Should I Stay or Should I Go?

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A former British Prime minister observed: “The price of greatness is responsibility.“ Today the number one political leader of the country had his last say. What a fall from grace, after the resounding and unexpected victory of the last general election.

Ironically, he pulled the trigger on the bullet that actually finished his political career. Looking at his decision to step aside, it brings back to the forefront that pivotal leadership issue: when is it right to fight and cling on and when is it right to step aside. This will always be a tricky issue for any leader.

There is no formula, but there are at least two key leadership issues that determines the right attitude.

Haughtiness versus humility. Leaders will almost always find defeats disappointing. Yet a good leader will discern whether they were the cause of the defeat or the redeemer of that defeat. Not all mistakes are an immediate cause for retreat and often the leader in question might be best placed to rebuild after the mess. There is humility in stickability. Other times, the humble thing is to step aside. A good leader will look in the mirror and evaluate ruthlessly. They will chose respectable critics and weigh-up the criticism and give someone else the chance to build again.

Courage versus convenience. Rebuilding after failure is messy. The outcome will be unknown and there are no guarantees that one’s reputation might be salvaged. Dealing with criticism and even a healthy dose of doubt, can be crippling. Sometimes, the easiest route is out. But that isn’t always the most responsible. Healthy leaders undergo an honest soul searching evaluation of their motivation. If they quit because it’s easier, they should also explore a courageous alternative. A good mentor or friend could be useful sounding board in this circumstances.

The truth is that no one, maybe not even the former prime minister, or even his closest confidantes mighty now if this was the right or the wrong leadership ‘move’ or whether the motivation might have been honourable or not. One thing is sure, history and time will be fairer judges of that.

Leaders will always have to make choices. Difficult choices. And those choices determine the quality and longevity of their leadership.

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CELEBRATION OF IMPERFECTION

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Yesterday, as I was carefully mowing the lawn, I kept noticing geranium petals falling on the slightly cleaner mass of green grass (don’t think manicured lawn a la beautiful English estates). A bit frustrating as they seemed like leftovers who were spoiling the work I had done.

I was reminded that this would have been an intentional artefact as part of a zen botanic landscape. Wabi sabi is an ancient aesthetic philosophy rooted in Zen Buddhism, particularly the tea ceremony, a ritual of purity and simplicity in which masters prized bowls that were handmade and irregularly shaped, with uneven glaze, cracks, and a perverse beauty in their deliberate imperfection. The Japanese philosophy celebrates beauty in what’s natural, flaws and all.

Perfectionism is an unattainable pursuit and perfectionists are a pain to live with. Yet often many of us fall into that trap. Some do it out of a sense of insecurity or simply trying to please someone that might never be satisfied anyway.

There is somehow a beautiful freedom in an imperfect life. It gives others permission to be be imperfect too and it is a fertile ground for humility and grace – relying on God rather than ourselves.

I remember reading a story about an old Orthodox senior monk shocking his fellow younger apprentices one evening at the dinner table. The monks would observe very strict dietary fasts that often exclude luxurious items of  food such as sugar, meat and oil. After their prayer before an evening meal as they sat down, the old respected senior monk (starets) pulls a little bottle of oil and uses a tiny drop on the food. As they were all in disbelief, one plucked up the courage and enquired about the apparent ‘faux pas’. The older monk explained how that drop of oil will keep him humble from bragging that he kept the fast with such valiancy.

The apostle Paul battled the frustrating imperfections of his life – yet learned that he was at his strongest in his weakness – utterly dependent on God’s grace.The same is true for me and you…

RETROSPECTIVE LEADERSHIP LESSONS

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The referendum can prove to be redemptive at many levels. My mum had a saying in trying to console me in my teenage years as I was battling the exacerbated angst of injustice everywhere around me (as I was growing up in the context of an emerging democracy, post-communism): ‘you can learn just as much from the negative examples you meet in life – learn how NOT to be.’ Smart advice that can often keep cynicism and bitterness at bay.

Looking back at the political landscape of our country in the last few days, weeks and months – I see some pitfalls that are best avoided in leadership:

  • the negative message and the shouty tone. It seemed like the focus was to feed fears in the two camps and confuse the the undecided even more. That’s both lazy and toxic. Good leaders ought to inspire, looking forward, and do so with a passionate yet gracious and sensitive tones. They need to stop and really listen and make sure that their answer is a reflection of that listening process.
  • the lack of pre-planned strategies after the event. It seemed like they spent so much time and energy in fighting for a result – without having a constructive response to the either outcome. The void that was created gave so much room for infighting and confusion. Good leaders always plan ahead.
  • the lack of redemptive ownership. While one can see the ‘stepping back’ of some of the key players from both camps as a sign of humility, I think it can be the opposite. There is a tendency to run away from the mess – maybe hoping for another chance in the future or trying to do immage damage limitation. Good leaders are always ready to be part of the solution, ready to rebuild in a crisis.
  • the disconnect between grassroots and top end. Politicians often can be trapped in investing more in securing their position and enhancing their image. The day to day constituency work can often seem trivial, frustrating and unnecessary. People become election targets a few times a year and remain a neglected voice the rest of the time. Good leaders are good listeners, ready to see people as THE most important focus of their work.