Disciplines of the Steward Leader: #5 – Choosing the Applause

‘Who – as a matter of deep conviction and humility – will determine your worth, the value of your life on earth?’

One of my bookmarks carries a thought that has stayed with me throughout my years in leadership: “It doesn’t matter if the world knows, or sees or understands, the only applause we are meant to seek is that of nail-scarred hands.”

Leaders are exposed to opportunities to generate applause. As public figures we receive both undue criticism for the failures of our institutions and unmerited praise for their successes. The true calling of leadership requires us to accept the former and deflect the latter. That is, our job is to take the blame for mistakes made by those under our leadership and to deflect the praise by redirecting it to those most responsible for our success. In this way we keep ourselves in balance, never taking the criticism too personally and not accepting the praise too easily. But this balance is very difficult to maintain.

Yet keeping this balance leads to the relatively unusual experience of finding freedom in leadership.  Steward leaders are free! We can know freedom from the tyranny of self-preservation and advancement only as we accept criticism and deflect praise. The success of the steward leader lies significantly in his or her ability to keep this twofold movement of leadership in balance. Leaders who inflict pain lose trust and dishearten their people. Leaders who absorb praise produce resentment and sacrifice motivation.

So we must ask ourselves just what kind of applause we are seeking? If human applause serves to validate, affirm and encourage us, we also find that it binds us, boxes us in and ultimately strangles us. When our daily self-worth and the measure of our effectiveness come primarily from the reaction of those with whom we work, we are finished as leaders.

Consider how many decisions you are called on to make in any given day—some in private, some in meetings and some in the public arena. Every day come multiple opportunities to make applause-generating decisions. Sometimes the temptations to make them are enormous, especially when considering the price to be paid if alternative, harder options are chosen.

Now consider how often following God’s will and his Word point you down a different path. This path is the journey of the steward leader. True leadership takes place at the intersection of doing what God is telling us to do and doing the expedient and popular thing. It is there that we know to whom we are looking for our affirmation.

The goal of the steward leader must be to go to bed every night with a clear conscience and a right heart before God. God asks only one thing of steward leaders: that we seek with all our hearts to know his will and respond obediently and joyfully.