No Options When It Comes To Good Leadership

LeadershipWhen I cut my teeth as a young leader, I tried, like most leaders, to sort out the essentials for good leadership. I was green and young and eager to do the best job I could for my university. Even in the heat of carrying out my duties, I read and studied and watched the models I came to admire. This kind of study and reflection, to begin with, is not an option for good leaders.

But what are the key characteristics of good leadership? I settled in on a number of what I regard as essentials. Looking back now it is easy to see where I often fell short. Those were the painful moments, the ones you regret, but the essentials kept coming back.

What were those essentials? Let’s take a short stab at this. The list must begin with something we call character. This is not always easy to define, of course, but good leaders have character. Good leaders are models of openly desiring to become better people.

So what is character? Many things, of course, some of them intangible. But character begins with unqualified honesty. A “plain ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ is all you need to say,” Jesus tells us from the great sermon. Never embellish the truth in order to slip by. Without exception, no fudging on the truth. No option here.

Building trust is critical to good leadership. No organization will remain healthy when people cannot trust the leader or each other. Trust must reign. Leaders must build trust into the fabric of the organization. Broken trust is almost impossible to repair. The best way to break trust is to slide on the truth, even if ever so slightly to build ourselves up. This will not do. Sliding on the truth breaks trust. This is not an option.

We must expect from leaders openness. Leaders must communicate lavishly, as my mentor Max De Pree once said. This openness is harder than folks realize, because not everyone can know everything. It takes discernment to determine how to be open and yet how to keep confidence when required. Openness is the default. But once again, even though silence is sometimes required, it must never violate truthfulness. Openness is essential.

Leaders show graciousness. Along the way I have called this grace-filled leadership. The goal is to build grace-filled organizations. When leaders get focused on themselves, they lack this graciousness. People get it when this happens. People get hurt, demoralized, frustrated. I have been told from time to time that this language of being grace-filled is too soft, too vague. I don’t buy it. Graciousness is essential. Not an option.

Back to character, which sort of contains all the rest. “The aim of the Christian life,” N. T. Wright says, is “fully formed, fully flourishing Christian character.” No option here for Christians.

Paul encourages us to put on the garments of good character, but notice, he talks specifically, concretely, quite exhaustively. This is no abstract definition.

Put on the garments that suit God’s chosen and beloved people: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience. Be tolerant with one another and forgiving, if any of you has cause for complaint: you must forgive as the Lord forgave you. Finally, to bind everything together and complete the whole, there must be love. . . . And always be thankful. Let the gospel of Christ dwell among you in all its richness; teach and instruct one another with all the wisdom it gives you. With psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, sing from the heart in gratitude to God. (Colossians 3:12-16)

Think about this extraordinary statement for a moment: What if our leaders “put on” this kind of character? I am convinced our organizations would be better, more nourishing, more productive, more life-giving. Our leaders would be better people. I know this runs counter to conventional wisdom on leadership for our day, but none of this is an option.

What Paul spells out here takes a lifetime of conscious effort. He encourages us to put on these garments just as we might pick out a clean shirt in the morning, one kind of shirt and not another. Every morning, so to speak. And he tells us which shirt is best. We have a choice, despite the deterministic bent of our culture. Either it is good character or it is bad character. Paul doesn’t leave us hanging about which are the essentials.

This is the way to human flourishing. This is about flourishing lives, to be sure, but it is also about flourishing leadership. In the end what we get are flourishing organizations. I am not naïve about what is required here. I am not naïve about where I fell short on these things as a leader. But I do know what is required.

No options here, I find myself saying. Some things are essential.