There are powerful leaders and humble leaders, horrible leaders and questionable leaders.
Throughout my adult life of working under various leaders—from churches to places of employment, from neighborhood associations to my children’s school board, from nonprofit organizations where I’ve volunteered to my own family—I’ve had varying experiences of leaders and come to understand that everyone is a teacher. They teach me what to do and sometimes what not to do.
1. Do this: Get your hands dirty
When I was a professor of English, I was impressed with the department chair because he always made a point of sitting with the new adjuncts while we graded papers during midterms. He was right there in the lounge grading his papers at midnight, too, coffee breath and all. He wasn’t above us, and that humility gave me pause. Similarly, the Humble Leader we love washed his disciples’ feet and got his hands dirty in the process, all while conveying a beautiful message with his actions.
2. Don’t do this: Feign interest
I was working for a Christian organization in the poorest, most underserved neighborhood in Minneapolis one summer as the children’s day camp staff. We got word that a prominent politician with an agenda that included allocating money to fund projects like our ministry would be coming for a visit. He reserved the afternoon to learn about what our work and mission actually looked like in action.
We prepped and cleaned, and when he arrived, this is what happened in less than a minute: He jumped out of his limo, picked up one of the nearby African-American kids so his photographer could snap a pic, he pumped the hand of our director for one more pic and hopped back into his limo (door was never shut). There are so many things wrong with what he did, and feigning interest is the least of them.
3. Do this: Connect with the worker bees
I worked for a successful relocation firm (their client is Google, to give you an idea of their level of success) and was impressed with the culture of connection they created with their employees. The president of the company felt she was losing touch with the staff that managed the many critical facets to ensure her company stayed on top of their game.
She initiated Lunch with the First Lady, where each employee is scheduled an hour-long private lunch with her at some point during the year. She made a point of engaging each employee, one-on-one, without interruption. She learns about their lives, what they care about, what concerns they have. This is a woman who doesn’t have a lot of free time on her hands and with nearly 200 employees, it is an aggressive goal. But connecting with the worker bees is mutually beneficial.
4. Don’t do this: Condescend
I worked on a task force on a highly controversial school board at my child’s school. A seasoned community leader with an impressive list of directorial roles at other nonprofits led our board. Her life experiences were deep and unique, and she reminded our group of this any chance she got, often with an added eye roll that seemed to suggest it pained her to even have to describe her amazing self to others who could hardly grasp her outstanding persona.
We wondered how she managed to lead so many boards until we took a closer look at her short terms at different organizations. Her condescension pushed members away and stunted opportunity for growth.
5. Do this: Rest
I work for Mennonite Women USA, and one thing that impresses me is when Rhoda Keener announces her rest time. She is committed to the work of our Sister Care seminars, which involves extensive travel for the seminar and gathering support as well as the emotional intensity of presenting. These are transformative seminars that have women taking careful stock of their emotional well-being, their past pains and their future hope.
This kind of work is wonderfully tiring, and Rhoda knows this. Even though she is the kind of person who can work and work and get a lot accomplished, she also is keenly aware that to be at her best means to get her rest. She and I often have midnight email exchanges, but I know that when she has returned from a Sister Care seminar she will care for herself with meaningful rest, such as visiting the ocean or being fully present in her home in the woods.