Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Leadership Lessons

When I attend a meeting like the Willow Creek Leadership Summit, I am reminded that I know a lot more about leadership than I am practicing. Over the last four decades, I have been responsible for everything from a supply platoon in the U. S. Army in Vietnam to a state-wide ministry with some twenty-five employees and a budget of over a million dollars. As I think back, there were some things that I got right and many that I got wrong.

What did I get right? A couple of things come to mind. Even when I was a youngster, my Dad (who was an enlisted man in World War II) told me that I should remember two sets of initials—RHIP and RHIR. RHIP means “rank has its privileges.” RHIR stands for “rank has its responsibilities.” In Reserve Officers Training Corps in college, I was taught that an officer always takes care of his men first. For example, an officer makes sure that his troops are fed and housed before he takes care of his own needs. This approach stayed with me in ministry positions as well. I made sure that I never asked anything for myself that was not available to everyone on the staff—training opportunities, compensation, vacation, etc. And I also went made every effort to make sure that our department staff was getting the same benefits that others in the organization received.

Second, I did a pretty good job of building staff wherever I served. By my estimate, over 90 percent of my hires were good ones, borne out by the fact that many of those persons are still employed by the same agency and are doing good work. Hiring decisions are the most important ones that any leader can make, and I learned that I was heading for trouble if I did not invest considerable time, energy, and prayer in those decisions.

What did I get wrong? There is probably not enough space for that list, but let me identify two things. First, although I think of myself as a rational decision-maker, too many of my decisions were made by intuition. In an effort to show progress, I occasionally chose a path that was risky or untried. Sometimes this worked and sometimes it didn’t, but too often such decisions wasted time and resources. In a couple of situations, I only escaped a catastrophe by the grace of God! If I did it over again, I would have taken more time on some decisions or sought more counsel.

Second, and this amplifies on the observation above, I too often operated from a “lone ranger” mentality. I think I took the saying, “It’s lonely at the top,” too seriously. When I worked for a state Baptist convention, one of the great resources available to me was other staff members in various departments in the building. I did more “drop in” visits with other department leaders than most of my colleagues, but I know now that I would have been better off if I had done more of this and in a more timely manner. Just because one has been placed in a leadership or managerial position, he or she should not fail to use the experience and skills of others both inside and outside the organization.

Although some people may be born leaders, I think that most of us spend a lifetime developing the skills it takes to be a competent leader. If we are honest with ourselves, the task is never complete.

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