Lessons from the Break Room

By Nancy R. Howell

Creativity is the key to transformative, relational leadership built on empowerment, encouragement, and passion of co-laborers and coworkers.

We all meet in the break room at some time because that’s where the truth is told. The break room is the space where workers share their misery and discontent. “No one appreciates my work, and I spent hours on that project.” “Are you kidding? I nearly killed myself on a job and the boss cancelled the project all together.” “The worst thing about being here is that the work is boring, and I have no idea why we’re doing it.” I’ve never even seen the boss except when we’re being criticized. I’m not even sure the boss knows what I do.” Even when the work seems good and our coworkers are great, the break room is the space where we learn the best lessons about how a business or school should be run and what kinds of leaders are the best—at least, that’s where I learned my lessons about leadership.

Being in a variety of jobs, we all know that we want our work to be meaningful, valued, and interesting (and fairly paid!). We want supervisors to know who we are and to respect us. We want leaders to understand the challenges and processes that come with our work assignments—and to trust our skills and knowledge. We want to know how our work contributes to a common goal and product. We want to value and respect those who lead us because we trust them both personally and professionally.

The good news is that new forms of leadership are emerging (in innovative tech companies, for example). The bad news is that poor leadership continues to frustrate workers and undermine their well-being. But, if we’re creative and build good relationships, maybe new kinds of leaders will emerge, and the workplace will be a welcome space we’re eager to see each day. The lessons I’ve learned from both good and poor leaders give me a vision for the possibilities we might realize in our working collaborations.

We’ve become accustomed to top-down leadership and associate leaders with power. No matter how confused or counterproductive a decision may be, we simply follow orders. Yet on the other hand, we know brilliant leaders whose skill invites us into a common project or idea, and we enthusiastically join their vision.

Whether we drag our feet or rush eagerly to our job sites depends on the kind of power wielded by those who supervise us. Speaking for myself, I know I’m a bit resistant when power is used to force me into an assignment that I don’t understand, or suspect is based on a poorly developed plan. Am I just supposed to complete the assignment, preoccupied with the thought that I’m just wasting my time?

My attitude shifts, however, when I’m working with a confident and knowledgeable leader who shares and inspires power. Imagine a supervisor who does more than “boss.” A wise leader empowers others by recognizing and appreciating the diverse talents, expertise, and skills each worker contributes. To share the stage with gifted employees, a leader must have both confidence and humility—equally engaging workers in her thoughtful planning while learning from workers the practical and insightful perspectives they bring from their desks or benches. Sometimes roles may be reversed when a leader must learn or even tackle a supportive (or even servant) role under the skillful tutoring of an employee. A great leader embraces her power and ability, but also respects the power of others as key to the success of a common project.

A leader who empowers others leads by encouragement. One image I’ve encountered depicts a leader as an orchestra conductor. Picture being faced with a stage full of extremely talented musicians who have been competitively auditioned for their seats in the orchestra. Each plays at least one instrument among the many that make up the brass, woodwind, string, and percussion sections. The leader-conductor is charged with knowing musical scores and then discerning what music best fits the talents and training of the musicians. With the concert performance in mind, the conductor must call the musicians to their best work: by rehearsing music that challenges and inspires the players, features their unique abilities, and doesn’t underestimate their skills or deaden their enthusiasm. At the same time, the leader inspires musicianship with music that motivates the players, she must also be aware of what fits and enhances their talents.

In the ordinary workplace, a leader also motivates and inspires, and good relationships are essential to understanding what fits and enhances the talents of workers. A good leader knows the skills and knowledge she lacks and must hire well those employees whose expertise compensates for her vulnerabilities. Respecting employees for the experience and skill they contribute is vital, but leadership must neither overburden nor bore workers (of course, while doing what is appropriate for a thriving business, school, or church). Attentive leaders know people—not just workers. Genuine relationships with people enable leaders to craft assignments that lure individuals and teams toward their best work and senses of self.

Knowing persons with whom we work requires something deeper than a resume with previous jobs, skills, and accomplishments in a list. A good leader recognizes where the passion of coworkers lies—in other words, the leader has compassion. In an essay called “From Hospitality to Shalom,” Elizabeth Conde-Frazier writes that compassion facilitates transformation or movement. Her essay teaches that compassion is a way to know others deeply, especially those who differ from us by gender, race or ethnicity, class, religion, nationality, ability, and other self-identifying traits. In a diverse workplace, leaders who are open and knowledgeable of co-laborers—collaborators—enter into solidarity and empathy in working relationships.

Where passion and compassion are nurtured, collaborators and coworkers create a common vision. Their work is not simply the maintenance of an institution or system because their solidarity (internally as a team and/or externally in service to the community) is moved by passion. The orchestra leader-conductor sees musicians through messy rehearsals, but on concert night, they express a common vision of a moving musical performance. As a teacher, I’ve read about the importance of connecting with the students’ passion as a way to motivate learning that persists long after the semester ends. For students, musicians, and other coworkers/co-learners, the power of passion reminds us that people are more than their knowledge; they are people with feelings that move them to work and service that bring change.

Because Christianity is my spiritual tradition, I think of God as the One who leads us into transforming possibilities and who blesses us with divine compassion. Christians often speak of the leadership of the Holy Spirit, who moves us toward unimaginable adventures. God’s leading has the potential to generate a common vision or goal. Christian leaders open to divine inspiration and to the deepest passions of coworkers may create a community with meaningful work dedicated to a common purpose.

A common goal, vision, or purpose is generated in community, in relationships of trust, respect, and passion. A leader (even the founder or owner of a company) can be the sole source of an institution’s purpose, but even someone as innovative as Steve Jobs needed Steve Wozniak to create a company like Apple.

Creativity is the key to generating vision and empowering collaborative relationships. Creativity is the emergence of something fresh and novel that could not arise from a single leader. Perhaps there are two sources of creativity relevant to leadership. One source is God’s novel purposes or possibilities acting as inspiration for both leaders and teams. Another source is the diversity of participatory “leadership” in a setting where all voices are valued and heard.

Mutuality in the classroom, workroom, or community enables diverse persons to contribute creatively to the common vision. When I visited various schools to discern where to study, I saw two contrasting settings: one was competitive and belittling among students, but another was collaborative. In the latter classroom, I watched students creatively layer ideas into an ever more insightful and complex discussion (under the leadership of a very skilled teacher). Transformative leaders can engage their coworkers and co-learners in creative layering of ideas and actions. The more diverse the participants, the greater the creative potential. Creativity emerges for the sake of the common good when greater awareness of diverse perspectives enhances a common vision.

Creativity is the key to transformative, relational leadership built on empowerment, encouragement, and passion of co-laborers and coworkers. For those who claim the Christian tradition, the compassionate God is the Creator who empowers and encourages both leaders and their collaborators.

Nancy R. Howell is Professor of Theology and Philosophy of Religion and Oubri A. Poppele Professor of Health and Welfare Ministries at Saint Paul School of Theology (Leawood, Kansas, and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma). She completed her doctoral work on Alfred North Whitehead and process theology at Claremont Graduate University. Howell has practiced leadership in both the academic dean and president’s offices at Saint Paul.

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

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