Leading Like Lent

For many Christians today marks the beginning of the season of Lent, a time of reflection on the realities of suffering in the world.

Most leaders don’t need a reminder that life is often hard.

Not only is leadership inherently complex, but most of the leaders I work with are in charities, seeing to make a difference in some of the most difficult situations in our communities and internationally. They spend every day neck deep in the messiness and injustice that I often choose to avoid. They choose to do the hard stuff.

Beyond that, none of us are immune from the vagaries of life. We deal with our own medical challenges, financial pressure, relationship issues, self-doubt, and every common suffering. 

It can easily be overwhelming.

Dealing with crisis, difficulty, or a particularly challenging season is often the measure of any leader.  Here are five things to keep in mind:

1. Face Reality. Be explicitly honest with yourself about the truth of the situation. Dig deep enough to expose what is beneath the surface and refuse to pretend things are better than they are. Make a point of hunting down the elephants in the room. You can’t address problems you can’t (or refuse to) see.

2. Describe the Difficulty. Communicate to your stakeholders how hard it will be to get through this. Don’t sugarcoat it, don’t exaggerate. Lay out the facts with ruthless commitment to the truth. Share how costly it will be to overcome so people know what they are being asked to commit to.

3. Affirm Hope. Hope is the currency of change. People need to believe that together we can and will get through this. You may be surprised how much difficulty people will embrace and endure when they see the possibility of success. Offering a compelling vision of what can be on the other side of the pain is an essential part of preparing for it.

4. Offer An Opt Out. Wise leaders understand that there are any number of reasons why some people may be unable or unwilling to take on the challenge ahead. When the demands will be high it is better to encourage them to carefully consider whether they are ready to commit, and to have an open and shameless opportunity to gracefully bow out if necessary. This also galvanizes those who stay to stick together. Embrace the idea of “challenge by choice”.

5. Go First. As a rule of thumb leaders should be the last to benefit and the first to suffer. If anyone must take on extra work, accept a pay cut, give more or receive less in any way; integrity expect the leaders to step up first. Your willingness to commit invites and inspires the same from others.

Lent is a deliberately challenging season of discipline for those who participate. They choose to undergo some level of sacrifice to better understand the suffering of others and to prepare themselves for future difficulties. But it also prepares the faithful for fuller celebration of joy, hope, and love when the season concludes with Easter. 

The same is true in leadership. If you can take on your season of sacrifice well you will strengthened for your future and more prepared for both seasons of struggle and of success.