Leadership by Reaction
And now, Geometry. That was the new subject in my friend’s sixth grade class. His teacher, Mrs. Smith, walked slowly through the class. She stopped behind my friend and asked a geometry question, “What do you call two points on a line?”
Like myself and many of you, he responded, “I don’t know.”
Whack!!! Mrs. Smith took the paddle that she carried around with her and whacked him in the head with it.
Now did he know? Of course not. All he knew at that point was that he did not like Geometry or Mrs. Smith.
Mrs. Smith’s method of leadership is ludicrous, but that’s often how we try to lead. People aren’t doing what we want them to and then, whack! We respond in a way that demands people change immediately. We react by by attacking, withdrawing, or complaining. It is leadership by reaction.
When we lead by reaction, our leadership helps people move forward with about as much efficacy as Mrs. Smith’s whack on the back of the head moved my friend to new knowledge. It’s good to want people to be in a better place, but leadership by reaction is often not based on thought or reality.
Everybody has people or communities that they want to see in a better place. The trouble is that so often we pursue it by simply reacting.
Is there a better way? Absolutely there is.
The Alternative: Leadership from Vision
It’s called leadership from vision. It begins with a vision of where people could and should be. This type of leader then chooses the path that will be the best route to help people get where they need to be. Then, the leader helps people walk that path through teaching, examples, steps, and encouragement.
Take the story of Mike Lanza. Lanza remembered kids playing outside together when he was young, and he thought this was a better place for kids to be than what he saw around him. Like many of us, he was concerned about the amount of time kids spent in front of screens.
Kids on screens is just the sort of things that adults can react to. We get frustrated and simply end up taking action without much thought. Lanza took his vision and started thinking about why kids don’t play outside. One thing he noticed is that neighborhoods weren’t well designed to help kids get out and play. He began to research what neighborhoods got kids to play. He found that some neighborhoods worked better than others. He ended up designing his own “playborhood,” and the kids started coming. That’s leadership by vision rather than reaction. It helps people move forward to a better place.
We just celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. day. King is a great example of leadership by vision. In the 1950s South, there were a lot of things that people could react to with passivity, anger, or violence. It would have been very easy and understandable to simply react to the injustices that were going on.
However, King did not want people to simply react to the wrongs. He wanted to build a different type of community where everyone was valued and received the care and help they needed. He called this “the beloved community.” He said in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech:
I have a dream that one day down in Alabama with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, one day right down in Alabama little Black boys and Black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today.
Notice that he didn’t ignore the wrongs. He confronted them. But he also had a positive vision of where he wanted the community to be.
This vision of the goal led him to select the means. He realized that passivity and acquiescence would not get them there. They had to confront injustice for the good of the community. “The way of acquiescence leads to moral and spiritual suicide.” He also realized that violence would not bring about this community. “The way of violence leads to bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.” So, what to do? “But the way of nonviolence leads to redemption and the creation of the beloved community” (134). So, he organized nonviolent protests to draw attention to the injustices and call for change. It was the vision that compelled him forward and helped him lead a nation to a better place.
Developing a Vision
If we are going to lead well, we need to have clarity on where we are leading people. Think of someone you’d like to be in a better place: a child, a parent, a congregation, a teacher, a husband, a wife, a friend. Now, imagine that person said to you, “I want to become exactly the sort of person that you want me to be. What does that like look like?” What would you tell them? Could you tell them anything? If you don’t have the clarity to tell them where they should be, then how will they have clarity on it? If you can’t explain the vision, how will they get the vision?
But how do you get clarity on your vision? You have to think about it and work on it. You have to take some time for reflection. You can do this by taking a walk, making some notes, or talking it over with a friend. But if you are going to lead, you’ve got to get clarity on where you are leading people.
Once you have clarity on your vision, then you can begin to pray and work for this vision. An example of this is what the missionary Paul said in the first century to the church he started in Philippi:
And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.
Paul had a bold vision for the people of Philippi to grow in love informed by wisdom that would be effective and make an impact on the world. This vision informed Paul’s communication, and it informed his prayers. That’s what a vision can do for us, too.
For me, part of my vision is to help people become people of strong faith in God. I believe that this is foundational to developing human well-being and potential. So, the question is, how do I get them there?
That’s what I want to talk about in my next post on leadership, getting clarity on the path. If you want to read it, you can subscribe to this blog by scrolling down (phone) or in the right hand column (laptop). I would also love to hear your comments, stories, or questions about leadership. Please comment below to share your thoughts.