Leadership d’hôte

People don’t directly confront me often, so I typically remember when they do. One of those moments happened a few years ago when I was volunteering with a campus ministry. I had a variety of responsibilities, but some things just seemed like a waste of my time. Some other events were just far outside my comfort zone. But after a few months, the leader invited me to meet with her at a local café. She told me that she appreciated my efforts, but that I had to make a decision. Leadership, she said, was not a buffet that I could choose from. Picking and choosing how we lead limits how effective we are. So if I wanted to continue volunteering, I needed to accept that I might need to do things I didn’t want to do. I responded by moving on from that organization, but that conversation has stuck with me.

I remembered that lesson as I was reading Words of Radiance. Dalinar Kholin is one of the princes in Brandon Sanderson’s epic fantasy novel. Early in the series he considers giving up his throne as he fears that he cannot be the leader his people need. A week after first revealing his intentions, he again meets with his sons in a private conference. His sons are against the abdication and Adolin complains that he doesn’t want to be prince yet. Wise Dalinar responds simply, “Leadership is rarely about what we want.” He goes on to lament the fact that too few of the other princes recognize that. It’s been a hard lesson for me, too.

Dalinar is saying the same thing as my friend: sometimes leaders have to do things they wouldn’t choose for themselves. They put the needs of their group ahead of their own personal desires. Like the son in the story, there are a lot of things I’m not sure I want to give up, and some things I’ve been reluctant to take up. But as a husband and father, my choices are not just my own anymore. Those titles come with responsibilities that can’t be turned on and off whenever it seems convenient for me. It’s a full package that requires total commitment.

I’ve resisted acknowledging that obligation for a long time because I was afraid of forcing my will upon my family. But I’m learning that isn’t what good leadership does. Being a leader is not about getting what you want for yourself. It’s about serving your group in the ways they need so that everyone can have the best shot at accomplishing the collective goals. To be the best leader for my family, I first have to be willing to accept that I am that leader. Resisting that idea simply because I don’t want to lead seems extremely selfish when I consider that it could be holding us all back from our potential.

The truth is that leadership begins by putting others ahead of personal wants.


Focus on Your Fortune

There is an ancient parable that starts with a landowner hiring some workers for his vineyards. He hires the first group at dawn and they reasonably agree to work for a denarius (usual daily wage). After they’ve started, the owner realizes he needs more workers, so he goes back into town several more times and hires more workers. He keeps hiring more until there’s only about an hour of daylight left.

When the work is done, he calls them back from the vineyard and begins to pay them. The newest workers are first in line, and they receive a denarius each. Seeing this, the early hires expect to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. Obviously this was unfair because they had worked many hours, but they were now being treated as equal to the ones hired last.

The owner responds that it is his money, and he can pay whatever he wants. Further, they had gotten exactly what they had agreed upon, so they have no reason to complain. Until recently, the owner’s logic made a lot of sense to me. I didn’t think much about the workers because they were clearly wrong to complain. But a few months ago I found myself in their shoes.

Red vineyards

I had been working at the same job for about 3 years when I found out I would be getting a bigger raise that year. I had gotten a 2% raise each of the previous year, but this one was going to be 7%. I was excited. Until I realized the minimum wage was being increased so I would be making the same as new hires. I was unexcited.

Robin Hobb deftly captures the mood I imagine those ancient workers had, because it’s what I felt. Assassin’s Apprentice is framed as the earliest memories of a boy who suddenly found himself to be a prince. An early scene involves a stable boy  who is upset because the prince has been given special training and a horse from the king. Looking back, the older prince writes that he heard something more than jealousy in the servant’s tone. “I have since come to know that many men always see another’s good fortune as a slight to themselves.”

