The Unfairness of Leadership

Savage Chickens cartoon by Doug SavageI’ve had my share of bosses over the years. Some were great, some were meh, and some were terrible. Everyone who’s had a boss or manager or authority figure in their life [read: all of us] can probably name why they liked/didn’t like the person in charge. I used to say all of my great bosses had one thing in common: They wouldn’t ask me to do something they weren’t willing to do themselves (or hadn’t already done themselves). Yes, they knew how to delegate. Yes, they expected me to do my job, whether or not I was fond of a particular duty. But when push came to shove and they recognized help was called for, they were willing to roll up their sleeves and work alongside their “minions”.

Oh, so that would be another thing… They wouldn’t think of the people they’re leading as under them. Not minions. Not subordinates. Not peons. They recognized everyone on their team was simply another human being, just like them, and their position was less about power and more about ability and experience. They saw the giftings of each person and knew how to support, encourage, motivate, reward and communicate based on each team member’s personality, all while keeping everything as fair as possible to all. That’s quite a task.

My beloved is one of those kinds of leaders; naturally empathic and good-natured, but with high expectations and completely dedicated to developing his team. He’s been putting in some long, lonely and often frustrating hours setting up a warehouse for one of his company’s most important clients. He does what needs doing, whether or not it’s something other managers would consider beneath them. And that’s why he’s more leader than manager.

Listening to him talk about work, I find myself realizing new things about leadership. Recently, a warehouse employee filled an order wrong – very wrong – and it messed things up for his client’s customer. It was a mistake that was not only embarrassing, but has taken several days to clear up – and to ensure it doesn’t happen again. In talking about the incident and how his bosses would react, I said something to the effect that they would realize he wasn’t to blame for the problem, that they would be fair to him. Then my beloved said something I’ve chewed on ever since our conversation: “It doesn’t matter. It’s my warehouse. I’m responsible for everything we do.”

It reminded me of a time a few years ago when I made a serious mistake at work, a mistake I thought would mean my job. But my boss at the time absorbed it, took the blame for what I had done. I remember my bewildered gratitude. I think it was the first time in my memory anyone had stood in my place to take responsibility for something that was my fault. It was unexpected grace.

Most of my life I have felt ashamed, many times without knowing why. Whenever someone criticizes someone else, I immediately cringe because I connect with the person being criticized – I see it in myself. Being all too conscious of my faults – real or imagined – has made me defensive and ready to disassociate myself with my actions or inactions. I often live under the impossible pressure of wanting everything I do to be perfect, every belief and opinion and expressed thought to be resoundingly right. I want to escape this cloud of condemnation, wherever it came from. I want to be criticism-free – which means I don’t want to own anything. I don’t want responsibility.

At the same time, I want to inspire others. I want to be out in the world, for my words to live in the hearts and minds of others. I want to be in community. I want to create refuges and sanctuaries for the hurting. I want to gather all the people I care about and share in their dreams. Now I want to be a wife and a mother. All things that mean I not only own my life, but I become a keeper for the people around me. I must reconcile this dichotomy.

My beloved’s attitude toward his work inspires me. It reminds me of a perfect G_d who signed both sides of a blood covenant with an imperfect man, knowing the man and his offspring were incapable of fulfilling the covenant. It reminds me this same G_d took full responsibility for that breach of contract, paid the price for its brokenness, and turned that into full restoration. The kind of restoration I need to stand up, punch through that cloud of condemnation, and reconcile my imperfections with my responsibilities.