12 Things a Leader CAN’T Do

Famed NBA coach Phil Jackson accepted a position with the New York Knicks recently as team president. The Knicks are a team in need of help. They are one of the biggest market teams in the NBA, but have struggled to win. They have a star player in Carmelo Anthony, but he has been unable to take his team to the next level. Knicks ownership seems to believe that Phil Jackson can turn this team around and bring them a championship. This has led many to question just how much impact a single individual can have on the culture of an organization. Can one individual really change the ethos of a system?

On the other end of the spectrum, we see Clippers owner, Donald Sterling, making some terribly racist remarks. This has led to numerous people calling for him to sell the team and the NBA commissioner to ban Mr. Sterling for life. Clearly there are certain expectations that a leader MUST live up to or face consequences, but there are also some expectations that are maybe a bit higher than any leader could truly achieve.

Clearly, a great deal is expected of leaders, both in business and in the church. But how realistic are those expectations? Can any individual really live up to them? Here are 12 things a leader CAN’T do:

1. A leader can’t change a culture alone. Quite often, churches and businesses look to their leader to single-handedly save the day. They either don’t realize how broken the system is that they are a part of or they simply believe that they are not the problem.

2. A leader can’t change a culture overnight. When systems are broken, change will NOT happen quickly. Sister Helen Prejean, in her book Dead Man Walking, wrote, “It would take me a long time to understand how systems inflict pain and hardship in people’s lives and to learn that being kind in an unjust system is not enough.” The fact is that dysfunction in a system takes a tremendous amount of time to diagnose and even more time to repair. Serious change will not happen quickly.

3. A leader can’t change a culture that isn’t ripe for change. Because of the slow-moving nature of change, there are often stages to that change similar to the stages of plant growth. The Apostle Paul uses this same analogy in 1 Corinthians 3 when he writes, “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” The same is true with change. Sometimes one person will plant seeds of change, another will water those seeds, and then finally growth will come at the appointed time. But a leader cannot make that change happen without the seeds being planted and the soil being watered.

4. A leader can’t do all the work. If a leader is going to help an organization move toward change, they can’t also be expected to do all of the maintenance. If that happens, 99.9% of the time no change will happen because the leader will not have the necessary time to devote to the planting and watering of the seeds.

5. A leader can’t do all the work and be creative. If a leader gets saddled with all of the maintenance work, it is unlikely that they will have much time or energy left for creative thinking. Maintenance work is draining. It does not often replenish the energy of the worker, but instead wears them out. Tired leaders are less creative leaders.

6. A leader can’t do all the work and be healthy. When a leader gets worn out from maintaining and is not getting replenished at all by the work, they will quickly become unhealthy. In extreme cases, this is called “burn-out.” Burn-out can lead to many problems for both the leader and the organization.

8. A leader can’t always follow established procedure. Sometimes leaders have to step outside the box. Change often requires some unusual actions along the way. Leaders are brave enough to suggest this sort of thinking and acting. It’s a dangerous job, but someone has to do it.

7. A leader can’t be all things to all people. Yes, the Apostle Paul said, “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.” But what Paul meant by that is not what we often mean when we use that phrase today. We talk about being all things to all people as meaning that we try to make everyone happy. But we can’t make everyone happy. The Apostle Paul simply meant that he put the gospel into words and a context that the people he interacted with could understand. He didn’t change the message to appease people and clearly didn’t appease everyone since he faced persecution and imprisonment often.

9. A leader can’t be an emotionless robot. It often seems that leaders face a great deal of criticism, which can sometimes get very personal and hurtful. Yet leaders are expected to take it and not show signs of weakness. It’s like the middle school playground where the cruel and ruthless rule the roost and anyone who shows weakness is beat down and pushed in the mud. But those cruel and ruthless bullies can’t rally people to their side. They can only scare them.

10. A leader can’t be an emotionless robot and an empathetic caregiver. People are drawn to a leader and support that leader because that leader connects with them, that leader shows signs of empathy. A ruthless, emotionless, cruel bully is not able to then turn around and be empathetic with the weak and disenfranchised, the poor and downtrodden, or even the average worker. And a leader who shows no empathy with their followers will not have many followers.

11. A leader can’t carry all the burdens of failure in an organization. Failure happens. For organizations trying to improve themselves, failure happens often. And a leader cannot carry all of the burden of those failures. It will destroy them. The burden of failure must be shared, just as the joy of success is shared.

12. A leader can’t carry all the burdens of failure in an organization and maintain hope for the future. When a leader is expected to carry all the burdens of failure, it becomes more and more difficult for them to maintain hope. When we get beat down by the weights of the world, we begin to believe that the world is flat. Leaders need others to take some of the hits and carry some of the weight so that that leader can continue to see the depth and dimension of the things around them and in front of them.

13. A leader can’t stay within the confines of what is acceptable and traditional. If they do, progress will never happen. Leaders have to push the bounds of what people are comfortable with. It is in the tension that change and growth can occur. In their book Leadership on the Line, Heifitz and Linsey wrote, “Differences in perspective are the engine of human progress.” It’s the law of inertia. An object will stay at rest unless acted upon by an outside force.

There are certainly more that could be added to this list. Chime in and add your own “can’ts” in the comments or tweet them to me here.


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