For me, that meant each time a new worker came into my office, I felt something more personal than simple jealousy. I felt like management was saying that my years of dedication and experience apparently meant nothing. When I saw how fortunate others were, there was a part of me that felt disrespected. And because of that perceived snub, I was less thankful than I had been for smaller raises in the past. My bosses, just like the king and landowner, were in reality just being  generous. But I lost sight of that as I was looking at the good luck of those around me.

The truth is that it is much harder to be grateful when you focus on the good things received by others.

Right Choices

Last week I took a standardized civil service exam and was reminded how much I dislike the tests. Specifically I dislike the instructions that direct examinees to “choose the best answer.” Sometimes that means none of the answers are right and you have to guess which one the Test thinks is best. Or maybe worse, sometimes multiple answers are correct, but you again have to choose the one you think the Test prefers. Effectively this means you can be penalized for choosing correct responses, if they aren’t also the best. I wonder if part of my current compulsion to make perfect choices can be traced back to these tests that were so prevalent in my developmental years.

testtrailsAs frustrating as they may be though, those bad questions may be a better representation of real life. Life is not simple enough to always have four clear options with one obvious best answer. On the positive side, there are many times when more than one acceptable solution exists, but you’ll rarely be punished as long as the one you choose works. There are also times when no options seem like a good choice and we have to choose what we think is best. Just like most tests, ignoring the problem completely is often graded the same as the worst answer.

Trying to successfully navigate situations that have no apparent way out can feel impossible, especially for a perfectionist. While reading The Black Prism by Brent Weeks, I found a simple family mantra that might help me move when I feel paralyzed by tough situations. “When you don’t know what to do, do what’s right and do what’s in front of you. But not necessarily what’s right in front of you.” It’s short, simple and has a catchy ending that helps you remember the whole thing.rightchoicestext

Do what’s right: I don’t think this means make the correct choice, but the one that is in line with your morals. I wear an engineer’s ring that reminds me of the Obligation I took that includes such phrases as “I pledge to practice integrity and fair dealing, tolerance and respect,” and “I shall participate in none but honest enterprises.” It’s a daily reminder that ethical choices matter. So when you don’t know what to do, choose the path that leads to truth, honor, and justice. Commit to pure and commendable endeavors. Take actions that will support those things you find that are excellent and worthy of praise.

Do what’s in front of you: This is even simpler to explain, but not always easier. Remember that Robert Frost poem about the fork in the road? He stood a long time, looking down both paths to where they bent. He couldn’t tell where either would lead, but eventually he had to choose to leave the fork. It’s easy sometimes to try to see several steps ahead and map out consequences and contingencies, but eventually we have to move. We move from where we are now, not from where we might be later. Focus on the opportunities actually available to you. You can’t do what you can’t do.

Not necessarily what’s right in front of phil4.8you: Choosing a thing just because it is the easiest or most apparent option usually isn’t the best.  Tests and life alike will include tricks and traps to distract you from more rewarding alternatives. Check your perspective to make sure you’ve seen all of the possible opportunities. Take the necessary time to assess the rightness of the paths before you. Then do what you think and feel is best.

The truth is that  correct and  right are not always the same.

Perfect Choices

I have found the silver lining of job searches. So far no job to show for it, but working through lists of sample interview questions has increased my self-awareness and allowed for growth that might not have otherwise happened. One question that appears frequently on these lists is “What is your greatest weakness.” This is supposed to give the interviewers an idea of both your weakness and steps you’ve taken to overcome it. Saying things like “I’m a perfectionist”, or “I work too hard” may be even worse than admitting to alcoholism because those don’t show any depth and can appear dishonest and braggy.

But my greatest weakness actually is related to trailmarkerperfectionism, so this has forced me to spend a lot of time thinking about how to cope with, and talk about, it. For me, perfectionism manifests as a compulsion to be right. That means making the right choices and knowing the right answers. I’m not sure why, but I find it nearly impossible to separate being wrong with the feelings of failure and shame. To protect myself, I will prepare as much as I can before committing to any action or answer. Actually, practicing interview questions is a real example of me trying to be prepared for every possible scenario so that I don’t say something wrong and ruin another opportunity.

