Follow Me: Leadership and Spiritual Action

by Karl Stockbridge

I am a businessman and leader in the company I work for. My work includes setting strategy and direction, showing up at plant openings and closings, and creating and telling our corporate story. All of these are important responsibilities, but doing them well would not get anyone to consider me a leader. A boss, maybe (often confused with leadership), but not necessarily a leader. Bosses manage while leaders, well, lead.

My own sense of leadership has been inspired by some of the stories about Jesus. Jesus assumed risk, exhibited calm, and told a story that gave us all room to write our own individual scripts. The parts of the Bible that reveal Jesus as vulnerable and afraid illustrate his profound courage; in the face of his own mortal fear, he calmly said, “Follow me.”

Leadership by its nature is an ongoing dance of personality, circumstance and courage that forces a continuous adaptation.

These qualities have been important to me as I have striven to become an effective leader in my company. That process has required continuous change and evolution. Leadership, by its nature, resists reduction to a recipe. It is an ongoing dance of personality, circumstance and courage that forces a continuous adaptation. That said, I have still found that leadership usually entails certain actions:

1. Accepting risks personally and transferring risks from the group to themselves  The company I work for sells infrastructure products to the telecommunications market (we sell underground boxes to phone companies). Until Congress attempted to de-regulate the telephone industry in 1996, telephone companies were among the most stable companies in the world. Their markets, profits, and costs were carefully managed in conjunction with government agencies to insure stability. Working for the phone company wasn’t quite as predictable as working for the government, but it was close.

By any measure, telephone companies now are in real peril. Jobs, markets, stock prices, and planning are all in complete chaos. I know twenty-five year employees of the phone company who have been fired by registered mail while on vacation. I hear from people at all levels of these companies that, “No one can do anything.” “We need real leadership.”

The company I work for has developed some new products that one phone company wants to approve and purchase; by their calculations, these products would save them millions per year. Nobody in that phone company will drive 150 miles to a meeting to approve the product because none of them want to risk turning in an expense report. The word around their now-removed water cooler is that anyone who turns in an expense report obviously did not get the message to save money, so he or she is more likely to be fired in the next round of layoffs.

I tell this story because it reveals something about leadership and its absence. The collective and individual goals in that telephone company are defined by risk avoidance. For a leader to emerge, an individual must take risks. When individual employees feel that they are less at risk, and the risk has been transferred to a leader, stress and fear are reduced in their personal jobs. They can work more effectively and feel better about themselves and their contributions. Committees cannot function as leaders, in part because they cannot assume risk personally.

2. Seeing chaos and challenges as opportunities  In our company we often talk about the study that reveals that unhappy customers are actually an opportunity. It is very difficult to get a customer to speak glowingly about your product or service. Customers tend to save their most passionate feelings for complaints. However, if customers have been upset or angered, but you greatly exceed their expectations in how well you respond to the problem, they can be quite impassioned in their praise. The best example was IBM in the early computing days. Customers would rave that IBM kept a large staff on their sites “sleeping on cots” for days on end until the problem was solved. It did not seem to bother the customer that the systems were unreliable enough to require squads of technicians for days on end. No, the thing that mattered was that IBM exceeded the customer’s expectation in their willingness to fix the problem.

In the same way, chaos and challenge are great opportunities for leadership. This might seem the painful elaboration of the painfully obvious, but I think it is often overlooked. When disasters happen, accounts get lost, or products go bad, there is a moment of recognition by people in an organization. In that moment the opportunity lives. The crucial distinction between boss and leader is revealed in that moment.

Like holding fire drills, regular reminders that disasters are opportunities increase the chance that bosses will lead. Leaders foster, encourage and support others developing into leaders. Leaders look for every opportunity to expand the circle of leadership within an organization.

3. Storytelling  In moments of organizational crisis, a corporate leader works quickly to tell the story of the crisis, its meaning, its impact, and the possible solutions, if any. I think this is actually the “act” of corporate leadership (as opposed to, for example, battlefield leadership that has different “acts”). The story does not have to guarantee an outcome, but it should identify the range of outcomes. In each possible ending there should be part of the story that explains how each participant emerges, not necessarily unscathed, but ultimately alright.

