I’ve been in leadership all my life, often wishing I wasn’t. I’m a reluctant leader, I suppose you could say – I don’t believe it’s my destiny to run to the front of any given group and rally people behind me, but if there’s a need for a voice of reason, or inspiration, then I typically fill that void. I don’t do it out of arrogance, I don’t do it for the thrill, and I certainly don’t do it for the complimentary criticisms and applause; I do it because if no one leads, everyone loses.
But with leadership comes a burden, and it’s often an unfair one: the expectation that leaders can change any situation into a good one. And while it’s true that the annals of leadership are littered with countless stories men and women who led people to success through great struggle and hardship, it’s also true that history has even more leaders who weren’t able to see the same results. After all, history is written by the winners, right?
I think leadership isn’t the only key to success. I think it’s critical, I think it’s necessary, but a great leader can’t just make magic happen. To think otherwise is reductive, ignoring the fact that leaders are limited on many fronts: by resources, by cultural norms, by the people they are called to lead. True, great leaders often find ways to motivate others to change, but it often comes at the price of giving the leader a great amount of power too. Give a leader the authority to do what needs to be done – with personnel, with vision, with resources, with product – and change can happen quickly. Take one or two of those tools away, and great leadership can still prevail, but it takes time. Give a leader nothing but a title and a mandate, and you’re setting the leader and yourself up for failure.
Too often, people don’t see that fact. Trust me: I’ve been in enough churches to know that a title doesn’t mean squat. I’ve been the pastor, the staff member, the volunteer leader who spoke up about the need for change, who stepped into the leadership void in an effort to help healthy growth occur. And I can tell you without reservation that quite often it’s not the leader who fails, it’s the people who don’t wish to be led.
Call it sour grapes, but there’s this old saying: you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. Or, as we say in my house, you can put dinner on my son’s plate, but you can’t make him eat. Not unless you want to clean up a big puddle of puke. Leaders can only lead those who want to be led; and in many situations, there are lots of people who don’t want to be led. They want to be catered to. Or they want to be left alone. Or they want to be the leader without paying the price. The great leaders do their best to try and change culture, create consensus, win people to the vision, but even the greatest leader who ever walked the earth didn’t win over everyone. He ended up on a cross.
We need good leaders, women and men who will work tirelessly for a vision, serve the people around them, patiently wait for the situation to change and health to come. But at the same time, we need good followers too – people who are willing to not just put everything on the leader, but walk with her, talk with him, and serve alongside to help bring the change that needs to occur. Otherwise, in the words of a fire captain I know, a leader is just an individual on a lonely walk.