As mentioned in the last “Great Leaders” post, the strongest teams are comprised of the strongest personalities and the most influential people possible. When I was the principal of Athena High School, I sought to ensure that the my leadership teams included these kinds of people. I recruited the most influential leaders and educators in the building to be a part of the Athena Improvement Team. This team was responsible for setting the direction of the entire school. We had representative from the teachers union, the support staff, parents students and administrators.
We had many strong voices at the table for these meetings and frequent disagreements ensued. However, the headway we made on critical issues around the school was only possible because we had the right people around the table. While we disagreed on many things in these meetings, we sought continually to get to the best possible outcome for the students and the school. These meetings were often difficult, but they were essential. When tempers would flair or conflict would arise, we would revisit and reconcile in order to move forward as soon as possible. I wasn’t interested in a team of weak-willed people. Even thought a a team of lesser people might have seemed easier, I knew that would lead to little, if any success. Surrounding yourself with the strongest people is not a comfortable or easy proposition. Teams of strong leaders create conflict (see the previous post for an example of a great leader who navigated this tension well). However, this is essential to any great leadership effort.
Each year we worked together to improve the school. And I am proud that we accomplished our goals each year. We increased passing rates on the state exams and out overall graduation rates every year. This was not the result of one leader, but rather the impact of having the right people are around the table. It was a team of leaders willing to engage in reconciliation with one another when conflict arose so as to keep focused on the mission of the school and the goals of the team.
Without strong leaders surrounding and influencing us, our leadership will never rise to the levels necessary to accomplish great things. Great leaders know that they only get as far as the strength of the team they have around them. One measure of the quality of your team is how many diverse perspectives and strong personalities you have around you. Are you surrounded with others who will push back and provide critical feedback? And, are willing to listen to their input on a regular basis and adjust your own perspective.
Dealing with strong people will inevitably result in fractures and stalemates within the team if the leader isn’t skilled in reconciliation. As we consider this issue, lets look at 5 steps every leader can take to ensure a culture of reconciliation as outlined in the book of Ezra.
5 Steps Every Leader Must Engage to Ensure Effective Reconciliation:
- Step 1 – Assume Responsibility
- Step 2 – Initiate Confession
- Step 3 – Engage Grace
- Step 4 – Extend Mercy
- Step 5 – Actively Move Forward
Lets look briefly at each step through the lens of the leadership of Ezra as he entered into a crisis that required reconciliation.
Step 1: Assume Responsibility – Ezra was commissioned by the King of Persia to travel from the capital city of Babylon, back to Jerusalem in order to “make inquiries about Judah and Jerusalem according to the Law of your God” (Ezra 7:12). He was also sent with various offerings and a vast array of wealth to give the Lord at the temple. Upon arrival in Jerusalem after a 5 month journey, Ezra discovered the people had violated some of the commands of God and the laws they were expected to follow. Ezra could have easily rebuked the people and directed them to repent of their ways… but he assumed personal responsibility. In Ezra 9:3 we read his immediate response. “When I heard about his matter, I tore my garment and my robe, and pulled some of the hair from my head and beard, and sat down appalled…” Great leaders do not look to cast the blame on others, but rather have, as Bill Hybels calls it, a “bias toward action.” They don’t point fingers, but instead begin to strategically respond as though they had caused the problem in the first place. This doesn’t mean that they do not hold others accountable. However, they assume responsibility for what they can own themselves.
Step 2: Initiate Confession – Next, we read that Ezra initiated a response of confession. Unlike so many modern leaders who, when caught in a scandal, look to spin doctoring and finger pointing, Ezra was instantly contrite humble. He recorded his next step in Ezra 9:5 when he wrote, “...and I fell on my knees and stretched out my hands to the LORD my God…” Although the grievance was not his doing, he took the full measure of accountability and immediately engaged in confession. This is an action that many leaders are simply unwilling to take. It is critical that the leader model this behavior if they are to expect those they lead to do so as well. One of my mentors, Pastor Peter Zwicker, once gave me this advice: “It’s always good when you can find something to apologize for.” Great leaders establish the value of confession among their team and before God. They model the practice and expect it from those they lead.
Step 3: Engage Grace – It is critical that leaders and teams do not find themselves stuck in a cycle of simply assuming responsibility and confession. We must move past the hurts, conflicts and disagreements of the past. Leaders must engage grace with those they lead. One defintion of grace is to “give someone what they do not deserve.” This was modeled in Ezra, by both Ezra and God. “But now for a brief moment grace has been shown from the LORD our God…” (Ezra 9:8). The concept of grace is one of the universal themes woven throughout all of scripture. God is continually extending grace to his people. Even as He hung on the cross, Jesus petitioned the Father for grace to those around him. In the Ezra narrative, in spite of the people’s continually violation of the covenant, God was willing to extend grace, and Ezra jumped on this characteristic of God in his prayer. As leaders, we must ensure that while we assume responsibility and model confession, that we do not harbor ill will towards those on our team. Extending grace in a time of tension and confrontation is one of the best ways a leader can strengthen the relationships on their team. Leaders who engage grace build strong teams and engender the loyalty of those around them.
Step 4: Extend Mercy – While grace is giving “someone what they don’t deserve.” Mercy is often describes as “not giving someone what they do deserve.” According to the law of God, the people of Israel who had violated God’s commands were to be cut off from the covenant and grace of God and they were to be killed. However, in Ezra 9:13 we read, “You our God have requited us less than our iniquities deserve, and have given us an escaped remnant…” Rather they destroy them, God extended mercy to the Israelites. On modern teams this would be similar to someone bad mouthing the boss or the organization and being found out. Extending mercy, would be if the boss decided not to fire the person, but rather to find someway to keep them on the team. This doesn’t mean there would be no consequence, but they wouldn’t receive the full extend of what was deserved. Many of us have difficulty receiving grace and mercy. Especially leaders with strong personalities who have an independent streak with a strong drive to succeed. We often want to be able to accomplish things on our own. Additionally, many leaders have difficulty extending grace and mercy for fear of seeming weak or losing control. In fact, it is only the truly great leaders who know how to engage grace and extend mercy on a team full of strong personalities and leaders. When we are able to this, we can lead beyond the current challenges and conflicts that destroy the teams of lesser leaders.
Step 5: Actively Move Forward – Finally, great leaders know when to quickly put the reconciliation process behind them and actively move forward. The leader can never wait for others to begin this process. It must be initiated by the leader. In Ezra 10:4 we read that the people call on Ezra to do this when they proclaimed, “Arise! For this matter is your responsibility, but we will be with you, be courageous and act.” No one wants to follow a passive, aimless leader. Strong and opinionated team members in particular, look to their leaders to be actively engaged in moving forward. Once you have gone through the reconciliation process, actively move forward and leave the past behind. This does not mean we need to forget the past. Rather, we learn from it, and move forward without holding grudges or harboring bitterness. Great leaders know that actively moving forward is like glue that holds strong teams together.
To Sum It All Up: The process of reconciliation is very challenging. It isn’t easy. My experiences as a leader have led me to believe this is one of the most difficult roles of a leader. Everything in us seeks to oppose and punish those who do us wrong. We often feel that we must stand on principle when we are affronted. For some of us, our pride inhibits the humility required to lead strong teams through this season of leadership. Others of us struggle with the courage needed to confront strong personalities who run a foul within our teams. Whatever your situation, things will only get worse and our teams will ultimately disintegrate if we do not lead in the area of reconciliation. Great leaders succeed when they engage effectively in the process of reconciliation.
Great leaders make a consistent and conscious choose to engage reconciliation!