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Updated: Nov 18, 2019

We tend to think leadership is all about how well we communicate, how clear and focused our vision is, how ordered our plans are and how well we engage with people we hope will accompany us on our mission. But there’s more to leadership than being The Boss.

Leadership is about shared humanity. It’s about being human amongst other humans with whom we share the journey of life. And life can be a tough journey. We share the good times as well as the bumps in the road with the people we travel with. Sometimes the bumps mean we get jolted around and it’s easy to be wounded in the process of the journey. It may even be that the leader is inadvertently responsible for the wounding.

Unsurprisingly, even the very best leader is wrong often enough to convince everyone around that no leader is infallible. We make mistakes, wrong decisions, and poor choices. We are sometimes clumsy in the way we express ourselves, we hurt people, and, occasionally, we make fools of ourselves.Some leaders begin to hyperventilate as soon as the possibility arises that they may be wrong, sending their team scurrying to look for some hapless scapegoat to pin the blame on.

More commonly, and just as damaging, too many leaders become skilled at ignoring the signs that they should have thought their actions through a little better. They continue blithely on their journey, determinedly oblivious to any personal culpability, stepping carefully so as not to trip over the bleeding bodies left lying around, cluttering up their forward progress.  Both of these choices work in the short term, but they have a devastating effect on followers, and longterm, on the organisation itself. There is another option, one which many leaders haven’t thought of, or if they have, they’ve swiftly dismissed the idea.

You could say ‘sorry.

Yes. I know. Amazing revelation right there. Any leader, whether you’re leading a family, a team, a business, a church, or an organisation, needs to be able to recognise their own fallibility. Pride convinces us that acknowledging fault is a weakness. If we admit we are wrong, or even enter into a dialogue which allows for that possibility, we would not only lose face, but also the support and respect of the people who work alongside us.

Tragically for leaders who think this way, the opposite is actually true. The inability to acknowledge mistakes is a major drawback to effective leadership. Ultimately, leaders who always have to be right lose good supporters unnecessarily. When the leader is always right by virtue of having the biggest title, the resulting culture becomes one of resentment, isolation, lack of authenticity and loss of support.

Saying sorry means allowing yourself to be aware that you’ve hurt someone. Saying sorry may look like changing a decision you made without realising its ramifications. It may mean taking the time to hear the other person’s feelings on the matter in order to see both sides of the same incident.It will always mean becoming educated in how to laugh at yourself. It will always mean learning not to believe your own publicity. You’re just not that important. Honestly!

Proverbs 24:3,4 :
By wisdom a house is built and by understanding it is established. Through knowledge its rooms are filled with every precious and beautiful treasure. 

When a key figure in an organisation is not interested in hearing from the people she leads, blind spots develop. Those people are a vital vantage point helping you to get a 360º view of the context you lead. That view becomes obscured by the blinders that develop when you only hear opinions from the people who agree with you. (And that’s another whole story, right there.) That’s a BIG MISTAKE for any leader. One of the greatest keys to understanding is listening, hearing what the people around you have to say about how they feel and how they’re being impacted. You might be surprised at how insightful their opinions are and how much they could add to your perspective, and therefore, the growth of your sphere of responsibility. A leader who becomes skilled at hearing more than the status quo will always grow to become a leader of leaders. It’s far more important than you realise.

There are times when the other person’s perspective has nothing to do with you or your decision. People’s feelings are often drawn from their own background; the way they see issues is often influenced by their past. If that’s the case, there’s no way you can fix how they saw the situation so differently from you. Either way, for most people, the feeling that they have been given the dignity of being heard and their point of view understood, generally means they can to continue to support their leader even if they’re not totally on board. It’s not rocket science but it does take emotional intelligence and maturity to listen well, and apologise if necessary.

What’s the deal? Why is it so difficult for some leaders to do that? Too many good relationships go sour because of lack of communication. Breakdowns occur in good relationships simply because the leader chose to ignore the fact that there was a problem. Having a chat about it, hearing the other side of the story, and apologising for your part in it is quite simple, and yet it’s surprisingly common for leaders to become irritated at the person they’ve offended simply because they are offended.

Some leaders eliminate fantastic supporters from their life, their team, their organisation because of this, and yet it’s so unnecessary when a conversation and maybe an apology would be all the balm required to heal the wounding and lead to greater understanding.

It’s tragic how often small misunderstandings escalate to become broken relationships simply because the leader chooses not to have a conversation to clear it up, or to explain the larger picture.

Billy Graham’s grandson says:

The combination of ignorance and arrogance produces Church leaders who wound others and don’t seem to care:

Boz Tchividjian

It’s one thing to be a visionary leader who draws people to a magnificent vision. It’s quite another to keep those who are drawn. Wisdom builds the house, but understanding establishes it. The building is only the beginning. Establishment of what has been built takes longer than we realise. The most powerful characteristics of understanding are listening/hearing and dialogue. This includes the ability to apologise when necessary. Without these characteristics, builders will always do the 3 steps forward, 2 steps back dance. It’s progress, but at a cost.

If you’re a leader, or intending to be one, or maybe leadership is not where you’re aiming but you do want good relationships in your home, at work, in your friendships, this is still relevant to you. Have the conversation. Chat through the issues. Say sorry if that would make a difference. You don’t have to take the blame for everything, but you can say sorry for your part in the misunderstanding. The more you do it, the less your pride will hassle you when you have to do it. Every relationship depends on open, honest communication on both sides.

It’s easier than you think. Get past the pride barrier and you’ll find a world of good relationships. It’s worth it. Honestly.

Photo acknowledgement: Butupa – SORRY –  Sydney Opera House, Australia National Sorry Day 2015

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