You Can’t Be Common And Lead

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In my ministry career I have not only been a leader, but a missionary. That means that I need to be an accessible person to others. It means that I should make myself available and identifiable to the common man. But as the leader of a major television company in Mongolia my staff wanted me to be not so common. Once in a while they would say something to me like, “Tom, you need your own car and a driver.” I always refused such things. I didn’t need to own a car. In Mongolia, at the time, it was cheaper for me walk and take taxis than it would have been to own a car. Besides, I always reasoned to myself, traffic in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia is the most unorganized, aggressive mess I’d ever seen. I was afraid to drive!

As the only foreigner running a TV station in Mongolia I was somewhat of a controversial figure with some politicians who believed that foreigners should not be allowed to have such an influential tool at their disposal. More than once I had been publicly accused of contaminating Mongolian culture. Then one day in 2006 the Speaker of the Parliament, Nyamdorj, made a speech about me on the floor of Parliament. He called for a government investigation of my activities. He called for my communications and whereabouts to be monitored at all times. And he demanded that the Justice Ministry investigate my activities. Around the same time he arranged for a newspaper article to be published accusing me of terrorism against the Mongolian State. No kidding.

My senior staff saw an opportunity. “Tom, this is serious. You need to have a driver and a bodyguard at all times. You can’t take taxis anymore.”

I was very upset. Whoever heard of a missionary with a bodyguard and driver? But my board of directors and senior staff won the day, with one compromise. Bodyguard no, but I reluctantly agreed to the driver. The staff seemed very happy with the decision. The company bought a car, a driver was hired, and life returned to normal.

Then one day one of my employees told me what it was that was really motivating my senior staff. They didn’t think I really needed the bodyguard. They knew the parliament speaker was just blowing steam. But they saw an opportunity to make me get a car and driver. Why was that so important?

Because I was embarrassing my staff.

Mongolians hold issues of reputation and status in a much higher way than Americans do. This was something that took me a while to learn. Because I was out on the street flagging taxis and hitchhiking (normal in Mongolia), the staff was embarrassed. Other TV managers had their own cars or drivers but I hitched it on the street. To my senior staff I was not living up to my status. My status was important to them. They wanted to be able to point to me and say proudly, “That’s our boss.” From this little episode I learned an important lesson about leadership.

As a leader you are a source of pride for your people. Don’t disappoint them by acting common.

Not long after I got another lesson in this concept. All of the TV stations participated in a two-day basketball tournament. All the employees of the stations and TV studios showed up to play or cheer on their teams. As it turned out I was the only TV manager to show up. A few of our staff decided to taunt the other teams. “Our boss comes to our games! Where’s your boss?” Many of the employees of the other stations felt ashamed.

We won the championship trophy that year.

If you are a ministry leader then this might make you a bit uncomfortable. As Christians we sometimes struggle with issues of humility. This is especially true with leaders. We talk the talk about servant leadership. We try to implement models of teamwork. We want our people to see us as equals and not above them. We talk about being the same as anyone else but just operating in a different role. We try to identify with our people but at the same time enjoy certain perks that others don’t get with their jobs. In my case, I wanted to fully identify with the people I worked with. In the US that might be seen as a plus. But for my Mongolian staff it was an embarrassment. They didn’t want me high and mighty like the communist bosses of yesteryear. But they did want me elevated to a certain degree. I confess that that was always hard for me to deal with. So, how should leaders be common but at the same time be recognized as a leader? For answers we must turn to Jesus, our model of leadership.

Consider these contrasts in Jesus’ style of life and leadership

Jesus walked everywhere like everyone else—but he entered Jerusalem on a donkey, with clothes and palm branches laid down to honor his messianic role (Matthew 21:1-11).

Jesus rode the same boat as his disciples did when traveling by sea—but only he got to go down for a nap while the disciples drove (Mark 4:35-38).

Jesus stood among the crowds healing the people—but his disciples managed the crowd’s access to him (Matthew 19:13).

Jesus would eat the last supper and even wash his disciple’s feet—but his disciples prepared the location and food (Mark 14:12-16).

As a leader it’s important to be a servant. This is the command of Jesus (Matthew 20:28; John 13:14). But at the same time you must act a cut above, just as Jesus did. Many who follow a leader look to that leader as someone who is more spiritual, or smarter, or better. I don’t say that to be arrogant, it’s simply a fact of life. When a leader acts in an unbecoming way respect is lost by the person or people being led. It can even lead to rebellion and dissension in the ranks. Instead, leaders should be people that others can look up to and feel good about emulating. Paul said to follow him as he followed Christ (I Corinthians 11:1). This is an important principle. You can lead in humility and frugality and a host of other things that everyday people have to deal with, and we should. But when it comes to behavior, and drive, and vision, and diligence, leaders must act a cut above to be able to inspire those they lead.

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