Leadership in the Valley of the Madness

By Dan Kent

Good leadership empowers and nurtures autonomy; bad leadership seeks automation and control.

A type of madness threatens each of us. It stalks us, surrounds us, and whispers sweet promises in our ears.

I first confronted The Madness shopping at Target twenty years ago. My truck blew a headlight, so I found a new headlight and brought it to the checkout counter. The cashier put my headlight in a plastic Target bag.

“No bag, please,” I said. It was, after all, only a headlight.

She said, “It’s our policy to put merchandise in bags.”

“But I don’t want one,” I said, a little annoyed. Then I remembered I needed toothpaste, too. “Oh, can you hold this here for a minute? I’ll be right back.”

She took the headlight while I hurried to the hygiene aisle. I grabbed a tube of Colgate, and then returned to the cashier. I saw my headlight on the floor by the cashier’s feet. She had put it in a bag!

I paid for the toothpaste and she tossed that in the bag with the headlight.

“I didn’t want a bag for the headlight,” I said, “I thought I made that clear?”

She hardened her eyes, “it’s our policy to give everyone a bag. It’s for your protection.”

“Protection? From what?”

“So we know you purchased your goods.”

Of course, anyone could sneak a Target bag in and fill it with stolen goods, but I decided against mentioning that. Instead, I grabbed my bag and walked away.

As I approached the automatic doors, her voice cried out again. “Sir, sir, you forgot your receipt.”

I turned and, lifting the plastic bag above my head like a trophy fish, proclaimed, “I don’t need a receipt. I have a bag.”

She didn’t seem to appreciate my sarcasm. I could almost hear her thoughts: it’s just a bag, jerk. And it was just a bag. No big deal. But that’s exactly why it exposed The Madness. If the bag really didn’t matter that much, if it wasn’t a big deal, then refusing the bag shouldn’t have caused a problem. Yet giving a bag to each customer seemed critical to this poor woman. Why?

Because she had succumbed to The Madness.

The Madness can creep into you unexpectedly. It might gain a foothold in you with something as simple as a nametag, then a uniform, a job description, a customer service script, an employee handbook outlining corporate policy on hair length, tattoos, and vacation requests. Each of these innocent little tokens can chip away at your autonomy, democratize your individuality, and automate your personality. You begin to think and act less and less for yourself.

A hilarious representation of this insanity can be found in the movie Idiocracy. The movie tells the story of an average guy transported fifty years into the future—a future so dumbed down by The Madness that he now exists as the smartest person on earth. At one point, he visits a Costco where a store greeter, with sleepy eyes and a dull slouch, mumbles, “welcome to Costco… I love you.” The dolt-greeter utters this numbing chorus to each customer entering the store. “Welcome to Costco, I love you. Welcome to Costco, I love you.”

Each time we utter, “It’s just my job,” “it’s company policy,” or “I’m just following orders,” we’ve surrendered a little more of ourselves to The Madness. Have you tried to use telephone customer service lately? They’re almost all computer programs now, programmed to sound human. Humanity literally automated. Welcome to the dystopian now.

I see scripture hollering out against this automation of self, this loss of autonomy, and this over-conformity. I see David telling King Saul: “I’m not wearing that!” when Saul tried to get David to wear a kingdom-branded uniform (Saul’s armor) before David fought Goliath. I see Mary shirking her duties (violating her job description, if you will), so she could sit at Jesus’s feet—to the dismay of Martha, who was just doing her job (Luke 10:38-42). And don’t forget Jacob physically wrestling with God for a blessing.

Boldness pleases God more than meaningless conformity. Jesus only praises three people throughout the gospels. I already mentioned Mary. The other two boldly confronted Jesus with supposedly inappropriate requests—with which Jesus complied! One, who worked in the violence profession as a centurion, asked the non-violent, peace-promoting messiah to heal his servant (Matthew 8:5-13). The other was a Canaanite woman who, because of hostility between Jews and Canaanites, had no business approaching Jesus, either. In fact, Jesus calls her a dog. But she boldly persists (Matthew 15:21-28). Jesus answers both of their bold requests, and then celebrates their great faith.

