We often think of a calling as a job that doesn’t make much money but has public benefit. Ministers, teachers, social workers, artists of all kinds, as if this work should be done without pay precisely because of its intrinsic lack of self-interest. You know what I mean: a Vocation, capital V. Maybe the sort of thing responsible, practical parents try to talk their child out of because the chances of big success are slim: rock guitarist, dancer, pro basketball star, art teacher. At it’s core, calling seems to be some kind of powerful, magnetic force, something we are “born” to do or be.
Is there then such a thing as a call to lead — an experience of a “powerful, magnetic force” around the act of breaking down the status quo and bringing on the possibilities?
This is a good question to ponder because it really forces us to differentiate leading from other kinds of action; the pure expression of power, for example, or activism around certain social values, such as equality. Don’t get me wrong, power and values are living aspects of leadership, but I don’t believe they are its essence — they aren’t the call to stand in an exposed place and bring change to the order of things. The call to lead happens especially when this personal stand-taking contains a dose of moral courage or wisdom. Without the moral aspect, the actions might turn out to be a form of heroism or a form of despotism, but they won’t be leadership. The “call” is about stepping out, stepping up, finding the rungs and handholds that enable another person, or a group, or a global tribe, to find its way and know a truer compass. That’s why we expect so much of those we call leaders. They help us mediate our own experience against the complexity and confusions of the world itself.
Universally the call involves the act of stepping into awkward, ambiguous or risky space, breaking an implied or explicit social assumption or rule. Sometimes it’s only a tiny action. Sometimes it’s about changing a whole world.
I remember a time many years ago when I was asked to help a fairly rigid, bureaucratic organization figure out what they wanted to do with their annual employee meeting. A task force had been set up, as had happened for many years, so that the interim president was meeting with a small group of people who represented the various levels and sectors of the organization. Together they would decide. It was another difficult economic times then, just as today, with rumors of layoffs rampant in the hallways. I met with the task force and from the start it was clear people were tense about the upcoming employee meeting. Would I possibly facilitate the event? What should be its theme? they asked. After some polite talk going nowhere around the table, the interim president suggested we do some team building and maybe talk about conflict management at the annual meeting. Nothing magic in those topics and it was easy to see that the president had created more, not less tension with his suggestions to to the other task force members. Finally, a small voice from someone who identified herself as an “office assistant” for one of the departments came forward. “Why don’t we use the annual meeting to talk about the upcoming layoffs?” she asked.
Next came one of those soundless but deafening thuds as “the wrong idea” hits the floor. People sat mostly with eyes down, from time to time checking in on the the interim president by glancing sideways at him.
“Well,” he said after a moment of thought, “I’m not sure that’s a good idea. For one thing, no one knows for sure what’s going to happen. It’s possible that there will be some layoffs, but then again this could all blow over. I don’t want to scare people.”
Again silence, with people probably contemplating the many rumors about how the place would soon be “gutted” by terminations. The interim president’s face was set. He had just voiced a diplomatic “No” in a way that left no question whether the office assistant’s suggestion should still be on the table. But she spoke up again, quietly, looking at him. “We’re already scared,” she said.
The HR Director, also at the table, looked particularly nervous. Part of the rumor mill included how the interim president had already directed him to offer training to key managers on how to conduct layoffs, although nothing was yet being said about that publicly. Finally, the office assistant spoke one last time, quiet, calm, and respectful: “I think it would really help people if we could just talk about it.”
The outcome is that we had a very successful day-long, all employees retreat, including an in-depth discussion of the organization’s current situation, its protocols for layoffs, when people would know for sure whether layoffs would happen, likely scenarios for what groups would be most affected, how decisions of who goes and who stays would be made, and other issues of vital concern. While some of the news was painful, there was also a sense of relief. And there were many accolades at the end of the day for the interim president for being straightforward and open, even though in the moment some of the discussions had been emotional. I swear there were points when I could hear the HR Director’s knees knocking.
Ah, but the moral of the story is the call, you see. What was it that called that office assistant in the moment to make her suggestions, to break that rule about who speaks up and who doesn’t and about what? The task force had been filled with people who clearly had more organizational stature and power, but she was the one who led.
I’m not sure we will ever know how to define a leader except by patterns of behavior, by sequences of moments in which a person consistently steps into difficult space because of the call. But whether it is a single moment, only one in a person’s life, or many tied together that become the honored reputation of a person, again and again it seems to me it comes down to that powerful, magnetic force that encourages someone to stand up in his or her own life. Because I’ll tell you what, once that “office assistant” spoke to the task force, there was not a doubt in anyone’s mind which way we ought to go.
What a lucky organization to have her there.