Over the last two years we have had a 60 percent reduction in sales. Sales reductions of this magnitude are 9.0 earthquakes on the business Richter scale. As individual plants were hit by the downturn, often quite suddenly, I would arrive to “tell the story.” The act of gathering all the employees, articulating what most of them already new, and explaining the range of actions we might take, seemed important and good. Often the range of options included closing the plant and laying off all the employees I was addressing. Giving voice to their worst fears, and trying to help put it in perspective, seemed to decrease their fear, and allowed them to get on with business.

I used to think I could not tell the story until I knew the outcome; after all, what is a story without an ending? This became a handy delay tactic. Once I recognized it as an excuse to avoid the unpleasant, I was shamed into showing up at the plants and telling everyone what I knew, and also what I did not know. Sharing an unfinished story gives the participants a chance to help write the ending.

It may seem paradoxical, but an unfinished story is much more powerful than a story with a neat ending. When the story is about the chaos and challenge of the moment, and the employees have a chance to help script the ending, they have a feeling of personal control and being lead at the same time.

4. Speaking up  In my experience there are different paths to corporate leadership. There is the “born to it” path which is predominantly peopled by above-average-height white males with big voices. Good hair and teeth a plus. (Full disclosure: I am an above-average-height white male with a big voice.)

The second path is open to all. It is not based on appearance or socio-economic background. This path is filled with people who saw a challenge as on opportunity and mustered the courage to speak up. They found themselves in precarious situations and were forced to act (the bypasser noticing the burning building) or they were willing to escalate a routine situation to a risk-filled situation out of principle (Rosa Parks). We tend to call these people heroes more than leaders, but I maintain it is the same; they assessed the situation and took personal risk for the good of others.

Heroism is almost impossible to pull off in the corporate setting, but acts of courage and job risk happen at all levels of organizations. People who never thought of themselves as leaders are driven to speak up, and go against conventional wisdom. (Creating a job environment that fosters this is one of the most important things bosses can do, but that is another topic.)

Many of these “new” leaders don’t immediately change positions in the company, but they do become more important. Production workers who dare to speak up with an unpopular idea to fix a production problem, and are proven to be right, do not necessarily jump to production manager. But more importantly, they see themselves as leaders and others in the workplace do too.

5. Exhibiting courage  Opportunities to lead are rarely anticipated and can almost never be planned for. When the usually unpleasant reality is perceived by a group (the biggest customer has just gone out of business, for example) a leader emerges or not. I have never heard of a leader who did not exhibit courage and calm to the group.

I have driven up to many a plant or office with my heart in my mouth, pulse pounding. Having to fire one person or many, or let an operation know that they have just been sold, scares me. Part of the fear is knowing that my fear can’t show. I think it absurd to be self-absorbed while delivering bad news to others, but it is crucial that the leader maintain enough self-possession to prevent his or her personal fear from showing. I have met executives who maintain they can fire people without any distress of any kind. I can not imagine that such a boss possessed enough empathy to be an effective leader.

Why would it matter that a dismissed employee thought me a leader? Firings, layoffs, terminations, redundancies (pick your euphemism) are another form of crisis; therefore an opportunity. I like to think that I “fire people well.” Maybe it is just salve for guilt, but I think that bad news conveyed with courage and compassion is preferable to bad news communicated coldly or dismissively. I was once fired by someone who conveyed his dissatisfaction in every way except sitting down and telling me straight that I was out. I finally had to sit him down and raise the subject. He was a boss, not a leader.

Leaders are able to project themselves as the calm ones in the eye of the storm; even if they have to fake it. Leaders use all sorts of idiosyncratic strategies to achieve this apparent calm. (What would John Wayne do in this situation?) I am often unsure, and not at all certain that I am leading in the right direction. I believe this is one of the truths of leadership: it is better to lead a group with calm, even in the wrong direction, than to let a group wallow in uncertainty and fear. There is more opportunity to correct a wrong direction if there is some sort of momentum and individual members are less distracted by their personal risk.

Leadership is a partner dance, not a performance. Leaders invite others onto the dance floor; they don’t perform in isolation on a stage. My sense of leadership has been greatly informed by the theology often expressed at St. Gregory’s, which focuses on a vision of God at work in our lives, inviting us into friendship and full self-expression.

Karl Stockbridge has been a member of St. Gregory's since early 1979, and a long-distance member since 1985, when he moved to the Sierra foothills. He lives with his wife Joan and daughters Katherine and Margaret and attends Faith Lutheran Church, where he sings in the choir.


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