Today I’m going to break my basic rule for this blog and spend some time talking about myself, specifically about my experience as a health care chaplain, manager and now executive, working for a very large organization.
I’ve been in positions of leadership in the healthcare industry for twenty-one years now and have enjoyed more than my share of successes, having been privileged to work for two healthcare organizations recognized for being at the top of the field. While with those organizations I’ve managed workplace communities that have been noted for their outstanding employee engagement, cohesiveness, and effectiveness.
Now, as expansive and extraverted as I am, I spend little time talking about my personal successes. I am regularly chided by my colleagues for deflecting compliments.
I find it a lot easier to talk about what other people are doing right, or what “we” did that was so outstanding than to talk about myself.
Some of that is surely a little neurotic, but I have come to believe that a significant factor is simply that it is true.
And if there is any “secret” to my success in leading a very large community of highly effective, diverse and professionally credentialed ministers then it is just this. I know that no one gets anything done by themselves. No one.
There are some jobs in which people are required to rely on significantly fewer individuals to get from idea to design to implementation to utilization, and to a sale or a salary. Nevertheless, everybody, without exception, relies on somebody else. It is amazing what kind of difference that can make once we accept and integrate that knowledge into our practice of leadership.
Now for the three must-haves.
Must-Have # 1: Experience
The first of these is experience. In order to become an effective leader you must have experience. You can’t become a great leader by reading about it- as a matter of fact, the world is full of books and articles, blogs, videos and audio resources about leadership.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that great leaders must have gray hairs. I am saying that nothing substitutes for experience. Find ways to put yourself into the position to lead, even if it is leading a pee wee league baseball team. I take that back. You may want to start with a less difficult challenge.
I’m also a big fan of established leaders getting experience in situations that are outside their comfort zone. I was an assistant coach for a girl’s fast pitch softball team. I was also a volunteer worship leader in a women’s prison while working as director of chaplains. Those are just a couple of uncomfortable but invaluable experiences that have added to my understanding of leadership.
In those settings I did not just learn about leading from the front. I also learned some invaluable lessons about what it means to be a team member. I got a much more specific experience about what it is to have responsibility without authority. In the prison I learned about the nerve-wracking price one can pay for not providing clear structure and expectations.
I’m often surprised at the number of people who think that leadership is a privilege conferred for having a degree or for having demonstrated expertise in a given area of knowledge. More now than ever, people who are interested in leadership must be willing to expose themselves to a variety of experiences so that they can develop the range of skills needed for effective leadership.
Must-Have #2: Failure
One of the most important lessons I ever learned was when I resigned my second job as a pastor. I fired myself because I thought I was not measuring up. The trouble was that no one came along to do it any better and the church start I fired myself from dissolved after I left it. If anyone had told me that I was destined to fail many times after that first time, I probably would have given up work and tried to make a go of it living in a cave.
This past year I received one of the most meaningful compliments of my professional life, from a long time colleague and friend . . . someone I look up to.
Here it is.
“Mark,” he told me, “you have laid some pretty big eggs (not his exact words) but what has always amazed me is your ability to clean up the mess and to learn something from it. I think that is why people have forgiven you so much.”
I know exactly what my friend was talking about. And I am incredibly grateful that I’ve had the chance to fail so many times. In my book, anything worth doing is worth doing badly. Give yourself a chance to fail today. Tomorrow you will have become a little better at it and you can dive in, ready to fail again until you succeed.
That is really the heart of the gospel. There is Grace in this world- no pun intended- but that divine appointment can only come to us if we are willing to risk failure. We will never enjoy the freedom to succeed until we take seriously God’s explicit permission to fail.
Must-Have #3: Ability to Learn From Experience
My friend was right about my having been forgiven many times. The individuals who have taken a chance on me by hiring me to work with them and those who have taken a chance on me by hiring on to work with me have forgiven me far more than they should have.
I consider it a sacred obligation to attempt to learn as much as I can from each and every failure as well as every success that comes my way. When I study the life of King David I see in him a profound sense of trust in others and awareness of the trust they placed in him. That capacity is what made it possible for him to learn from his mistakes.
No one can trust people who are always right. No leader deserves loyalty who is more interested in looking good than in learning something and helping others to learn something crucial from their experience.
A couple of months ago I listened to Jim Collins, author of GOOD TO GREAT and a half-dozen other books, talk about this last quality. He stated that what makes great leaders is not charisma or public speaking ability or awe-inspiring personal competence. Great leaders have come in every personality type imaginable from shy and reclusive to bombastic and everything in between.
What makes leaders great is their focused, some might even say obsessive, desire to learn from everything that happens in their spheres of interest.
I said there were three must-haves but I surely don’t believe they are all-inclusive. I’d love it if you commented with one or two competencies that you think effective leaders ought to possess.