Three Steps to a ‘Leadership Revival’

In his recent NY Times column “The Leadership Revival,” David Brooks offers a simple three-step path to high quality government leadership that applies to leadership everywhere, particularly in nonprofit organizations.

It’s not complicated.   No seminars, conferences or books are needed.  It’s simply mentoring, awareness and renunciation.

He is unusually optimistic, convinced that these steps can improve the leadership in the public sector.  “The quality of people is high,” he writes, even though he thinks the quality of government leadership is low right now.

He takes it even further – “We live in a nation of good people.”

I believe that.  Living in the Washington DC area for over 40 years, surrounded by government workers and leaders, I’ve seen it.  This is especially true for those in the nonprofit organizations and faith communities that I know best.

For the most part people who work for the government and nonprofit organizations are good, well-intentioned, high quality people, as Brooks puts it.

He believes that with these three steps they can become high quality leaders.

First, he writes, “apprentice yourself to a master craftsman.”   This takes mentoring to a higher level.

The essentials for quality leadership can only be acquired from relationships where one learns from “imitation and experience.”

He explains, “you will not be effective in public life unless you find a wise old person who will teach you the tricks of the trade, hour after hour, side by side.”

After leading training seminars on how to be a good mentor I’ve come to believe that the equally important question is how to find a good mentor.

Only a few leaders in the groups I’ve worked with have had a formal, intentional, mentoring relationship of the kind that Brooks describes.

Second, he advises leaders to take a break, get away from their assignments for a few days or an extended sabbatical.

Go far enough away so that you become, as he suggests, “an alien in a strange land.”

High quality leadership requires awareness of how the rest of the world lives.   It has to be experienced -  “the smell of the street, tinges of anger and hope and aspiration.”

I’ve heard pastors talk about the value of taking sabbaticals to visit other churches to experience what it’s like for laity in the pews.

When I began to serve in an African American community I quickly learned what it feels like to be in the minority.

I never thought about what it is like to be white until I served in a Black community.

There is a tendency for leaders to become trapped inside their own frames of reference.

Brooks writes that such a “reality bath” gives you “foreign eyes, to see the contours of your own reality more clearly.”

Third – to be effective, public sector leaders must be committed to a cause more important than their own careers.

Brooks assumes that they are in it for something more than the money.  This is especially true for nonprofit and faith community leaders.

When you lose sight of the compelling vision that inspired you in the first place the quality of leadership suffers.

High quality leaders learn to become, in his words, “masters of renunciation,” saying “a hundred Nos for the sake of an overwhelming Yes.”

Mentoring, awareness and renunciation – three steps on the path to leadership excellence.

Brooks isn’t sure these ideas will “improve the quality of the nation’s leadership, but” as he concludes, “something has to.”

5 Responses to “Three Steps to a ‘Leadership Revival’”

  1. Hal Chappelear Says:

    On taking a reality bath…

    One line in the song, “Keep Your Eyes Open,” states… “Cause if you never leave home, never let go, you’ll never make it to the great unknown…”

    Occasionally, when I return to my home town and visit with old friends who never left our home town, Brooks’ admonition becomes exceptionally meaningful… to those who never let, the whole world looks like home! Never looking at the “big picture” does result in an isolated, insulated and narrow context I which we make decisions. Yes, “take a reality bath!” Rise above tunnel vision of all sorts! It is required of quality leaders!

  2. Jess MIddendorf Says:

    Excellent insight, Tom. And these principles apply very well in the development of leadership in the Church. It will not be an easy thing to create this “leadership revival,” but I do believe these steps are essential, and that the capability and will are there!

  3. Eddie Estep Says:

    you continue to scratch where people itch
    - concerning the first suggestion….. Just last night I met with the church board of a medium-sized church in pastoral transition. They have determined (wisely and discerningly) that they are seeking someone presently serving on staff at a larger church. Why? They want someone who has been mentored and trained well, and who already knows what the next level looks like, who has already lived where they think they are headed.
    - concerning the second suggestion… How do you view a familiar place with fresh eyes? (I prefer that to Brook’s “foreign eyes.”) A leader may have to recruit a fresh set of eyes, and then rely on his/her ears to listen to a new perspective of reality.
    - concerning the third suggestion… He is describing focus. Leaders have focus. For ministers, a sense of call (to vocation and/or to location) helps bring focus.

    To take the vision analogy a step further… The three suggestions describe the familiar eye, the fresh eye, and the focused eye.

    I liked this line from Brooks: “Only the person who has burned the ships and committed to one issue has the courage to… push through change.”

  4. David Ralph Says:

    I enjoyed the blog, it hit me where I am personally… the sabbatical thing is something I’m thinking of personally… I’ve been 13 yrs in this assignment and think that a break and looking on my “Public Leadership” with foreign eyes…

    Loved the thought of needing more “laser vision” (not your words but the idea) for leadership and saying more “no’s” and less “Yesses”

  5. Darlene Hyatt Says:

    “Reality bath” reminds me of the Kenyan proverb: If you don’t venture out into the neighbourhoods, you always will think your mother is the best cook. Our District requires a sabbatical in the 7th year and now are thinking that the 5th year may be even more optimal. Just returned from a 4-month sabbatical and the (re)fresh(ed)eye perspective is astounding. When I left the people were problems to be addressed, when I returned they were people again.