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August 16, 2012

lessons from management

Whenever my supervisor tells me he wants to speak to me privately, I get somewhat concerned. "Is he going to fire me?" is usually the thought that runs through my mind. (He does that sometimes: calls someone in, fires them, and then sends them out, red-faced, to pack up their belongings and head home.) As I sat across his desk from him last June, I was understandably nervous.

The reason for the summons was an unexpected request. It wasn't something I had asked for, or even wanted, but God gave it to me anyway. Boss-man was asking if I'd do his job for one year, so he could take one year off to travel with his family.

My response involved some reticence and lots of questions. But in talking the idea over with family and friends, I could think of more good reasons to take the position than to not. So I did.

One exhausting year later, my assignment is up, and I've decided to accept a position with a company in Asia, after some rest. But before I move on, I wanted to record some of the lessons I believe God has been the process of teaching me in this season. 

1. Be a leader, not a boss.
People with power struggle with pride. Managerial positions, no matter how small, seem to come with a smattering of pride. Never mind that you're the director of a small group of people, in a small company, in a lesser city... and that your life is "but a breath." You still feel some sinful pride.

I noticed how, when I told people outside of work that I was a supervisor, it seemed that their value judgment of me increased, no questions asked. People didn't ask me if I was a good boss, a kind boss, or a diligent boss. They just assumed that I was more valuable as a human because I had transitioned from underling to boss. I struggled with keeping a proper perspective on my position and role at work, when hearing insinuations like these and believing them. We like to think more of ourselves than we ought. Think of King Solomon, in all his God-given glory...taking for himself some 1,000 wives and concubines. If we get the attention, we want to play the part.

Accordingly, one of the of the biggest lessons I learned was this: God calls us to be servant leaders, not simply "bosses."

The world uses the term "boss," bringing to mind images of power trips, arguments and giving orders. It's all flesh and self-dependance. A boss can push people around without following any of his own advice. He demands deference based on his position, not his character. King David was the epitome of this during his decline into sin, sending his warriors to battle while he stayed home and slept with his soldier's wife. He was being a boss, not a leader.

God showed me that a godly leader sets the tone with humility. Even the word "leader" connotes that the one in charge does what the others followers are expected to do. This is what sets him apart from a boss. For example, if I want my staff to work hard and use their time diligently, I need to set the example of that. When I spend 20 minutes joking and laughing with my fellow managers, but won't allow my staff the same flexibility, I'm not being consistent. A godly leader must truly lead in the same manner in which he or she expects to be followed. This is much harder than simply telling others what to do.

Servant leadership is modeled best by Christ. His leadership style is unexpected. The very idea of the Creator washing our dusty feet and carrying our despicable sin should draw from us unending worship. It should curve our hearts' desire to reflect His model of leadership.

2. Human nature is essentially sinful and must be called to account.  
One of the strangest things about my position this past year, was how little accountability was expected of me. I soon realized that my new supervisor has a laid-back approach to overseeing the work of his staff. To be quite honest, it didn't take much work some days to keep him happy.

I realized more than ever that I am not a very faithful worker when I'm not being watched. I easily found myself spending half an hour surfing the internet...taking an occasional extra-long lunch break...leaving early once in a while...and never being called to question. My conscience was often pricked by Ephesians 6's call to "obey [your employers] not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart." While the fault is my own for my sin of unfaithfulness, I realized that as humans, other than the desire to please your master, the knowledge of judgment and accounting is a premier motivation for good behaviour. Even though my human leadership was easy to appease, the Word that burned in my chest was that of Jesus. The knowledge that I am accountable to Him was what ultimately called me to account for how I spent my employer's time.

Similarly, as leaders we ultimately do the staff below us a favour by holding them accountable for what is expected of them. Left to our own devices, without deadlines, performance reviews or penalties for out-of-line behaviour, we never have the motivation to excel. My own leadership style was a bit too relaxed because I don't like to create conflict, but I realized that in the end this isn't good for me or for my staff. They need accountability, I need accountability. Human nature is essentially sinful and must be called to account.

3. Clear and positive communication is key.  
This point is rather a mish-mash of thoughts on leader-follower communication and relationships. First of all, bring joy. Let your God-given joy shine through to the people you are called to lead. We live in a world that, quite frankly, is full of terrible events, sadness and illness. People live with a fear of death. Employees will razz you, hassle you and complain about and to you. But your joy might be what makes the difference in someone's day, or in their eternity.

When communicating, make sure you communicate more praise and thanks than you do critiques and criticisms. At the same time, be honest about your expectations of your followers. Don't play things down too much in order to maintain a chummy atmosphere. You can't be bffs with everyone. And gossip...don't even go there. It kills.

Deal with problems as they come up. Be gracious, but say what needs to be said, and say it soon. Not only is it much harder to bring up a topic hours or weeks later than you should have dealt with it, but it causes a lot of unnecessary stress. My tendency is to allow myself to boil for hours or weeks over some altercation that has taken place instead of just addressing the topic and clearing the air. Not good.

4. You represent Christ.  
I represent Christ. People are watching. This is so daunting to me. My heart's desire is to be like King David, who repented quickly when God confronted him with his sin of failing to represent Christ in his role as king. David didn't allow his earthly position as king to keep him from humbling himself. And indeed, by humbling himself he tapped into that which is at the very heart of Christlikeness: humility. Don't let anything keep you from it. It will set you apart from the regular management crowd, and point people to Jesus.

I'm thankful for the people who told me to take on the challenge of management. I hope the lessons He taught me through this year will grow His likeness in me in the months and years to come.

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