Recently, I met with a group of leaders in Central America. The blend of leaders from eight different countries provided a rich experience. Engaging leaders in dialogue about leadership transformation stirs passionate discussions about positive change and the unique challenges that threaten to derail progress.
It’s remarkable what happens when you pitch a question into a group of forty leaders. Surveying the cultural landscape is inviting and the gathering provided a perfect opportunity to learn. So I asked, “What are the greatest challenges you face in your context?”
Conversations about challenges are revelatory. When you throw a big question out into the mix, there is typically a brief hesitation. It can be moment of truth, or not. The pregnant pause awaits the first person to break the ice. Will it be one of those safe answers or will it be a candid evaluation? Everyone faces challenges, but raw honesty about specifics feels risky. Should I say something that draws attention to my feelings of inadequacy? Will my response make me sound like I’m weak? Am I playing the victim?
In the heat of the moment, most of the responses confirm that leadership in any culture tests our mettle. Whether in South, Central or North America, courage is prerequisite. But, do the demands of contemporary leadership require a new level of valor? The basic responses are predicable. Resistance to change is common. Apathy is a challenge. In my culture, the comfort of the status quo is pervasive. Some of our structures are obsolete. We need to change the mindset of our followers.
And then it happened. In the midst of the usual responses, there was a breakthrough. Someone found the nerve to speak the forbidden words of leadership. Sometimes I don’t know what to do. As if it was a magical moment, I repeated the words slowly. There are times that you don’t know what to do? The moment was as savory as a fresh cup of coffee from the mountains of Guatemala. After slowing digesting the words, the message deepened.
How did we arrive at this moment in leadership when raw honesty stands alone in stark contrast to rehearsed answers? Why have we come to believe that it is forbidden to utter such leadership blasphemy? Leaders confront reality, evaluate the obstacles that threaten success and then inspire others to move forward in a strategic direction. But, leaders never admit they are struggling to find the best way forward. Or do they? As long as you always know what to do, you don’t need to listen. If you are intellectually invincible, you’re not likely to be interested in growth, let alone impeccable honesty. It happens slowly. But, in the end, you reach the point that your ideas are always the best. Leadership challenges are kept at arms length. After, the real leadership challenges are always on the outside.
One lone honest responder pulled the room back to reality. Sooner or later, you will be forced to confront your limits. Whether you run into a physical, emotional, or intellectual barrier, the test of your honesty will either lead to growth or paralysis, frustration or breakthrough. When you contemplate your humanity this week, it is an opportunity to connect with others. When you face a roadblock, stretch toward innovation and creativity instead of protecting yourself behind a mask of self-sufficiency. Frequently, the best ideas begin with I don’t know what to do. But, don’t stay there. Move from isolation toward collective wisdom. When you face a challenge this week, begin with the following steps:
- Be honest about what you know and do not know and give others permission to do the same.
- Don’t hide behind a closed door – whether literal or metaphorical.
- Stay positive about the future.
At InitiativeOne we help leaders take the initiative and engage with others.