This is healthy, in moderation. It is good to be prepared. It is not good to spend so much time preparing that you miss other opportunities. Early in my marriage, I would sometimes spend hours trying to come up with the perfect words to say, but that isn’t what was needed. My wife needed a fluid conversation, not just one or two well-crafted sentences. In writing my dissertation and this blog, I have wasted weeks trying to make perfection where it wasn’t needed. Even things as small as getting a new pair of shoes has stretched over the course of months as I tried to find just the right pair. Looking back, they seem insane, but I also know that they could happen again.

I have gained some control over this by establishing deadlines for myself, hopefully with consequences that also tie into my pride. This lets me gather information to make a decision, but forces me to act in a reasonable amount of time. This is also helping me accept that sometimes there might not be a singular best answer. As one friend recently said “There are wrong choices but there is also more than one right choice.” I don’t always feel as confident, but actively making any choice usually feels better than none, especially in conversations.

riverAnother aspect of this is displayed in The Black Prism by Brent Weeks. An early scene describes a boy floating down a river on his back. The river is slow enough that he can steer himself, but he has decided to let the water direct his path for now. Ahead he sees something that interests him and he has to make a choice quickly. Will he get out here or wait for somewhere else to get out. As the current carries him, he wisely recognizes “No decision was a decision.” By not deciding to get out here, he was deciding to get out later. The same is true for our lives. We can choose to let the river of life guide us, or we can try to steer ourselves against the current. Right or wrong, both are choices.

The truth is that waiting to make the perfect choice can make us miss perfectly good options.

Tis But A Scratch

The New Year is supposed to bring new things. It should be a time to start fresh and embrace new opportunities. It’s a time to look ahead and refresh your outlook on life. Except it doesn’t always do those things. This New Year, I was really looking forward to a new career. That would also mean better insurance, a car that actually runs, a more regular schedule, and plenty of other benefits.

But so far that hasn’t happened. I thought it might a few weeks ago. I had an interview with an engineering company that did a lot of things I’m interested in. I thought the interview was going really well, but then halfway through the interview, the group told me they weren’t actually hiring yet.

disappointedI was crushed. Another opportunity ripped away from me, and there wasn’t anything I could do about it. Or anything I could have done differently to prevent it. On top of a lot of other situations (that the job would have helped mitigate), it seemed like there was no possible way to get a win.

A week later I was reading Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World. Near the end, some of the characters are starting to feel like I did. They are still running from the evil that has been chasing them for 500 pages. They are exhausted from their travels, and are beginning to doubt how much further they can go. That’s when one of the leaders gives tIt's only a flesh wound.his message to his companions. “We are alive at this moment, and before us is the hope of remaining alive. Do not surrender before you are beaten.”

As I reflected on those words later, I was encouraged. Lan, the warrior who spoke those words, was right. We have to keep pressing on, even if our actions seem futile at the time. Even if we’re not sure what’s coming next. As long as we keep striving, there is hope for improvement. We must not give up, no matter how bleak our situation appears. There are obstacles, and it is wise to acknowledge them because we may be able to learn from them. But we must not give in to them. There is hope ahead.

And, as my wife kindly reminds me, there is hope here. Despite all of the setbacks now, it is still not an impossible situation. We are not beaten, even if it feels that way some days. So I will not surrender to the feeling of futility that haunts me. I will keep pressing forward and look for new opportunities. Somewhere ahead I still believe there is a career for me. I just have to keep moving long enough to get there.

The truth is that defeats do not equal death, so no amount of setbacks can prevent all future possibilities.

