People are creative, imaginative survivors. Yet, human emotions can cause havoc in our lives. We all have individual personalities which affect our focus and the direction of our lives. Society also plays a powerful role with regards to our belief systems while biases expose us to a darker side of human nature. Often, these systems become habits of belief within our subconsciousness. The problem with habits is that they often block opportunities to hear other perspectives. When I was in middle school, I was kind of a stinker in the classroom. (‘Gotta make ‘em laugh’ was my motto!) I still remember the thousands of times I had to write this phrase on the blackboard as punishment from Mr. Charles: Habit is like a cable. I weave a strand each day until it becomes so strong, I cannot break it. Ya know, today that phrase actually holds meaning for me. Thanks, Charlie!
A powerful book I read a few years ago helped me understand a lot about human nature. The Social Animal focused on the thinking that lies below our level of awareness. These underlying subconscious beliefs are what shape our interpretation of the world around us. I truly believe that people’s perceptions color their world in both a positive and negative way. One of my favorite sayings (author unknown) is: ‘The issue is not the issue. It’s how we handle the issue that is the issue.’ This statement powerfully recognizes the fact that it’s how we relate to situations that portrays who we are.
When I work with individuals in my counseling practice, I help them to explore their subconscious mind and then guide them to understand their reactions and behaviors as they relate to the circumstances. There is often a story behind the story that colors their perspective. Sometimes, it just means asking the right question to help the individual see a different perspective. In leadership, the same idea is necessary. Often, just listening and hearing what it written between the lines is the key.
In Leadership Without Easy Answers, the author explained that leaders need to work by ‘trial and error’, which I found intriguing. Learning to improvise as a leader is crucial and there are many risks that a leader often takes to help challenge people to grow and stretch. This is where authority comes into play. A leader must reduce stress and keep a balance for the people he/she has authority over. Providing clear direction (within a ‘trial and error’ method), helping people understand the reasoning behind decision, and controlling conflict are crucial skills necessary for an effective leader. All of this must be done with compassion and care.
When I served as a leader at the Red Cross, I found that if my employees understood the reason behind the ongoing changes that were occurring on a daily basis within the organization, they could appreciate and accept the changes more willingly. I also served as a mentor to my employees and made sure they understood that my door was always open for conversation and that confidentiality was secure. When leaders can provide clear directions and reduce stress along the journey, they have set the pace for positive productivity and design a relationship of mutual respect.
In Simple Habits for Complex Times, the author emphasized habits and the power they hold. But he also stressed that leaders must learn to ask different questions, take multiple perspectives, and see systems. In addition (and I believe most importantly), leaders need to LISTEN! Marian Anderson, a famous philanthropist, once said: ‘Leadership should be born out of the understanding of the needs of those who would be affected by it.’ We cannot know the needs of our staff or congregations without listening to their perception of what the needs are. As leaders, it is then our place to introduce new perspectives and ideas to help our followers to grow into their own role as positive leaders. To wrap up, a powerful quote from John Quincy Adams: ‘If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more ~ you are a Leader!’
 David Brooks, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement (New York: Random House, 2011).
 Ronald Heifetz, Leadership without Easy Answers (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994).
 Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston, Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders (Stanford, California: Stanford Business Books, n.d.).