May 24, 2012

When Leaders Mess Up

"Is it true that you once fell asleep during one of your own lectures?"

The professor’s stunned expression revealed that he hadn’t expected anything like this when he called on the student. The rest of us sat there stunned, too, finding it incredible that anyone would ask such a thing in the middle of class. But we also felt a little guilty, because we’d heard the rumors and speculated if they could be true. Now, finally, someone had dared to ask.

The student sat there with a triumphant smirk on his face as the professor struggled with embarrassment at the front of the room.

"I don’t see what this has to do with what we’ve been talking about," he began, "but since you asked, I’ll tell you what happened." The professor then explained that the school’s administration had asked him to represent them at a conference. He agreed to go if it wouldn’t interfere with his teaching. The school arranged for him to come back late at night after the conference so he could still give his lectures the next morning. Since he was an older gentleman, the travel to and from the conference, along with his busy schedule, took a lot out of him, particularly when he had to go in for early classes the next day.

"At one point that morning," he admitted, "I felt as if I’d lost my place in my notes, and when I looked up, the whole class was staring at me. So it is possible that I did fall asleep."

Now we felt even guiltier. We’d been having a bit of fun privately at this man’s expense, suggesting that his lectures were so boring they even put him to sleep, but now we’d discovered that it was his dedication to teaching students like us that had caused him this embarrassment.

I glanced over at the student who’d asked the question. His smirk had vanished. I was amazed by this student’s audacity, but now I was even more amazed by the professor’s graciousness and humility. Without becoming defensive or hostile, he had freely admitted something that could have cost him our respect. Instead, his explanation made us appreciate his dedication to the school and to all of us even more.

When an embarrassing thing happens to a leader, it isn't necessary to deny it or try to cover it up. Instead, the leader has an opportunity to acknowledge and explain it in a way that inspires renewed respect and loyalty.

Many in the Corinthian church were challenging the Apostle Paul’s authority and credentials. At their insistence, he defended his leadership and described his qualifications. But he also related an experience that he said showed his weakness, explaining how he once escaped from Damascus by being lowered in a basket out a window in the city wall. Not a very bold or dignified exit. But Paul wanted his followers to respect him not as someone supposedly superhuman, but as an ordinary person they could have confidence in because of his openness, honesty, and dedication.

Leaders: Do you try to keep your followers from finding out about embarrassing things that show your human flaws?

Followers: Do you have less confidence in your leaders when human frailty becomes apparent? Or will you respect them even more?

Image by Tim Miller. Post by Chris Smith 

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