FIVE HABITS OF HIGHLY EFFECTIVE LEADERS
By Becky Brodin
Becky, I need to talk to you about your job performance,” my head nurse announced. My heart began to pound. What had I done wrong? Would I be fired?
I had been invited to join the open-heart surgery team at that hospital. I embraced the opportunity and immediately plunged into the ocean of information to learn and skills to master. Yet despite my enthusiasm, I faced a significant learning curve that only time and experience could overcome. I knew that one surgeon was irritated with my learning speed and had complained to my manager.
And so I braced myself to hear her tell me I wasn’t cut out to be an open-heart nurse. That verdict never came! Instead of reprimanding me, my head nurse had a plan that gave me a life-changing lesson about leadership.
Because my head nurse believed I had the potential to learn, she created a situation that gave me the repeated experience I needed to get “over the hump.” For the next two weeks, every time that surgeon performed open-head surgery-day or night, in emergencies or on schedule-I was his scrub nurse. I finally caught on to open-heart surgery.
My head nurse could have been threatened by a discontent surgeon and legitimately released me from the team. Instead, she decided to give me the benefit of the doubt, created a plan to develop my skills, and accepted the temporary tension. While validating the feedback of the doctor, she cared about me and my need for experience. She was an effective leader.
All of us have the potential to lead effectively in the array of situations that make up our daily lives. Leadership is not necessarily a role or title. Leaders lead whether they have the official
responsibility or not.
Leadership does require skills, but skills alone don’t make a person an effective leader. What distinguishes effective leaders from mediocre leaders? I have discovered and observed five qualities common to effective leaders. These qualities are shared by my head nurse, outstanding leaders throughout history, and godly people described in Scripture.
Effective leaders tolerate diversity.
A close look at the wide variety of men Jesus chose to form His team of twelve gives us a glimpse of how comfortable Jesus was with diversity. These men, ranging from fishermen to businessmen to political fanatics, must have had a host of explosive discussions as they clashed over their perceptions of what they heard Jesus say. Yet Jesus deliberately surrounded Himself with this variety of personalities and formed them into a team to whom He could entrust His entire mission.
Abraham Lincoln’s top advisors, men such as William Henry Seward, Roger B. Taney, Salmon P. Chase, and Edwin Stanton, represented extreme differences in opinion. By drawing on the thoughts of these men, Lincoln kept his finger on the pulse of the nation. He avoided listening only to the sentiments of people who saw issues the way he did.
As our culture becomes more and more pluralistic, multicultural, and diverse, tolerating diversity becomes a key quality for leaders at any level. Consider the potential diversity among the members of a small group Bible study-people from a variety of backgrounds, with a variety of needs, all at different points in their spiritual journey. If the leader can tolerate the diversity, differences won’t jolt the group. Rather, the group will become a place where the members feel safe to be themselves and honestly express their perceptions and values.
Since we are naturally more comfortable with people who think and believe as we do, developing a tolerance for diversity isn’t always easy. Picture yourself as the “odd man out” in a group. How would you want to be treated?
Right now I’m a minority in my class on religion in America-the only evangelical Christian among fourteen adults. My classmates have strong opinions about evangelicals, and I’ve found it enlightening to discover what it feels like to be in the minority. I’m learning from my classmates how to listen to others who hold values different from my own.
Effective leaders develop people.
In their excellent book Let Go: A Fresh Look at Effective Leadership in Ministry, authors John Westfall and Bobbie Reed unfold a refreshing premise for ministry:
The key concept of this book is the answer to the question, “Is my job to build a strong ministry, or is it to build strong people who minister?” We believe that if we build strong people who minister, then our ministries will be strong. But if we strive to build strong ministries, we may not end up building strong people.
Asking such a fundamental question radically shifts the hierarchical paradigm of leadership to the team or interactive approach. It confronts us with the challenge to turn managers into coaches, to focus on developing people, not ministries.
Business leaders are moving from hierarchical structure to self-directed work teams. In her article “Beyond Hierarchy: The Search for High Performance” (Training and Development, August 1992), Patricia Galagan writes, “The hard lessons of today’s economy are pushing organizations to try innovations they would never have considered a short time ago. The classic icon of business-the pyramid-shaped organizational chart-has been turned upside down, pulled inside lt, and even tossed in the trash.” Scores of ministries, churches, and even small groups are doing the same thing.
The shift to developing people and building teams is not so new. Jesus modeled team building throughout His career. He developed strong people who would minister. Consider Peter, a rough, impetuous man who freely expressed his opinions. When Peter testified that Jesus was the Christ, Jesus affirmed him: “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (Mt. 16:18). Jesus helped Peter see his leadership potential.
