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.

  • Gladys' Karen wrote:

    I agree with you Alek­san­dra that lead­er­ship is a call­ing that is not only about tit­tles, posi­tion­sor flow­charts rather life influ­enc­ing another

  • 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 ©vi-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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