Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Myth of Leading From Above

Have you ever heard the phrase “leading from 30,000 feet”? Usually it is in reference to someone that views themselves as a “visionary”, giving direction to the masses and staying out of the “day-to-day” details. This is the person that pops in and out of meetings, throws out a bunch of ideas, draws some grids on a board and then leaves the team to the task of making all of it happen. They then get back to the “30,000 foot” level to deal with “big picture” stuff (yeah, I’m using a LOT of “ “ quotes!). You’ve seen the hundreds of books pumped out each year that glorify this method. Our schools promote this style, even ministry colleges that plop out pastors and church leaders each semester. And it is based on very true ideas…  

-       Vision is essential to the success of any organization
-       Direction is vital for the team
-       Perspective is usually best gained from above 

That being said, 30,000 foot leadership is a lie.

It’s fundamentally true that people perish due to lack of vision (Prov 29:18), but we’ve assumed that people naturally follow vision. We’ve glorified vision to the point that heads of organizations pride themselves solely on their ability to “cast vision”. Having vision is crucial… but that’s not leadership, nor is it found in the ability to communicate the vision or by simply creating work for others. By themselves, those things are the equivalent of a map, a pair of binoculars, or even at best, a top-notch tour guide. These abilities, combined with self-awareness and understanding, are great pieces to a consultant, a project manager or a strategist. But visionary leadership is more…

Leadership happens on the ground. People don’t naturally necessarily follow vision, but they ARE drawn to those that are willing to do whatever it takes to see the vision become a reality. Leadership is not “above”, it’s “with”. My favorite leadership scene in the movie “Braveheart” is not the speeches, the battle plans or the politics – it’s when William Wallace finishes the “vision-casting”, gets off his horse, stands on the frontline… and leads the charge.

A “visionary” that prefers to stay at 30,000 feet and doesn’t get their hands dirty tends to have a team that gets more and more frustrated. The finger of blame gets pointed at the team anytime things go wrong (since they’re the only ones on the ground), the team begins to feel that they are the only ones risking anything, and they start to question the absence of their “leader”. One could argue that this environment is a prime incubator for the development of leaders, but leadership that grows out of a void is vastly different from leadership that grows by example. The mistake of applauding those who herald themselves as this type of leader is that it minimizes those that are doing the ACTUAL leading. Those leading on the ground then begin to feel that the only way to really lead is to stop doing the work on the ground and to attain the 30,000 foot level… and the cycle continues.

The best leadership has the ability to get a view from 30,000 feet, either personally or through the eyes of another, communicating what they see, and then rolling up their sleeves, getting on the ground and leading the charge. That means late nights when deadlines loom, serving your team, going above and beyond, shouldering the big responsibilities yourself instead of dropping them solely on everyone else, letting others draw on the board, risking more time and energy than those you are leading, your feet being the first ones on the battlefield and the last ones off… leading by example, not simply by direction.

This isn’t to say that a true leader becomes someone that hoards all of the work and does it all themselves. When you lead on the ground, your team does the same. When they see you carrying the load, they lift it off your back. When they see you willing to do the dirty work and drive towards the vision at whatever cost, they go with you, lessening the weight of the task and increasing it’s impact. A leader puts the mission above the position, and the team above the individual. Leadership is not about getting others to do the things you think you are “above” or don’t want to do – it’s about not doing those things alone.

There are many in leadership positions today that are really more strategists, project managers, planners and communicators than true visionary leaders. Their skills can be amazing parts of a team, but until they are willing to come down from 30,000 feet and lead or be led, they inevitably will struggle with being an island unto themselves.

Vision is powerful. Communication is essential. Perspective is vital.

Leadership is willing to come down and say, “Follow me.”

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