageous leaders with a heart to serve, a willingness to learn, a capacity to lead at the next level and wisdom to discern and provide clarity in these complex times? Answering this question is critical, but it will take a reformation – a radical shift in how we intentionally prepare them for the journey ahead.
Focus on the One
Our culture values simplicity, quick solutions, and answers that apply to every leader. The reality is that there isn’t one kind of leader in our world. We don’t all share the same developmental challenge.
If we assume that all leaders need to hear the charge to be humble, we miss the fact that at least half of the potential leaders in our world aren’t challenged to be humble, but to muster courage in the face of their reluctance to lead. In our work coaching leaders over the past few decades, our first job has been to identify the unique developmental challenge of each individual. Some leaders need more humility, and even more directly, to be told that they must develop the capacity to stop and to listen to others if they are to serve well. This is why focusing on leadership principles apart from the experience of individual leaders can be so reckless. Our challenge is to simply listen to their actual experience, avoiding the temptation to try harder to develop them by looking at them, and instead choose to look with them.
So often we hear senior leaders say “we just need to get our leaders to…” You fill in the blank with your favorite leadership principle.
When we move from a focus on leadership to a focus on the leaders themselves, we begin to see what they really need.
When we move from a focus on leadership to a focus on the leaders themselves, we begin to see what they really need. We see the intersections between their calling, purpose, motivations, and competencies. We see every leader as a unique combination of strengths and blind spots, of personal efficacy and sacrifice, and of personal convictions and relationship to others.
Whole leader development is the process of drawing out the inherent tensions in the experience of a leader, identifying their strengths as well as their blind spots, and helping them move from feeling fragmented and compartmentalized to whole and intentional. To do that well will require us to nudge them toward the real questions they whisper, but that scream out inside of them.
Move from Answers to Questions
The research on leaders, and our experience, has made it clear that failures are as powerful as a teacher as is any success, but that doesn’t make failures any easier when they happen. Development is change, and change is hard. Learning to be a leader requires change. These transformational moments are rarely framed by clear answers. Whole leader development is about creating a pathway into the questions that leaders are already asking themselves, but are often forbidden to speak out loud - the questions they ask over a cup of coffee with a trusted friend in a moment of vulnerability:
- Definition: Am I a leader?
- Decision: What kind of leader am I, or will I be?
- Direction: Am I doing what God wants of me?
- Determination: What motivates me to keep going?
- Dedication: For whose sake am I leading?
- Distribution: Who is leading with me, and are they engaged?
- Decline: Who will lead next?
The most important developmental questions occur in repeating cycles over a lifetime. The problem is that leaders desire quick answers that promise massive impact, but at the very same moment, they want deep and sustaining change. Deep change requires reflection and questions we know are important.
Creating a culture of learning and development for leaders isn’t impossible, but it does require a shift.
There is hope though. Creating a culture of learning and development for leaders isn’t impossible, but it does require a shift. Like any change at the cultural level, it takes a sustained emphasis on making learning the goal, and questions the key prescription. A focus on questions doesn’t mean that answers aren’t important, but recognizes that getting to the deeper resolution to our developmental challenge must involve as many courageous questions as answers.
See Development as a Long Play
When you live long enough, you get the blessing of seeing things come back around. Often someone will say, “You said something to me twenty years ago that has always stuck with me.” In many cases, we don’t remember what we said, but someone else does. In contrast, we did work for a large organization where it was said, “Working here is like pulling your hand out of a bucket of water. In the end, no one will remember you were here.” But there’s more to the story. Even if no one remembered what we created, there were always people watching.
The longer play perspective is that we may or may not be the ones to fulfill God’s plan in our lifetime. That’s a tough message for leaders because it shifts the focus to a mission that we will hopefully fulfill, but only in part. It means preparing successors is not to focus on our legacy, but on their potential to lead long after we are gone. It means that the outcomes in the short-term matter as measures of progress, but not as measures of whole impact. It’s a shift from a focus on our own efforts and wins, to the efforts of those who surround us and will follow after us.
Whole and intentional leader development is about a long play.
The point is this. Whole and intentional leader development is about a long play. It requires us to start with the assumption that we are developing leaders who may, or may not, see the Promised Land, but who will likely play a considerable role in getting us to it.
Long play whole leader development changes the fundamentals and even our targeted outcomes. We begin to consider that our actions today may be in service of a future tomorrow that we may not see for ourselves, but will be experienced by generations after us. It changes what we say to leaders, and the perspective we hope they will adopt. Long play whole leader development is less about the outcomes, and more about continual awareness that we are building in a kingdom that will outlive us, outperform us and sustain us forever. If we adopted this perspective, how would it change our efforts to develop leaders? The impact could be massive.
Dr. Rob McKenna is CEO of WiLD Leaders Inc. and creator of the WiLD Toolkit, a system for developing whole leaders through 10 personalized assessments. He is also Chair, Dept. of Industrial/Organizational Psychology at Seattle Pacific University and author of Composed: The Heart and Science of Leading Under Pressure (Dust Jacket Media, 2017). Dr. Daniel Hallak is the CCO of WiLD Leaders Inc., a firm focused on whole and intentional leader development. He is also adjunct faculty at Seattle Pacific University in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and Business.