God wants us to be in agape-love relationship with each other and with God. In order to pull this off, God had to create us with something special: autonomy. When God breathed that special breath into the dust and brought us to life, God created a source of say-so, a source of initiative and proactivity that can transcend, in some degree, cause and effect. Made in the image of God, we have the power to originate events, to bring forth realities that wouldn’t otherwise occur without us. This power fills us with vitality.

We put this precious autonomy in danger when we thoughtlessly submit to things like corporate culture, branding, or marketplace expectations. Protecting individual autonomy stands at the center of the battlefield in our spiritual war against the principalities and powers. I’m not saying we should necessarily disobey orders, shrug off job requirements, burn our uniforms, or blow off customer expectations. I’m simply trying to expose how the principalities and powers can smother autonomy and can draw us into a tug-of-war for our soul.

For my part, I offer three strategies for Open-and-Relational Leaders to help their people fight against The Madness, and to maybe even help them foster that beautiful boldness God enjoys so much.

(1) Mandate the what, not the how. When you give someone work, tell them clearly the result you want. Avoid getting hung up on the method for achieving that result. Nothing chokes vitality like some grabby micromanager looking over your shoulder saying, “no do this, no not like that, like this.” For example, imagine you are the manager of a mega-store. You could be a manager who mandates method: For each customer who enters, tell them: ‘Welcome to Costco, I love you.’ Now consider managing from an open-and-relational perspective. Instead of dictating method, you state your desired result: I want customers to feel like they are personally welcome in our store, and I want them to feel appreciated. Watch how this approach allows employees to make their own decisions and to figure out how to give you what you want in a way that feels natural to them. You get what you want, and they maintain their autonomy.
(2) Fight to remove as many policies, requirements, and rules as possible. Yes, we need some of these bureaucratic ornaments. But bureaucracy inherently wants to take over the world. You can always come up with a good reason for a new rule, a new policy, or a new required form. And, creating these precious little burdens creates the warm feeling of managing. For every ten people who propose new rules, policies, or documents, I’ve found only one who fights to remove them.

New controls come easy, but never for free. They accumulate fast, and eventually create a spiritual claustrophobia that can crush employee vitality. The more you press an employee to conform and comply, the less likely your job role will appeal to high quality candidates. You’ll see employee quality diminish, requiring more bureaucracy, which will reduce future employee quality. This downward spiral of bureaucratic sadness continues until the job begins to feel like jumping rope: something is always happening, but…nothing meaningful. Who wants to work under such heavy loads? Policies, requirements, procedures, dress codes…they always cost us something. Get rid of them!
(3) Give away as much power as possible. God does. God hands over such abundant power that we can even reject God and sabotage God’s will. The more say-so and input employees have, the more empowered and proactive they become. When I go into convenience stores or coffee shops, I often ask employees, “Do you get to choose the music? Or does management decide what plays here?” Usually, management decides, which makes me sad because, well, usually the music is terrible. It’s usually Classic Rock. Ugh! I’d much rather hear whatever music employees enjoy. And you know what? They’d be a whole lot happier, too, if they had even that small amount of say-so.
An Open-and-Relational Leader promotes autonomy, not automation. They seek to empower, not control. God formed humans out of dust, and then enlivened that dust with a special breath. Subversive forces seek to turn that breath back to dust. The Open-and-Relational Leader works to guard and foster God’s holy breath in each of us and works to give that breath space to expand and to accomplish whatever wonderful things it hopes to accomplish.

Dan Kent authored the best-selling book Confident Humility: Becoming Your Full Self Without Becoming Full of Yourself (2019). He serves as Teaching Pastor at Woodland Hills Church in Maplewood, Minnesota and hosts the wildly popular podcast “Greg Boyd: Apologies & Explanations.”

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

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