Picture-Perfect Leadership

A leader's life can be lonely. Whether we get paid to lead or not, our role as influencers sets us apart. For better or worse, there is a distance between us and those we supervise. And it is a gap that can dictate everything from our circle of friends, whether or not we seek marital counseling in the same town, to a higher (maybe even impossible) standard of behavior for our children.

Some would challenge the idea that leaders have to be "other." They ask, "Aren't the best leaders those who lead out of their ordinary lives?" Citing the Mother Teresas and Gandhis of the world, they argue that the strongest influence is primarily by example. When leaders can be exactly who they are, that's their power.

Certainly, leadership as a concept has been "humanized" in the past decade. After the Enrons, Adelphias, Martha Stewart, Hewlett Packard, and countless other corporate debacles, people expect those who guide businesses and organizations to be the real thing. No ivory towers. No special treatment. Even Al Gore has to own up to his heating bill and big cars if he's going to talk about global warming. In summary, we want leaders whose lives match their speak, leaders who care about what we care about and who know what it's like to live in the trenches of life. We want leaders who are "one of us."

How heartwarming. How evolved. If there just weren't that long list of exceptions attached. For instance, "Be like us but more physically attractive. Be approachable, but be special - you have to have charisma. Be human, but not so human that you have baggage: addictions, eating disorders, a history of abuse, bouts of depression, parenting failures, financial difficulties, and broken relationships. If you have any of these, you'd better not show them. Put on a good face. Let us imagine that you are above all that. Actually, we may want you to seem like one of us, but when push comes to shove, we want you to be our hero. You have to give us something to believe in."

To be fair, I have encountered organizations and ministries where the concept of the "perfect" leader is intentionally rejected, where there is a lived value of grace that permeates the community. However, I have encountered many organizations and ministries where the contradictory message of "be real but not really" is a crazy-making environment for leaders, both male and female.

What has been your experience as a leader? Have you found yourself in the vice between "leadership as an open book" and "leadership as image "? Have you had to edit, silence, or bury your story in order to have influence in your environment? Conversely, are you able to lead out of an authentic, whole place? If so, what in your organization or ministry has allowed you to do that?

We want to hear you, loud and clear. Really.

March 16, 2007 at 4:12 PM

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