“…I get to be the leader!… You got to be the leader last time!…No way, its my turn….” Where have you heard those words before? Please don’t answer “In my department” or “During our senior management team meeting!” I would imagine that most of us heard those words when we were kids on the playground, or heard our own kids saying them (or, perhaps we even can remember saying them ourselves). It’s interesting that the driving passion to be a leader is evident even in children and youth. Sometimes you want to interrupt those conversations and say “Hey kids, I am a leader, and trust me, it’s a tough road—stay a follower as long as you can!”
One of the appealing things aspiring young leaders are attracted to is the myth that leaders have power – huge power. They get to call the shots. They can come in when they want, go home when they want and no one challenges them. They get to spend the resources of the company, hire and fire at their discretion – hey, who wouldn’t want that kind of power? So many dream and work towards the goal when someday they will get to rule their own little universe.
One of the sobering lessons of leadership is that yes, leaders have a degree of power, but it is not the raw, despotic power devoid of accountability. In fact, most organizations have more mechanisms to hold leaders accountable, not less don’t they? Leaders also carry a moral obligation to their organizations and their communities to make a positive contribution there. And when it comes to subordinates, there is definitely an aspect of accountability that comes into play. Just talk to any leader whose church or ministry is going through hard times, and they will tell you that the thing that keeps them up at night is worrying about all those who depend upon their decisions for a livelihood. Such is the level of accountability attached to the power of leadership.
A verse from the Old Testament that has been one of my favorites when it comes to framing our leadership—especially the exercise of power—is found in Micah 6:18. “He has shown you, O man, what is good and what it is that the Lord requires of you: To do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly before God.” Justice is about aligning yourself with a set of values that have fairness, kindness, and self sacrifice at their root. Mercy is the posture that puts others first – true servant leadership. Humility is the careful lifestyle of one who knows that the world doesn’t revolve around him, and that there is a greater level of accountability beyond himself.
We do well to remind our students that great leaders are not made that way by the unrestrained use of power, but rather in their responsible use of their role, recognizing that “responsibility is the true price of greatness” (Winston Churchill)