Leaders as Energizers: Leading the Way God Leads

by Roger Bretherton

If we want to lead the way God leads, we need to create culture in the same way God created the world.

God the Collaborator

The passage in Thomas Jay Oord’s writing that mystifies me most when I first read it is his account of God creating the universe. Surely if there’s any case for a God who can do what God likes, initiating actions entirely autonomously, it’s creation. No one else was there. No one was praying. Nothing stood in God’s way. All God had to do was apply the metaphorical jump leads, and boom—it would all roll from there.

But no, in The Nature of Love, Tom claims that God “‘does not coerce when creating. God’s creative love does not entirely control or fully force the coming to be of new creation.’” It confused me, because it made pre-human creation sound almost sentient. It made God a collaborator with the world rather than its absolute master. Here was a God who was responsive to creation right down to the subatomic level. This was not the command-and-control God I’d come to know and love—and loathe. This God was unfamiliar, but also a pretty good model of how really good leaders change the world.

Just as the notion of the command-and-control God doesn’t appear to be going away any time soon, neither does the notion of the command-and-control leader. Our world is filled with people who think that being the boss means being bossy; that the principal role of the leader is just to tell people what to do. To hear some CEOs talk, you’d think not only that they built their company single-handedly, but that they created the world too. As a consequence, our world is filled with bemused leaders, terminally frustrated that their staff won’t do as they’ve been told. Sooner or later every good leader becomes an amateur psychologist, if only because they are trying to work out why it is that so many people don’t seem to get it, don’t do as they are told, and, more often than not, don’t even seem to understand the instructions.

Leader as Energizer

In recent years, psychologists have proposed multiple models of leadership that move away from the command-and-control leader who just issues instructions. Many Christians have been deeply taken with Robert Greenleaf’s idea of the servant leader. It certainly aligns with New Testament notions presented by Jesus of the one who serves all being the greatest. Others place the essence of leadership not in the individual or in their actions, but in the relationships they form with others. The stand-out definition here comes from leadership expert, Jim McNeish: the leader is the person who forms a relationship with the leader in each of us. It involves a calling out of something good within other people. It’s so close to Oord’s picture of God hovering over the world, drawing out the energetic potential of creation rather than hectoring it into action. The role of the leader in this definition, as Peter Drucker liked to phrase it, is to make strengths effective. It requires a belief that people have wonderful things to contribute to our organizations if only we can find the way to create the opportunity for them to do so. That’s leadership.

Kim Cameron is one of the founders of Positive Organizational Scholarship—the academic study of organizations working at their best. If teams perform super-productively, or leaders lead towards the wellbeing of their workforce and the world, then they may find themselves the subject matter of positive organizational scholarship. Cameron uses a different motif for leadership. He says that leaders are energizers. Cameron and his team have done some fascinating work mapping how energy moves through large organizations. They do this by getting employees to list all the colleagues they spend time with and then giving a rating from -7 to +7 for how energizing or de-energizing they found those contacts to be. An energizing contact lifts our mood and sends us out the door with the sense that our work is worthwhile, valued and meaningful. A de-energizing contact does, well, the opposite. Our mood lowers, we wonder if anyone cares, if our work is really worth doing, and whether we may even be better off working elsewhere. It’s no wonder that the number one reason people often give for seeking alternative employment is not salary or work-life balance, but simply that they feel underappreciated.

When all those ratings are entered into social networking software, what emerges is a picture of the organization as an energetic system. And what really stands out, even in an organization of thousands, are the bright nodes of vitality; those individuals or groups where lines of positive energy converge. The energy network shows us who the real leaders are. They’re the people who pump energy and vitality into the system and everyone they meet. Sometimes they occupy the corner office and earn the big bucks, but often they don’t.

Good for the Whole System

What do these energizers do? To cut a long academic reference list short: they recognize, celebrate and make effective the strengths of others. They invite others to bring their best to the table. And something really interesting occurs when we get to express our best selves in the workplace. Yes, our energy goes up. But also the levels of positive emotion in an organization increase. In an organization where people can bring their best to work, we are also more likely to find hope, love, interest, humor, joy, serenity, inspiration, and trust. And these so-called positive emotions don’t just leave us feeling good, they actually do us good. A meta-analysis of numerous studies on positive emotions suggested that a workplace high in positivity not only sees more motivation, higher job satisfaction, greater innovation and collaboration on projects, but also lower staff turnover, fewer absences, and less burnout. Leaders as energizers are not only good for their immediate colleagues, they are good for the whole system.

Here’s the advantage of the leader as energizer motif: As opposed to the notion of leader as influencer, which implies leadership as a controlling activity—pulling the levers that move the engine of the organization—the idea of leader as energizer opens up a much wider understanding of what it means to lead. It means we can lead with whatever we have at hand. Whatever strength we naturally bring to the table can at times be a source of leadership. Even if we are not the boss, our honesty, our creativity, our wisdom, our prudence, our passion, our bravery or whatever it is that we naturally contribute, can energize and elevate others. And at times, our contribution will be the weight that swings the balance. Sometimes we will have the casting vote. In such times, it may look like we were in control—but only by accident.

The Way We Talk

One of the ways energizing leaders breathe life into a system is through the way they talk. Not just to people, but about them. Perhaps the most powerful thing we can do to change the culture of an organization is to gossip positively about people behind their backs. Sooner or later this spills out in the casual feedback we offer in passing comments to others. These offhand appraisals have been likened to the suits in a deck of playing cards. We can tell people what we think of them in four different ways. Clubs feedback involves telling people that they did things wrong without any further detail. It can be a sharp rebuke. It guarantees they won’t do it again but goes no further. Spades feedback on the other hand indicates where they got it wrong and digs deep into the detail of precisely what they got wrong and how. Conversely, hearts feedback is positive; it tells someone they are fantastic, but not much more. It may leave them wondering why we think that about them and whether we are really sincere. It can be difficult to tell the difference between a vague compliment and an insincere platitude.

All three of these styles of feedback to other people—clubs, spades and hearts—have their place, but the research suggests that if we really wish to bring the best out in other people we will learn to give diamonds feedback. This means that we attend to the good in them in great detail. We apply Paul’s advice in Philippians 4:8 to our relationships: we look for the good, the true, the noble, the pure, and we make the most of it wherever we find it. We become every bit as skilful in commending the good as we are in complaining about the bad.

And here’s the thing. When we lead in this way, drawing the potential out of all around us, we rarely need to coerce or command or control. We create culture in the way God created the world. We lead the way God leads.

Roger Bretherton is Associate Professor in Psychology at the University of Lincoln (UK). He is a Clinical Psychologist specializing in the definition and development of Character Strengths. He frequently consults, coaches and trains leaders in large organizations.

To purchase the book from which this leadership essay comes, see Open and Relational Leadership: Leading with Love.

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