Is Leadership a Calling?

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.

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  • Aleksandar M. Velkoski wrote:

    Leadership is most definitely a calling! I know so because leadership is my calling (or, at least I would like to think that it is my calling lol). I read a text a few months ago that described how you, as an individual, can find your calling. The author suggested that you take time to understand your natural talents, skills, and abilities. That which you determine is a strong, natural, talent, and is something you are interested in and excites you, is likely that which embodies your calling.

  • Aleks

    I agree that leading certainly can be a calling that is embodied by other aspects of who a person is. I have a friend who moves very easily and with the support of others toward a leadership role, no matter what group she finds herself within. It’s possible to talk about her qualities of temperament and the knowledge she exhibits, but I think these are secondary to a refined sense of inner direction that she expresses, moment to moment, standing in what for others might be awkward space. Even when she mindfully decides to take some other role than that of the leader, there seems to be a certain “gravity” that returns her to the thing she loves the best.

    Claude Lévi-Strauss, the famous structural anthropologist, commented in his memoir, Tristes Tropiques, that “chiefs exist because, in every human group, there are [those] who differ from their fellow-beings in that they like prestige for its own sake, are attracted by responsibility and for whom the burden of public affairs brings its own reward.” I would add that the act of leading is not limited to people who feel called to certain social roles — chief, president, boss — but who are drawn to the act of leading, the moment of truth itself, sometimes perhaps even with a sense of reluctance. There is a call to leadership there, as well, perhaps the more important for its lack of dependence on social rank or formal power.

    Thanks for stopping by, my friend.

  • This is a fabulously crafted posting Dan, with compelling ideas about leadership that could still seem much larger than life for most of us until you tell a story that we can all easily place ourselves into. Indeed, your heroine did answer her calling, and her story challenges us to really think about how many times our inner call might be silently voiced in our self-talk each day without us choosing to act on it.

    As you know, I fervently believe that conventional hierarchal leadership in organizations requires a strong calling, a visionary and meaningful one that refuses to take no for an answer. If we allow it to die (i.e. be silenced,) part of us will die along with it, and we work without our true Ho‘ohana [intention for worthwhile work] in that organizational context. We may never realize the full potential we have in our capacity for leadership should the calling part of it remain unanswered.

    I am so with you on this: “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.” So while it is absolutely true that “Sometimes [the call of leadership] is only a tiny action” and most of us must start there, I personally want this one in our workplaces today: “Sometimes it’s about changing a whole world.”

    Capitalist that I am, choosing to dwell in the art and science of it all, I want business to be more courageous and much more relevant. I want business to be useful to our communities, and fulfilling to all of our stakeholders, not just some of them. And you can bet that I want leadership and management to both be callings and nothing but.

  • Rosa, your voice is clear and proud and exactly exemplifies this act of standing up in one’s own life. Thank you for this voice and your powerful message. It’s always a privilege to have your comments here.

  • Thanks for posting your article Dan – I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

    I’m a project manager and certainly see leadership as a calling as part of my role. A wise man once told me that project management is “the ability to make the difficult happen”. This certainly requires leadership.

    Again, thanks for posting. I look forward to reading more of your work.

  • Warwick

    “The ability to make the difficult happen” — nice phrase, and I’d say sometimes leadership also involves inviting the easy to happen!

    Best to you and thanks for stopping by.

  • Aleksandar M. Velkoski wrote:

    What a great way to put it: “the act of leading is not limited to people who feel called to certain social roles — chief, president, boss — but who are drawn to the act of leading, the moment of truth itself, sometimes perhaps even with a sense of reluctance.” That, in my opinion, is exactly what a calling in leadership is about. I’ve been drawn to social roles for a long time, sure, but it goes much deeper than that for me. I’m drawn to making a difference. I’m drawn to lifting people up. I’m drawn to helping others achieve their goals and objectives in life. I’m drawn to teaching. And, I’m drawn to wisdom and intellect.

  • Thanks for coming back, Aleks. I love these words: “I’m drawn to making a difference. I’m drawn to lifting people up.” They contain real energy — the stuff that propels us into those “moments of truth” where genuine leadership is possible. Best to you.

  • I agree that leadership can be a calling linked to openly expressing in a honest way the challenges the team faces. I once lead a local school board. We faced some real challenges, with leadership and management within the school. I remember a very depressing board meeting in which we didn’t know which way to go. From somewhere I said “If we make some changes (which I won’t detail here) then this could be one of the best schools in the areas. All of a sudden the whole atmosphere in the meeting changed and everyone got on with the changes we had to make. Now 3-years later the school is one of the best in the area. Not sure where the leadership came from, it just emerged. As you say a callling.

  • Paul, thanks for your comment. I always enjoy stories like the one your share — when the room changes because of an honest moment. It sounds like yours were exactly the right words to spark the group’s ability to come together. That notion of not knowing “where the leadership came from” is also a great thought. It speaks to real openness, when a potential emerges through us as much as because of us.

  • Leadership is definitely a calling, but even when you answer the call, it can be quite scary.

    I am both a minister and a corporate trainer/consultant. In both roles, I am in a position to give advice to others. Sometimes my self doubts surface and then I have to do some mental house cleaning in order to be able to be effective in each role. I usually wrestle with the doubts, say positive affirmations, pray for success (I am a minister, after all), and then remember those times in my past when I was successful in similar situations (which, thankfully, is most of the time).

    I am looking forward to the day when I can act in my leadership roles with complete self confidence. However, I am not going to wait for that to happen. So I do what I need to do mentally in order to be able to serve as a leader.

  • Sometimes there’s an assumption that “I’ll lead when I feel self-confident.” But, of course, leadership, on pretty much everyone’s scale of traits, involves situational courage and action. Reverend Della, that’s exactly what I get from your comment, and I am really touched by your openness. For myself, maybe I would add to your list of affirmations, prayer, and remembered success a couple of other things like appreciation and meaning. Appreciation in the sense of bringing something positive and caring — and larger than myself. Meaning in the sense of living honestly at the core of who I am. When I am focused there in an utterly sincere way, I generally end up doing more than I think I can.

  • chidinma dede wrote:

    leadership is calling, a call to serve it may be to serve as a president, cleaner, teacher, once one discovers what one discovers the capacity one is called to serve, wisdom demands that you give it all your best, knowing fully well that you must give account of your stewardship.

  • chidinma dede wrote:

    leadership is a calling, a call to serve, maybe to serve as a president, cleaner, teacher etc, wisdom demands that you give all in your best in any capacity one is called to serve,knowing fully well that a day of reckoning awaits one after all said and done.

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