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Posted March 22, 2010

Book: Faith-Based Reflections on American Life
Author: William Byron, S.J. [Book already quoted and on website]

A Column by Byron from the book:

One way to stop a business leader, or any other kind of leader, in his or her tracks, say consultants Robert Goffee and Gareth Jones, is to ask: “Why should anyone be led by you?” That question is the title of an article these observers wrote for the Harvard Business Review in the year 2000.

“Without fail,” says the authors, “the response is a sudden, stunned hush. All you can hear are knees knocking.”

The question is a good one to put to anyone in a leadership position. How would a school principal answer, a college dean or president, or an elected official, a military officer, a cardinal, bishop or pastor? How about the “head of a household,” a teacher, a coach? The reply has to be something more substantial than, “I’ve been assigned,” or “I won the election,” or “I own the business.” Leadership implies voluntary followership. If you’re the leader, why should I follow?

Goffee and Jones give a backward glance through history and acknowledge that there have been widely accepted leadership traits and styles. But they change over time. Today, they argue, the times call for leadership that displays the following four qualities:

Leaders should let their weaknesses be known. By exposing a measure of vulnerability, they make themselves approachable and show themselves to be human.

Inspirational leaders trust their intuitive ability to set the course and decide when the timing is right.

They display “tough empathy,” meaning that they empathize realistically with people and also care “intensely” about the work employees do.

They capitalize on what sets them apart, on what is unique about themselves.

These leadership qualities are right for our times because leadership today, say these authors, has to adapt to “endless contingencies” while making decisions suited to a particular sitiuation. They have to be “good situation sensors [able to] collect and interpret soft data.”

I was impressed about thirty years ago when I heard Dennis Goulet, of the University of Notre Dame, remark that to be effective, a leader has to be “available, accountable, and vulnerable.” I thought then and continue to believe these three qualities are completely Christian in orientation and uncommonly valuable for anyone courageous enough to adopt them as personal leadership characteristics. Don’t bet, however, that they will appear in the next “Jesus as CEO” book.

Decades ago Dwight D. Eisenhower explained that, “the President does not lead by hitting people over the head. Any damn fool can do that. . .Leadership is by persuasion, education, and patience. It is long, slow, tough work.” Eisenhower also defined leadership as “the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.” If Ike possessed the “sensor” that Goffee and Jones say belongs in today’s leadership tool kit, he would make that, “he or she wants to do it.” But aside from that, not much else in leadership literature seems all that new.

Why should knees knock when a leader is asked, “Why should anyone be led by you?” If the so-called leader has specialized in unavailability, unaccountability, and presumed invulnerability, the question could be quite discomforting. Any leader who doesn’t see leadership as “long, slow, tough work” will surely be stopped or stunned by the question.

Those in leadership positions should be wise enough to ask themselves why they are there. And those who constitute the followership can exercise their own quiet leadership by raising that question ever so gently whenever the opportunity occurs.