Nehemiah also developed people. God entrusted him with the vision to rebuild the wall around Jerusalem. Nehemiah’s plan included obtaining official permission and government provisions (Nehemiah 2). Had Nehemiah shown up in Jerusalem empty handed, the task of rebuilding the wall would have seemed impossible to these disenfranchised and discouraged people. Nehemiah empowered this remnant by providing official support and supplies.
Scott, my current supervisor, is a master developer of people. Whenever I work directly with him, I come away believing I can reach new goals. He spends time getting to know each person who works for him. He asks our opinions and interacts with our ideas. He teaches us and lets us resolve our own problems. He affirms our contributions. He is always on the lookout for educational opportunities that will enhance me or the rest of the people on our team. I have the marvelous sense of being empowered to do my job. His example is a gift I want to give to those I lead.
Effective leaders make decisions.
Much of leading, whether it’s a mother leading her children or a CEO leading a company, involves making decisions. Many of these decisions are difficult. My head nurse made a difficult decision when she chose to accelerate my orientation, in spite of an irritated surgeon, rather than simply letting me go. She took a risk and never wavered.
The ministry of Jesus was defined by the decisions He made. In Mark 1, when Jesus returned from praying alone, He was surrounded by needy people from a certain town. He made the decision to “go somewhere else-to nearby villages-so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.”
The opposite of making hard decisions is avoiding them. During the American Civil War, Union General George McClellan was a leader who avoided making decisions. Even when Lincoln ordered him to attack Richmond, Virginia, early in the war, he delayed. Historians speculate that if this general had made the tough decision to attack when he could have, the war might have been over in a matter of months rather than dragging on for more than four years.
Sometimes I fall into the trap of avoiding hard decisions. When I’m aware of not returning a phone call or finishing a project, I ask myself, “What am I avoiding?” More times than not, I sense there’s risk I need to take. Avoiding decisions might bring temporary relief, but in the long run it usually makes things worse. I’m learning it serves me as well as the people I lead if I take risks, make decisions, and lead.
Effective leaders welcome feedback.
One of the themes in Judy B. Rosener’s landmark Harvard Review article, “Ways Women Lead,” was leading by encouraging participation. She writes,
Inclusion is at the core of interactive leadership. In describing nearly every aspect of management, the women interviewees made reference to trying to make people feel a part of the organization. They try to instill this group identity in a variety of ways, including encouraging others to have a say in almost every aspect of work, from setting performance goals to determining strategy.
Last week I watched a nursing manager use inclusion as part of a smart leadership decision. Because of a new policy, 75 percent of the vacation requests had been denied. The staff was about to mutiny. During a staff meeting, this courageous leader asked for feedback and input regarding the scheduling dilemma. She got an earful. Wisely, she took that information, studied last year’s statistics, and came up with an alternative plan that gave nearly all the employees the vacation time they had requested. Had this leader been threatened by the outcry or been determined to cling to an authoritative decision, staff morale would have been deeply damaged. Instead, her willingness to incorporate their input and work out a compromise created camaraderie.
Nehemiah was a leader open to feedback. In the midst of rebuilding the wall, internal problems bubbled to the surface and people began to “raise a great outcry against their Jewish brothers” (Neh. 5:1). Nehemiah may not have asked for input, but when the people told him what was going on, he chose to listen to their concerns. Then he took action on their behalf. You can imagine how encouraged the people must have been. Nehemiah’s leadership included responding to the input from the people he was leading.
Inviting feedback can be difficult, especially when you are responsible to lead. But listening to feedback is a crucial aspect of making good decisions. I’m learning simply to ask others what they think about a given situation.
Unsolicited feedback can be hard to swallow, yet effective leaders listen to, and even welcome, others’ opinions and observations. I know my head nurse listened to the surgeon’s concerns regarding my performance in open-heart surgery. Because of that feedback she formed a plan that developed me.
Effective leaders care about people.
Recently I took an informal survey of several friends and acquaintances. I asked, “Who was the best leader you’ve had, and what made him or her so good?” Again and again people described a good leader as a person who believed in them, entrusted responsibility to them, and offered guidance in ways that neither abandoned nor overpowered them. These leaders were also there for them in personal matters. The theme that emerged was that effective leaders care about the people they lead.
