When Faithful Leadership is not Effective Leadership

Photo: Torsten Dederichs

By: Cass Smith

When we think about influential leaders, we often name Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr, or Mahatma Gandhi… people who have created large movements to effect change. We see their faithfulness in partnership with filling a human need – be it feeding the hungry, encouraging a peaceful existence, or fighting for equal rights for all. We see the same thing on a smaller scale with educators, politicians, and religious leaders. But what happens when faithful leadership becomes ineffective leadership?

Part of the problem is that people in positions of power are too often expected to have all the answers and faulted when they cannot provide them. Leaders are lifted into the role of being false deities and then people become angry or disappointed when they fail to live up to these impossible expectations. Society has created a repeating loop that continually sets people up for disappointment and leaders up for failure.

Another problem is that people often move into leadership roles with the best of intentions only to find themselves lost in a broken system that needs more than one person to fix it. Instead of trying to become part of a larger solution by pulling in more people to effect change, they shift or even forego their previous intentions and become another member of the ever-failing system. In situations like this, people often relinquish their power and fail to meet the responsibilities of the roles they have been assigned. These lost leaders make one of two shifts: either they search for more power, perhaps in hopes that it will help with their effectiveness, or they give up entirely, perhaps because they cannot see a positive way forward.

In both cases, the leadership style they hoped for is forgotten and their good intentions are nowhere to be found. Faithful leadership can also mean knowing or being brave enough to know when it’s time to step down or refocus or shift the work that you’re doing because you’re no longer effecting change. This should also extend to the knowledge that stepping down does not equal failure. Instead, it is an acknowledgment that you have reached or surpassed your capacity in that role.

How can we support faithful leadership while nurturing and encouraging positive leaders and role models in our society? The most important thing is encouraging boundaries. Having leaders that have a healthy work and life balance is a great start. This begins with encouraging and respecting their days off and holiday and vacation time. It is important for everyone to take time away from work to rest, reflect, and take care of oneself. Further, understanding that saying ‘no’ is an important and necessary boundary. It is an acknowledgment that leaders do not have the time or energy to give of themselves in that situation. When these boundaries are both used and respected, it can help prevent disengagement, burnout, and other mental health stresses. This is not just for the sake of people in leadership roles, but also to be a positive and healthy role model for those around them, and it also provides the ability to better support those they lead in the came capacity.

Pre-covid, there was a common consensus or expectation that work equaled life. People were expected to be present in their jobs, and also go above and beyond. Staying late, working weekends, and being constantly available via phone or email was not abnormal. Leaders were chastised for taking time off, not being available 24/7, or turning down demands of their time or energy. To not go ‘above and beyond’ was considered not giving your all to the role in which you filled. Living through a pandemic changed the focus of priority for many people. Seeing illness, death, and isolation from family and friends made many people realize the importance of maintaining personal relationships and experiences outside of work.

However, today’s leaders are still often lacking mental health and leadership support. How can we foster healthy and effective leaders in politics, academics, and religions when we are not providing them with opportunities to practice self care? Mental health is just as important as physical health and many communities do not have access to mental health support. Therapy is often not covered by traditional health benefits nor provincial health benefits and asking people to pay out of pocket for mental health support is a disservice to the people we entrust to care for and lead our communities. Mental health and physical health need to be viewed on the same plane.

Finally, we can support our leaders by asking for and expecting accountability. The people who have been granted the privilege of being representatives, leaders, and teachers also have an obligation to remain effective in their roles or they should voluntarily relinquish them. When this happens, it should be done with support from the community, not with veiled shame and anger for failing. Being an effective and faithful leader should include knowing when it is time to allow someone else to take over. This extends to the lack of faith or trust in leadership once the office is no longer a positive voice for change. Leadership requires the trust and respect of not only colleagues, but also of the people they are tasked with leading. If that trust is broken due to lack of conviction, faith, or accountability, then the relationship is irreparable.

We need to remember that our leaders are not infallible, that they will make mistakes, and that they are human, while also knowing that they need space to grow, learn, and question alongside us. We cannot expect people in positions of power to lead effectively if we do not create space for dialogue and questions. Not just questions asked of them with an expectation of answers, but also allowing them to not have all the answers. It takes great strength to admit that you do not have all the answers and any leader that tells you otherwise is neither truthful nor trustworthy.

It takes more than faith and the willingness to step into these roles to create effective leaders. There needs to be a safe and healthy space for these individuals to work in. They need to be encouraged and lifted up, while also being questioned and held accountable. We need to understand that politicians, teachers, clergy folk, and other leaders are human and will make mistakes.

Society needs to be more open to the understanding that mental health work and self care are a part of a healthy life and leaders should be encouraged to create and maintain these experiences and boundaries. While it is noble to live a life of service, not setting boundaries and taking care of our physical and mental health leaves leaders tired, disengaged, and burnt out. The act taking care of oneself is taking care of all. When done correctly, faithful leadership can spark a movement that can change the world.

 

 

 

Cass is a proud queer and Métis woman who lives with a disability. She is an equality activist for people with disabilities, 2SLGBTQ+ folx, and her Indigenous sisters and brothers. Cass resides on Treaty 1 territory, Homeland of the Red River Métis, with her partner, their teenagers, and in her partner’s words: “enough animals to start a petting zoo.”

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