Irenic Thoughts

Irenic. The word means peaceful. This web log (or blog) exists to create an ongoing, and hopefully peaceful, series of comments on the life of King of Peace Episcopal Church. This is not a closed community. You are highly encouraged to comment on any post or to send your own posts.


Mike McKinnon on Being a Christian Leader (part II)

Below is the religion column for today, which completes a two part series begun last Friday

Last week in this column I began recounting a recent lunch I shared with Mike McKinnon, retired Navy Captain and recent commander of Submarine Base Kings Bay in which we reflected together on Christian leadership. Mike said that making your people successful is the key to success as a leader. This style of leadership that concerns itself for the good of those being led is often called servant leadership.

Mike described for me what this looks like in the real world noting that this style of leadership is risky and that it takes time. However the rewards are worth the effort for the leader, those being led and the group being served.

The risk that is inherent in this leadership style occurs as you as make the people under you successful because you trust them increasingly with taking on tasks on their own. The downside you must recognize with this style of leadership is that people will make mistakes and the leader has to allow for that. In fact failure and how you help someone deal with it is vital to success.

“You have to be willing to let them make mistakes, but not in areas that will hurt your ship or your company,” he said. “Control the risks, but not all aspects of the task.”

In this way the leader lets the people who work for him or her to learn and grow. The alternative is to control everything. While control is tempting for any leader, it can never be as effective as teaching people to succeed and turning them loose to do so.

Submarine Base Kings BayTo explain why this principle is true, Mike used the analogy of a can capped with a lid. The leader who wants to control every aspect of a project is the lid on the can. People can’t expand and grow if the leader is the lid holding everything in place. The team can never function at maximum effectiveness this way.

“When you control everything,” Mike said, “the effort can be no better than you. In fact the effort can’t even be as good as you, because you can’t do everything at once.”

This is why the servant leader seeks to turn people loose to do what is both right and best. The leader sets the expectations and requirements, communicates fully the objective and what is needed to reach that goal. This job of setting expectations includes the task of building people up ethically so that they make the right decisions. And in this regard, there is no way to do this better than leading by example.

The key in and through all of this is communication, not just from the top down but two-way communication so that the leader knows what is going on. With that channel of communication open, the leader’s job is encouragement. It’s the team that does the work, empowered by the leader who lets it happen without the need for control.

Then when mistakes occur, as they inevitably do, the leader helps assess whether the person was doing their best and simply needs more training or more experience. But from time to time, you discover the person took short cuts and didn’t do things right. That’s the time for the leader to make it clear that short cuts can’t be tolerated.

For Mike, this style of leadership relies on a cultural change and this is true whether in the military or as now when he works as a program manager for VT Services. In every setting, the people who work under your guidance have to learn that you actually care about them as individuals. This takes time and there is no short cut for this. “You have to be willing to take the time to get to know the people,” Mike said.

This time pays off for you and them as you learn someone’s strength and weaknesses and then challenge the person to improve. This is done by taking a real interest in that person’s needs. As Mike puts it, “People don’t care what you have to say unless you care about them.”

When leading the Kentucky, Mike could know every individual. But when taking on Submarine Base Kings Bay, that level of detailed knowledge of the people and their needs was not possible, yet the same principles applied. Mike advised, “Pick the twenty percent you can effect and work on building them up and you can effect everyone.”

This care for the individual can be counter cultural enough that the leader at the local level needs to occasionally stand up to his or her superiors to make room for a new style of leadership. But any organization will eventually come to reward the servant leader who gets results, even if they don’t understand or care that he or she is trying to follow Jesus’ example of leadership. The result may be Christlike leadership, but this is not in-your-face Christianity. Rather the goal is a quiet modeling of leadership following the example of Jesus.

And this is the secret—servant leadership works. Leading by showing true care for the people who work for you is not only a good idea or a Christian ideal, it is a proven method for influencing people to do their best work. While Mike is quick to point out that his own success in the Navy had more to do with those serving with him, the track record of his crew on the Kentucky and Submarine Base Kings Bay under his leadership show that servant leadership works in the real world.

For Mike, it comes down to this, “When people know you care, they will trust you and when you say ‘This is where we need to go’ they will follow you.”



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