leading in circles


I won’t lie, I hate just about anything on the topic of leadership. And hate is not nearly a strong enough word to describe my disdain for it.

Back in the gulag, during my freshman year I picked up a free credit in a ‘course’–really, it was sitting there, listening to what the speaker had to say and then parroting it all right back to them…come to think of it, that sounds like most of my academic career–on leadership. We suffered through made-up words (mentors had ‘mentees’, people underwent ‘discipling’, and, of course, there was lots of ‘synergy’ in the early aughts), catch phrases (‘servant leadership’ caught its pop stride about that time, as well) and John Maxwell’s horrible sweaters (so bad, Bill Cosby cringes.)

With that out in the open, I want to inform you the reader that this post does not entirely bring me pleasure to write, as it gives me a mild symptoms of leadership PTSD. (LeadershiPTSD?)

With baseball winding down toward the postseason and FOOTBALLFOOTBALLFOOTBALLFOOTBALLFOOTBALL, ahem, kicking off its new 18-game regression toward the inevitable on-field casualty, there is lots of chatter on sports talk radio and in the sports sections and websites on managers, coaches and key players and their leadership abilities. Just tonight, some generic disembodied voice deconstructed the American League East chase for a playoff berth between the Baltimore Orioles and New York Yankees down to a match of wits between the clubs’ respective managers, Buck Showalter and Joe Girardi. Just about all of Monday was torched by talking heads on sports television doing everything short of smoking cigarettes and rolling over after hours torched on Sunday in front of a television watching [predictable after halftime] football. (Money’s on the nightstand, Goodell. You’ll need it to pay off the invalids and the coattail riders.) Much of that waxing orgasmic was about coaching decisions and quarterbacks leading teams.

I’ve held a suspicion for a long time, and I’m fed up with the cult of leadership that has grown within our society enough to finally say it: coaches, managers, bosses, CEOs, presidents, generals, overlords, dictators, bishops and pastors take too much credit and not enough blame.

We as a society have it precisely backwards: leaders cannot cause success, but they can certainly cause failure. Rephrased, a coach won’t win a game but he can definitely lose one. If that’s not a line that will sell books and drive ticket sales for conferences, I don’t know what will.

Now, I understand that leadership is an important thing, any group, business or organization needs leaders. In writing that, though, there’s a big unstated inference that I even had to try to rewrite three times before I realized that it’s a trap: good leaders will help a group, business or organization survive and thrive. Plainly, this isn’t true: great leaders fail, crappy leaders succeed. Leadership has nothing to do with success: people do.

The best a leader can aim for is mediocre and hope for anything beyond. It’s the people who make the idea work.

A great example of this is ripped from my youth. Being a good Pentecostal Christian adolescent, I was a part of my church’s youth group. While I was yet in junior high, several high-profile high school students had fairly significant religious experiences that resulted in an unusual amount of religious zeal, ‘on fire’ for Christ, as the nomenclature goes around these parts. At the same time, our church found a new youth pastor who came in and developed a specific, flashy identity for the group and the youth facility at the church. The attendance for the youth group went from perhaps two or three dozen to 150-200 in a matter of months and sustained around 100-150 for a few years.

To the outside observer, it would appear that the youth pastor made all the difference. And the outside observer would be dead wrong.

It’s a classic example of correlation-causation. Being a part of the group, and making the leap from junior to senior high at the time, I saw very clearly why the group exploded, and it had nothing to do with the short, balding guy with the sensationalist preaching and the same three or four standard phrases in every message. It was the students–charismatic, fervent students who went into their world and shared their passion with just about anyone they could.

The youth pastor rode that success to prominence in the region and, when that generation of teens left and my generation had no idea what to do as a follow-up, he started flailing, tweaking the youth group’s image, taking more of center stage, tinkering with a late night motif where he was the star of the show. When 100-150 came closer to 75-100, suddenly, the grass started looking a lot greener elsewhere. When the senior pastor of the church took a new position across the country, he went along with him and got while the getting was good.

And the youth group imploded. 15 years later, it still never recovered. A lot of the people who were a part of that boom era are either no longer believers or just disappeared altogether. What did leadership have to do with that? Nothing, except creating a vacuum when they exited the premises.

If people think Buck Showalter and Joe Girardi squabbling over stealing signs is communicating leadership to their teams, the only people they are fooling are themselves. It still takes good pitching and timely hitting to win a baseball game. No one thinks New York Jets coach Rex Ryan is a football Bodhisattva because the Jets improbably won their first game of the season; the players went out and scored more than their opponents did. Rex Ryan is still a crappy coach. [Too] [m]uch was made of the Harbaugh brothers before and during the Super Bowl last February; the success of the 49ers against the Packers is not because of Jim Harbaugh (and Packers coach Mike McCarthy’s gameplanning ensures a commitment to not losing, which is not the same as a commitment to winning. Yes, let’s run it right up the middle again on 3rd and 9. That’ll throw the defense off!) The failure of the Ravens a week ago during that dud of a season opener may be laid at the feet of John Harbaugh in failing to prepare his team to anything against Peyton Manning. Again, the best a coach or leader can do is mediocre; the players, the workforce, make the difference between mediocre and successful.

In fact, it would seem that the more leaders involve themselves in the inner workings of everyday life in a sports team or a business, one might surmise a greater chance of failure. (See also: Jones, Jim; Valentine, Bobby; Jones, Jerry; Obama, Barry.)

Beyond all of this, though, lies the greater systemic problem with contemporary leadership culture: the notion that leaders are made. In viewing success as the high watermark of leadership, what do we do? We see what those leaders did, deconstruct what they did and mimic it expecting the same result. I’ve seen this so many times in churches and in business that it makes me want to vomit. You’re seeing it with Moneyball in Major League Baseball and the read-option in the NFFFFFL. All these leaders, clamoring to follow.

No, John Maxwell: leaders are not made. They are born, recognized for their potential and developed. Making a leader is impossible.

…mostly because there is no such thing as a leader–at least not in the way they think of leaders. There are only people who see the value, gifts, dreams and skills in other people and want to do whatever they can to see those people thrive. There are also those who seek to use others for their own ends and gains, and they exist in our seats of power, in our businesses, in our schools, on our sidelines and in our churches, often looking the part to a T, and they are so corrupted that they cease to be actual human beings altogether.

There are only those who live, and those who live so that others might live to the full. Jesus wasn’t a leader; he was a person who saw the worth of people and acted accordingly. None of these leaders are going to die on a hill for the sake of anyone else.

What of these leaders is there worth following in order that we might lead? The dizzying circularity of leadership shows it to be nothing more than what it is.

A non sequitur.

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One thought on “leading in circles

  1. I’m thinking that your beef with the word “leadership” has to do with the demise of the word in the same way that some have come to despise the word “Christian” because of all of the implications that come along with it. Your point regarding leaders taking credit but not blame is a valid one. Unfortunately, our educational institutions dole out “leadership” degrees en masse to completely unqualified paying students with some regularity, no experience or qualifications required. Most leaders are seeking the glory rather than all of the benefits that come to others rather than themselves. The best leaders out there are the ones not working for their own glory but for the furtherance of others.

    Great post that needs more time to sufficiently marinate within my cranium. Appreciate the thoughts.

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