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A Paradox Good Leaders Embrace

Why do intelligent, emotionally healthy people need leaders? Wouldn’t you think that a group of 15 reasonably smart people could figure out the best direction to take without someone telling them?

On paper, this makes sense. It sounds great. It just doesn’t play out in life.

Think about leadership from a philosophical standpoint. People need leaders not because they are stupid. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. It may be because all team members are brilliant that they need leaders. Historically, the primary need for leadership is to galvanize and steer. Leaders galvanize multiple minds and steer multiple gift-sets into one, clear direction.

I remember being on a team several years ago. Everyone on the team was sharp; in fact, most of us had served in leadership roles in the past. We didn’t need a leader for information or inspiration. We all knew as much as our leader did. However, someone needed to step forward and furnish clarity. We needed one clear direction and we needed someone to determine how our talents best fit together. The team members didn’t lack ideas — our problem was we had too many of them. Our leader brought clarity and synthesis.

The first role a leader must embrace is to be the focal point for a season. This doesn’t mean that the cause is all about the leader. (It should never be about the leader.) It means this person must be all right being the point of focus to eradicate sideways energy. Someone has to help people say “no” to the many good things they could do, and “yes” to the one, best thing they could do. Even the most reserved and quiet leaders must initially embrace this attention and prominence.

The journey doesn’t end there, however. If a person has led well, he or she arrives at a destination precisely opposite this initial role. Effective leaders eventually create momentum, then slip into the shadows. They get out of the way of good talent and teamwork. To use a cliché, they work themselves out of a job. They eventually become unnecessary if they have done their job well.

I think of Herb Brooks, the coach of the 1980 U.S. Olympic ice hockey team. He had incredibly talented young players who desperately needed his strength and focus in the beginning. There was too much energy, and egos going in too many directions. In the end, however, once the Americans had won the gold medal, he slipped into a hallway and sat on the floor. He knew the moment was about the team, not him. In reality, it was about something even bigger than the team. That gold medal did something for the U.S. at the time. We defeated the invincible Soviet team. This win caused nationwide morale and hope. David had beaten Goliath. The cause should always be bigger than people.

So, leaders actually embrace 2 paradoxical ideas. First, they must be OK with being the prime focal point. Talent and intelligence need focus. In the end, they must embrace obscurity. They chuck their ego — and point everyone toward the bigger picture. This is a rare paradox — which makes it beautiful when it happens.

Question: Which of these 2 perspectives are most problematic for you?

Tim

3 Comments

  1. Liz on January 17, 2011 at 1:00 pm

    Get behind my ‘vision’ or you won’t be used or even seen in this organization (church) Having the title leader – doesn’t make you a leader.

    • Tim Elmore on January 21, 2011 at 11:16 am

      Liz — It’s true. Just because you have the title “leader” doesn’t mean you are the leader. Appreciate you sharing.

  2. Tim Casteel on January 23, 2011 at 9:52 pm

    Really good post – great definition of the role of a leader.

    I especially liked: “We didn’t need a leader for information or inspiration. . . However, someone needed to step forward and furnish clarity. We needed one clear direction and we needed someone to determine how our talents best fit together.”

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A Paradox Good Leaders Embrace