Leadership and a Painful Economy

Finally, we receive some good news about the U.S. economy. In 2009, U.S. credit card spending dropped to its lowest in 30 years. In addition, the number of individuals in America who are saving money rose to its highest level in 15 years. We finally listened to financial counselors who’ve told us for years we need to stop using so much credit and start saving our money. Hmmm. Why do you suppose we are finally listening to sound financial advice?

That answer is easy. We had to. When it comes to money, Americans have bought into the idea: Play now, pay later. In fact, when it comes to life in general, we’ve lived this way. It is difficult for us to delay gratification. The truth is, it took an economic depression for us to do what’s right. We often learn on a “need to know” basis. We will not embrace discipline or wise counsel unless we simply have to do so.

I remember talking to my doctor years ago, as a young man. I had just been diagnosed with diabetes, and we discussed how careful I would need to be about my circulation and my nerves. If I wasn’t careful my hands and feet would grow numb, and I wouldn’t be able to feel pain. At first that sounded like great news to me, a twenty-something who loved throwing myself into everything headfirst. My doctor explained, however, how much we need to feel pain in order to know something is wrong. If I couldn’t feel pain in my feet, for instance, I could step on a rusty nail and never think to notice. The infection could eventually kill me. Pain is actually our friend. It tells us things we need to know, even if we don’t want to know them.

Our economic downturn has been difficult for millions of Americans. At the same time, it has been the wake-up call many of us needed to begin living the way we should have lived all along. The pain was a reality check.

I believe good leaders do this for their teams. They inflict the good kind of pain that wounds but eventually improves conditions. As Max Dupree wrote, “Leaders define reality” and often furnish reality checks for their organizations. They tell the hard truth that others may be afraid of telling. King Solomon wrote three thousand years ago, that we should welcome the wounds of a friend. Healthy leaders are such friends. They are velvet-covered bricks. Soft and relational on the outside, but tough as a brick on the inside. They are not afraid to face difficult conditions honestly, and see their people through tough times.

Over the last few years, we have been guided by the painful leadership of a bad economy. We need to perceive the good that has come from it, and learn whatever lessons we can. We must welcome the pain as a friend and let it instruct us. We must recognize that the best life is not a life of raw pleasure, but a life of real purpose; a purpose that welcomes hard times, rises above them and learns from them, knowing there is a something more important than being happy and getting my way.

Here’s to listening and learning before we are forced to do so.


Leadership and a Painful Economy