Leadership is messy

In renowned psychologist Alison Gopnik’s must-read book, The Gardener and the Carpenter, she makes a seemingly too obvious statement: “Children are messy.”

It’s not a new or radical thought, but sometimes we don’t need to be taught something new as much as simply reminded of something important but perhaps out of mind.

My two-year-old grandson, Benjamin, recently had a meltdown in a nice restaurant. Yep, children are messy. He drew a nice picture of a house, dog, and moon—on the wall of our hallway. Yep, children are messy. I could go on ad infinitum, but you get my drift.

When these mishaps occur, reminding myself that “children are messy” seems to help me deal with them. Perhaps just anticipating that unfortunate things will happen ameliorates the discomfort.

Now, let’s switch applications. Here’s a reminder to leaders: leadership is messy.

  • No matter how conscientious you are about hiring good people, you’ll make mistakes.
  • Well-thought-out strategies that you consider bulletproof will sometimes fail.
  • Earn a black belt in internal communications, but you’ll still have embarrassing moments of confusion and misalignment in your organization.
  • Even though you carefully negotiate dismissing an under-performing staff member, you still might get sued.

Work hard at leading well, but don’t be surprised or overly discouraged when things fall apart or get messy. Don’t be cavalier about breakdowns, but don’t let them disrupt your confidence or determination.

The constant challenges that leaders face may cause you to rethink being one. You may be happier and more fulfilled in a non-leadership role—functioning as an achiever rather than a leader. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Raising children and leading an organization have one thing in common: both are messy.

Here’s a video of a smart leader responding to a difficult situation.

[youtube id=”5L8Em5vU0FU”]

[reminder]What are your thoughts about this essay?[/reminder]

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4 Replies to “Leadership is messy”

  1. Interesting thoughts! Leadership is also the balance of accountability, responsibility and authority shown by one’s integrity in action. People are messy. Those who are not in a leadership role and who function as an achiever also needs to show integrity in action.

    1. Nancy, thanks for taking the time to write. I like your phrase “balance of accountability, responsibility, and authority shown by one’s integrity in action”; that’s quotable. Don

  2. Not only is leadership messy, but for the most part, few want to be leaders today!

    Organization’s can’t find leaders, folks won’t volunteer to participate; but despite that, when a natural disaster strikes or some unplanned something happens like a bomb in a public place; it’s amazing how from the crowd of onlookers & bystanders, when an immediate emergency unfolds and presents a challenge, True Leaders will step out from the shadows, like in Houston in response to the Hurricane Harvey relief efforts and then in Florida with Hurricane Irma and again now in Puerto Rico, they appear from nowhere and do their part or what they can to help their fellow man and become the unsung Hero’s of the Day, simply doing what they could to help their neighbors in their local community survive to just get through the unexpected ordeal that just washed over them!

    So take the lead, volunteer and step out to do what you can do to help make your local community a better place.

    As this is one of the challenges from Christ for we Christians to be servant evangelist’s; and through this process of Servangelism, you will find many opportunities to serve and/or help others in need, which will also give you the opportunity to share the Good News that Christ was sent to help our world, to find it’s way and be saved, and that you’ve been put here at this very moment in time and at this location and place to help out!

    While leadership is messy, somebody has to step up and do the things that most everyone else won’t tackle and that’s what happens over and over, when true Hero’s come forward and step out and help with whatever the problem of the day is, with no expectation of anything other than lending a helping hand to their fellow man.

    1. Jay,
      I hope all my readers read your comments. You’re right, many people are reluctant to lead and volunteer (which are two different things) but we need both. In many settings leadership is a sacrificial act and we need more of that. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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