If you had told sixteen year old me that I’d one day be writing a blog about leadership, sixteen year old me would laugh at you and then eat seven cookies. Because sixteen year old me really believed she’d only ever be a follower, and sixteen year old me really had no concept of what too many calories can do to a person.
Leadership is still something that really does not come naturally to me at all, but I’ve somehow found myself in a few leadership positions, lately. It’s definitely been a learning experience. God’s used these leading opportunities to teach me more about choosing love over fear. …because apparently, when you put an insecure person like me in charge of something, well, there’s going to be some sort of struggle.
Struggles aren’t always bad. They’re just something you have to work through. I figure that’s why they’re called struggles.
Well, I’m no expert, but here are some of the things I’ve learned about leadership over the past several months:
1. Grace, grace, grace.
Leadership takes grace. Lots of grace. If leadership were ice cream, it would need to be covered in chocolate grace sauce, caramel grace sauce, whipped grace cream, and a generous portion of rainbow grace sprinkles. And also a big ol’ grace cherry on top. Now I’m thinking about calories again….
But really, you can’t have leadership without tons and tons of grace. I mean both from the leaders AND the followers AND from YOURSELF. I’ve been a follower, and believe me, followers make mistakes. I’ve been a leader, and BELIEVE me, leaders make mistakes. Sometimes even the best leaders have to deal with people who think a leader has to be perfect. But what’s worse is a leader who acts like he/she HAS to be perfect. Don’t put unrealistic expectations on others. Don’t put unrealistic expectations on yourself.
Let me tell you about one of the most gracious people I’ve ever had the opportunity to work with. My assistant teacher in my preschool class last year was amazing.
Now, God has a sense of humor, and wouldn’t you know that he put the soft-spoken person (me) in a classroom with a hard of hearing person (my assistant teacher). So sometimes I would ask her to do something or somehow give direction, and she wouldn’t hear me. And I’m not going to lie. I got MAD. I do that sometimes. I thought she was just ignoring me or just doing her own thing, because, as I might have mentioned before, I’m insecure.
So when I got frustrated and confronted her about these times, she would just meekly say, “I’m sorry. I really didn’t hear you.” And then I’d feel like dirt, and I’d apologize.
And she forgave me. Every time. And on top of that she would make sure she knew how much she appreciated my leadership and friendship. And THAT, my friends, is an example of a gracious follower, one who has the potential to be a great leader, too. It’s also an example of a not so gracious leader—but, thank God, that leader (me) is learning.
This kind of goes along with the first one. When I gave that example of a not so gracious leader (me), there was a redeeming factor. Eventually. It might have taken me awhile to get there, but I took notice of the times when I was just plain wrong, and I acknowledged them and sincerely apologized for them. Because a good (or, in my case, a growing) leader is humble.
In the past few months, God’s taught me a lesson in this through the poor leadership choices of others. I've been under leaders who would make mistakes and just flatly REFUSE to acknowledge any fault. I think the rationale is that if a leader appears weak, then those under leadership will lose faith. And there is that risk. But leadership is about risk, sometimes, and it’s far better to admit a mistake and even to admit weakness than to stubbornly cling to an ideal that probably doesn’t exist. In the case of the faulty leadership I was under, the “I’m the leader, I can’t be wrong” mentality only fostered a huge lack of trust in the leadership.
If a leader admits weakness, it can actually help to create a bond of unity between that leader and those he or she is leading. If a leader can mess up, admit weakness, apologize, and get back up to try again, that creates a positive example people can follow. If a leader is just going to be stubborn and pretend to be right all the time, that’s setting up a very different template for those under him or her to follow. Leaders who act pridefully might just end up with a lot of prideful people underneath them. They’re just following the leader, after all.
As humility went along with grace, servanthood goes along with humility. The best leaders I’ve seen lead by example. A leader should never expect one of those under him or her to do something that he or she wouldn’t do. A leader cannot say, “I’m the leader. I’m above such and such task,” and then go send someone else to do it.
Now, delegation of duties is important. I’m not saying that a leader shouldn’t give a menial or routine task to another person. This can free the leader up to do something else that might require his or her attention. But a leader can’t just act like he or she is too good for something that people under him or her are doing.
I’ve been in churches where some of the ministers would go work in the nursery because there was a shortage of workers. They were serving in a place that didn’t seem important, but their example was incredible. By serving others in a simple way, they were blessing parents, other nursery workers, and showing the church that anyone can and should serve wherever needed.
And in my own preschool classroom, I learned that as a leader, my job was to serve all the children in my class, all of their parents, and my assistant teacher. My assistant and I had a few communication problems, for which she gave me much grace, but I eventually realized that part of my job was finding ways that I could serve her better. I could give her clearer directions, ask her if she was comfortable doing the things I gave her to do, be open to suggestions, etc. I was the lead teacher, but as the leader, my job was mainly to serve. When I realized that, I think it helped me become a better teacher, and that preschool class was the best I’d had in four years of teaching.
Part of a leader’s job is to seek out strengths, as well as recognize weaknesses, in others. Knowing strengths helps with delegation and teamwork and other matters, but it’s more important than that. A leader who encourages others shows others that he or she notices them and appreciates them. A leader who sees special qualities or talents in a person can express appreciation, which usually serves to encourage the person to use his or her special skills all the more. A leader who sees a weak area can provide the support needed to build a person up. A leader won’t let anyone else tear others down, either, weaknesses or no.
Sometimes a leader can just get a good sense of things and know what is best for his or her team. Sometimes a leader needs to actually talk to the people under his or her guidance and get to know them. Sometimes a leader needs to lovingly struggle through difficult situations with others. If a leader is willing to get to know people and figure out how best to make them feel appreciated, then those who are following him or her are much more likely to be loyal. That's going to lead to a better working situation for everyone.
A leader protects those under his or her care, at the cost of his or her own welfare.
A leader stands up for those who aren’t able or willing to stand up for themselves, sometimes at the risk of offending someone and risking his or her own position.
A leader fights for justice for those under his or her care.
A leader makes sure that everyone is heard.
A leader defends those who have been wronged.
Sometimes a leader even puts him or herself in bodily harm for the sake of protecting others.
And in my leadership experience, I certainly haven’t had to put myself at physical risk. But I have had the opportunity to defend others. And I’m glad that I can at least say that I did defend them in those opportunities.
I’ve also been blessed to have others defend me under their leadership. It’s always encouraging to know that someone has your back, no matter if you succeed or fail.
I am still learning how to be a good leader, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be that leader I’d like to be. I’m still much more comfortable in following, because following requires so much less responsibility. The thing about following is that if something goes wrong, there’s usually someone in charge that you can blame the bulk of it on. It's much harder being the one in charge.
But I’m glad I’ve had the opportunities to see that the struggle of leading others is usually worth it. The sixteen year old me was wrong. About the leadership AND the cookies.
But I really could go for a grace sundae right now.