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Leadership Abdication

Who’s in charge?  This is a huge leadership question.   While it would seem to have a simple answer – the leader is – too often simple isn’t easy.

Leaders are too often guilty of trying to be consensus-builders instead of leaders. Or politicians instead of leaders. Or hand-wringers instead of leaders. Or one of my greatest fears, leadership abdication: a leader acting as a constituency-pleaser instead of a leader.

When’s the last time you chickened-out on your leadership responsibilities?

In the Hebrew Scriptures, there is an interesting story of constituency-pleasing leadership in I Samuel 15, along with its clear consequence. The leader in question, King Saul of the Israelites, had been given clear instructions from God on a battle plan. This plan included not only victory, but also total destruction of the enemy’s property. Even the good stuff.

The king did as he was told, and the battle was won. But the good stuff? He hung on to some of it. Or at least he let some of his people hang on to some of it. Why not? It was good stuff.

Unfortunately, part of the measure of any leader is how he or she subordinates their leadership to their cause. Saul’s decision to not follow through on the cause had career changing impact.

The Bleating of Sheep, the Lowing of Cattle

In what has to be one of the earliest examples of sarcasm in the Old Testament Scriptures, the prophet Samuel, commissioned by God to confront Saul over his leadership abdication, responds to Saul’s lie about fulfilling his commission with the following questions: “What then is this bleating of sheep in my ears? What is this lowing of cattle that I hear?” In a clear example of leadership abdication, Saul had allowed his troops to keep some of the best of the enemy’s flocks and herds. And unfortunately, if you read to the end of the story, you find out that Saul’s failure to act as the leader he was called to be cost him his kingship. Samuel announced to Saul that his leadership had been found lacking by God, and was being transferred to another.

Why is leadership abdication one of my greatest leadership fears? Two reasons.

First of all, pleasing your constituency is generally a good thing. Every good leader should be hard at work building trust and fostering connectedness with the team. Your instincts when you do this are good. But, these efforts can never compromise your cause or your organization’s future. Leaders, more than anyone else, have to make the unpopular, hard decisions. They have to be willing to lead the team rather than accommodate to the team.

My second reason? It’s a very personal one: I want to be liked. At times, I’d rather take the easy way. Popularity is such a sweet elixir. And I’m not alone. Most of us who have leadership responsibilities want to be liked. Once, again, not a bad instinct, but it could be a devastating leadership trait if you and I don’t balance it with vision, courage and a sense of the right thing to do.

So I’ll ask you once again: when’s the last time you chickened-out on your leadership responsibility? What can you do now to set it right?