Apr 20, 2011

Lonely at the Top

My first taste of being a Manager was so awful that I swore off it for the next 5 years. I retold the story today as part of some leadership mentoring I'm doing, and the lessons are just as vivid now as they were 21 years ago.

At the tender age of 23 I was a world traveller, hitch-hiking across the US, teaching English in Costa Rica, and somehow ending up on the banks of the Rio Dulce at Casa Guatemala orphanage. For the first month I taught English, dug ditches, became in charge of the boys, and was thoroughly in love with and loved by every beautiful child and international volunteer. After kids were asleep we'd spend long hours in the volunteer hut singing, combing lice, and swimming out to the raft under a bright starry sky. One of those volunteers is a life-long friend who introduced me to my wife a decade later.

That paradise was shattered the day I agreed to become volunteer coordinator. That same evening I felt cold-shouldered in the hut, wasn't invited for the swim, wasn't included in the jokes and stories. I was suddenly Management, separate.

I don't pretend I was a good leader. I had no training, no mentor, no idea how to motivate and reward and support well-meaning volunteers beyond just expecting them to work hard for the intrinsic motivation of helping kids. I look back now and see so much I could have done better. But the ostracizing occurred before I even had a chance to be a bad manager. It just came with the label.

The most hurtful moment came when I had spent a full week digging a trench with 3 other volunteers. There had been criticisms that I never really did any work, since I was always getting supplies and supporting other work teams, so I made a point of sticking with this hard, heavy job. When we finally finished, we felt jubilant and relieved. Then one of them handed me a camera and asked me to take a picture of Them, the team that had completed this job. I had the same blisters on my hands and aching body, had put in the same hours side-by-side, yet I was still on the outside.

Now two decades wiser I'm coaching two great people as they move into a leadership role in their non-profit organization. We talk about having more compassion and tact and respect than young Rick did. We talk about creating an organizational culture that accepts all team members in whatever role they're called to play, including leadership.

But we also talk about being willing to be the Bad Guy, and the need to support each other when things get rough. There will always be individuals who instinctively resent the boss or person in power, and as egalitarian as we hope to be, there will be times when these leaders have to use that power for the health of the organization. I ask them if they're willing to stand out and somewhat alone, particularly in this intentional community where unity is a foundation stone.

As Executive Director at ACCES, I made some real and lasting friendships with African staff, Canadian interns and board members. But there was still always an awareness of the power differential, regardless of how good and just and respectful a leader I may have been. I was willing to live in that grey area of friend/boss - a zone I did not experience as a young volunteer or intern - because the contribution I could make to the work of ACCES was more important than my being one of the gang.

I hope that I can bring some valuable resources to these emerging leaders, and that together we can forge new leadership styles and a positive environment for them to operate in. I hope that the Dynamic Governance principles we're applying are as effective as the book says. But in the end, I hope they truly understand what they're signing on for, and still believe in the cause enough to take on an often thankless and lonely task.

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