When Should Isn’t Good

If I were a hobbit, I would not be considered an adult until I turned 33. I do not live in a fantasy world though, so I have to face the realities of being an adult. Many aren’t nearly as fun as Second Breakfast sounds. I recently saw an article posted by Business Insider that listed some of those realities and tried to explain why people in my age group might be miserable. One could reasonably summarize the article using the formula: eq1When reality doesn’t measure up to our expectations, we are left feeling like things aren’t the way they should be. The article says that many of these higher-than-reality expectations come from social media where successful people present an inflated version of their success, and struggling people often stay silent. This causes a bias in what we see others our age doing, and it is easy to feel like we should be doing the same. Additionally, new television shows portray themselves as reflecting the struggles of regular people, even if they aren’t. As we absorb more of these images, we may start to believe that they are living life the way it should be, and we are not.

spiralIt’s less frequent than a few years ago, but I still worry sometimes if I’m being an adult right. A few weeks ago my wife and I had nachos for dinner. They were quick and tasty after a hard day, but the experience was tainted a little by a voice in my head that said “this isn’t what real adults do.” And then immediately, “those aren’t the kinds of thoughts you should have.”Then that spirals out of control until no thought seems good.

The scholar Jasnah touches on this in one lesson to her apprentice in Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings. She says that aging, wisdom, and wondering are all synonymous. Part of growing up is being free to question the things you’ve been taught, and then being able to accept the reality that they might be wrong. “There is no greater indication of youth, perhaps, than the desire for everything to be as it should.” In her view, my desire for a “mature meal” would actually be evidence of immaturity.

C.S. Lewis shares a similar thought in one of his essays. “To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in mod1 Corinthians 13:11eration, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But when I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” To him, there is seldom a real difference between the tastes of adults and children.

Both authors teach us to worry less about the way things should be, and to live more in the real moments of our lives. Especially when it comes to being a proper adult. When we use that process with the happiness formula above, we may be able to enjoy more of our lives. Adopting this advice may not be what we should do, but it is what I think I want to do.

The truth is that we can miss moments of joy when we focus on what we think should be instead of what is.

Ordinary Heroes

When I was in high school, my band director took some of the older kids to a band leadership conference. This was the first of several times hearing one of Dr. Tim Lautzenheiser’s talks on being an effective leader. Much of his delivery seemed over-the-top, and frankly distracting from his message, but one lesson did manage to make it through to me that day. He told a story about how when he was new to high school band, he aspired to be like the cool, senior drummer. The older boy was a great musician and had lots of friends, so young Tim started doing everything he could to emulate him. Everything. When he saw that his role model was skipping class to smoke, he knew that’s what he wanted to do. I think it turned out that years later the older guy regretted leading him into that habit, but I may have made that part up. What I do remember clearly are the questions he asked after that story. Who are your role models? Do they know it? And perhaps most importantly, are you someone’s role model right now?

So for the last half-of-my-life years, I have tried to live as though anyone may be following my lead whether I know it or not. As I write I’m now realizing that this precept may have contributed to my overly-conservative nature and tendency of avoiding risks as often as possible. After all, if you know someone is looking up to you, shouldn’t you do your best to not let them down? But I started to write this for a different surprise. radarpotterI got a letter in the mail this week that contained these words: “You have always been my biggest hero and role model.” I’ve tried to live my life as though someone was looking to me for guidance, but I never expected to get a letter telling me someone was. Especially from the person who sent it, since I know they’ve  seen some of my faults.

This surprise is mirrored in Brandon Sanderson’s Steelheart. David Charleston had spent years gathering information about the villains who have taken over his city. When the rebel team known as the Reckoners came to town, David fought to join them. He had idolized them since his youth, and now he was able to be a part of their team. It isn’t exactly what he expected though. “It was bizarre to see them as people. A part of me was actually disappointed. My gods were regular humans who squabbled, laughed, got on one another’s nerves, and snored when they slept.” It turned out that the Reckoners are actually like me, and most of us probably(whether we know or not). At their core, they are just ordinary people.

The truth is that your flaws don’t disqualify, or exempt, you from being a role model.