Often I followed up with a second question: “Who was the worst leader you’ve had, and what made him or her so hard to follow?” Most people described detrimental leaders as those who didn’t care or who dictated action plans. One missionary told me her leader said her name as if he were calling a dog. I wasn’t surprised to hear that her self-confidence slumped to an all-time low under his leadership, a loss that took years to rebuild.
The vision, the goals, the work conditions, or even the decisions the leader made-none of these factored into people’s memories of a good leader. What they remembered was the care the leader had for them. In Let Go, Westfall and Reed conclude,
Leadership requires accepting people where they are with strengths and weaknesses, gifts and eccentricities. When we commit ourselves to their development and resist the urge to panic over their defects, real growth becomes possible. Too often leaders instill in people the feeling that they are inadequate or ill-equipped for tasks. Instead we need to recognize and draw out the creative resources that may be dormant within our people.
Jesus demonstrated His deep care for people in every encounter. The account of His standoff with the Pharisees in Mark 3 is a clear example of how His care for people superseded the letter of the law. It was the Sabbath, and a man with a shriveled hand happened to be worshiping in the synagogue. The religious leaders smelled a contest and watched to see if Jesus would “do work” on the Sabbath. The reality of the man’s impairment wasn’t even a blip on the screen of their hearts.
“Then Jesus asked them, `Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?’ But [the Pharisees] remained silent.” Can you imagine being the man with the withered hand right then”! Jesus “looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored.” Restoring the man to wholeness prompted the religious leaders to plot Jesus’ death-yet caring for the man was of greater importance to Jesus than His own safety.
Learning to Lead
Each of us has nearly unlimited opportunities to lead, whether our leading is formal or informal, a major responsibility or spontaneous response in a given situation. Because leadership is a part of life, we are continually faced with the potential to impact others. How can we use these opportunities wisely?
Biblical people like Jesus and Nehemiah as well as great leaders from history have left us a great legacy. From their examples, we can learn to be effective leaders. If we are open to the feedback of those we are leading, we can be informed leaders who know the people we lead. If we look for creative way’s to develop people, we will be in a better position to make hard decisions. If we care about the people we lead, we will learn to tolerate diversity. As these qualities develop in our lives, we can make a difference in the lives of those we lead.
What does true leadership look like? If we take our definition from Scripture, it may be a far cry from what we’ve seen in the world.
Leadership is not a role – it’s a function
Some people use roles to avoid relationship. A leader who relates through a roll will be prone to “pull rank,” expect privileges, or create a “we/they” detachment. Jesus exposed this sanctimonious
attitude in the religious leaders of His day when He charged, “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers.” Then he clarified the function of leadership when he said, “The greatest among you will be your servant” (Mt. 23:8-11).
Leadership is not a right – it’s a responsibility.
In the hierarchical paradigm, the way to accumulate power and attain success is to climb the leadership ladder. A sense of “entitlement” can creep into the value system of a leader who expects privileges to accompany leadership-even expecting the right to be the leader. But leadership is not a right to claim; it is a responsibility to fulfill. The Apostle Peter encourages leaders to “be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers-not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (1 Pet. 5:2-3).
Leadership is not wielding authority – it’s empowering people.
In business and ministry, managers are redefining their roles from “boss” to “coach.” In her article “From Manager to Coach” (Training, February 1992), Beverly Geber quoted words managers used to use to describe their leadership: “director, policeman, task assigner, baby-sitter, fire fighter, scheduler and decider.” These implied a top-down view of leadership aimed at controlling subordinates. Geber writes, “Terms to describe their new roles include coach, trainer, facilitator, delegator, educator,” shifting leadership from controlling others to empowering or serving people so that they can do their jobs.
Jesus turned leadership upside down in His day when He taught, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant” (Mt. 20:25-26).
Leadership is not winning popularity-it’s influencing people.
Becoming more concerned with image, prestige, or power is the first step a leader takes toward dictatorship. The energy and creativity that could have been used to influence people will instead be spent making sure people are submissive and respectful.
Yet influence, not power, earns respect. Jesus chose influence over power when he washed His disciples’ feet and explained, “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. . . . I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master” (Jn. 13:13-16).
Leadership is not a gender, race, or age issue it’s service.
Everyone has the potential to be a leader. Mothers lead their children, fathers lead their families, teachers lead their students, managers lead their employees. The essence of leadership transcends human differences and shows itself in myriad personalities, situations, and responsibilities. Let’s not limit leadership to those who fit a stereotype. All of us are called to serve-and sometimes that means leading.
(The above information was published by the DISCIPLESHIP JOURNAL, 1993)
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