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A Delicate Tension – 7 Times Leadership is at Its Best

In my opinion, there are times when my leadership is better than others. I call them seasons. Seasons come and seasons go. Obviously, I would love for all of my seasons of leadership to be wonderful, but I have learned this isn’t realistic.

What I have observed is when leadership is at it’s best there is a delicate tension in place. The better the season the better I and balancing those tensions.

Let me share a few examples to describe what I mean.

Here are 7 times leadership is at its best when:

People follow willingly, not under coercion or force.

You aren’t leading unless people are following. We can find examples of people who did exactly what someone told them – yet, it wasn’t done willingly. The best leadership has willing participants – personally energized towards the vision.

There have been times I’m having to force things because of someone who isn’t pulling their weight. There are other times I’ve been guilty of trying to take people somewhere they had no interest in going.

People can keep up, but are still being stretched.

There is nothing worse than a leader who is too far ahead of the people he or she is trying to lead. Have you ever tried to follow someone in a car? Some people are good at leading you – some aren’t. But the best leadership is always taking you somewhere – somewhere you haven’t been before – stretching you towards something new. It’s a delicate tension between two extremes, but if one can’t follow another isn’t leading.

For me personally on this one, I have to discipline myself – and give my team permission to speak into my leadership – to keep from having too many ideas and not enough implementation.

People feel valued, while being challenged to continually improve.

This is a tough one for me. I’m wired for improvement. I’m a development guy. I’m seldom completely satisfied – especially with my own efforts. So, I want to continually challenge people to get better – for their good but also for the good of the team. But you can only push people so much. Ephesians 6 gives this warning to fathers of children. Sometimes as leaders we can push too hard – and frustrate the people we are trying to lead. We can make people feel we don’t appreciate what they are currently doing.

Again, this is a tough one for me to balance.

People are assigned to their specific passion, but readily do what needs to be done.

I learned this in church planting. We needed people just to do what needed to be done. We didn’t have enough people to “specialize”. I think the workplace is becoming a prime place for generalization today. People who succeed can adapt and “play” in different positions.

And, yet we also have learned that people are less likely to burnout and more likely to be passionate for their work if the work fits within who they are and how they are uniquely wired.

One way I try to personally balance this one is to place people into a position where they can “mostly” employ their individual gifting, but make sure they realize they will have to do some things they may not be as passionate about doing. And I tend to hire people as generalists and move them more into a specialist role as the organization can afford them and we have learned where they can best serve.

People have a clearly defined vision, but have freedom to invent and dream along the way.

This one is especially true for creative people – and I’m finding it true of younger generations. They need clear boundaries – clear instructions – they need to know what a win looks like. But they also need freedom within those boundaries to create – to explore – to dream – and to fail.

For this one, I try to have a few – really very few – non-negotiable things we want to achieve – the overall vision of who we are and what we are trying to accomplish currently and organizationally as a whole. When those are being met I try to be flexible in how people meet them – and where else they stretch us as a team.

People have real responsibility and authority, but don’t feel abandoned.

Delegation is a key to good leadership, but healthy delegation does not dump and run. There are adequate resources, feedback and accountability. People feel free to do their work without someone looking over their shoulder, but they know help is always nearby if needed.

Again, there is a delicate balance here. The main way to accomplish this one (learned the hard way and I talk about it in my book The Mythical Leader) is to assign a task, but continually ask good questions to assess progress and see where I might help. Asking, “How can I help you?” – and creating a culture where it feels okay to answer honestly – goes a long ways towards making people feel the care they deserve and the freedom they desire.

People take time to rest and celebrate, but aren’t allowed to sit still for long.

Sitting leads to complacency, boredom and eventually stagnation. And speaking candidly it drives me crazy to sit. Something inside of me screams we can’t sit still for long when there is so much which needs to be done. But the tension is we need to celebrate. And we definitely need to rest. That is even a command. Resting is good for the soul even more than the body sometimes.

Done well, celebration and rest should fuel us to be even more productive. We can accomplish more if we encourage both.

Do you see the tension? It’s real. And if you’re a leader you live these tensions everyday. As leaders we must guard the extremes.

Praying with you!

I started this post talking about the “seasons” of leadership. I need to recognize that sometimes the season is dictated by external circumstances. When a leader is new, in times of tragedy, or when there are people on the team who are severely underperforming would be an example of those times. These times may call for an “unbalanced” style of leadership – using the examples above.

In “normal” times – live the tension.


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Ron Edmondson

Author Ron Edmondson

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Join the discussion 10 Comments

  • jimpemberton says:

    Great list!

    I would add that leadership is at its best when you have sustainable turnover. That is, you will have people who are growing enough to either move up in the organization or moving out as they take on their own leadership roles elsewhere. Also, realistically, you may have people who need to be cut loose because they don't contribute well to the team or the vision. This is a healthy if uncomfortable thing. As people move, they usually need to be replaced. If you have a team that stays as it is for too long, at least a couple of problems develop: first, it reflects a stagnant vision. Second, it becomes increasingly difficult for the team to replace people because the team becomes too used to doing things one way.

  • Matthew Reed says:

    People follow when leaders are known, liked and trusted.

  • Shari R says:

    7 great points.
    "What would you add?"
    People are able to speak honestly with their leader and know they've been heard and understood.

  • Steph says:

    Yes! (x7).

  • Good post. Thanks for sharing. It is great when people follow because they are naturally attracted to the leader.
    Blessings, Deborah H. Bateamn-Author