Rob Moll: I've stopped being a leadership cynic

Rock climber

Bigstock/PHOTOCREO Michal Bednarek

Working inside large organizations has made a former journalist lose his cynicism about those in authority. Here are three lessons he’s learned about leadership.

Years ago, while working as a writer and editor for Christianity Today, I learned to be suspicious of anyone in a leadership position. Among my duties was covering the fraud beat, where I investigated a variety of swindlers, including more than a few pastors or other leaders who cloaked themselves in the respectability and safety of a church. The experience taught me that authority and responsibility were not always given to those who earned and deserved it.

After a while, when whistleblowers wanted to tell someone their story of abuse or fraud, they called me. As a result of all I heard and saw, I developed a thick skin and learned not to trust those who called themselves “leaders.” I was quick to find discrepancies between their words and their actions; I began to see hypocrisy wherever I looked. I saw leaders selfishly pursuing their own interests at the expense of others.

Over time, I mastered the stereotypical reporter’s attitude: hard-bitten, suspicious and skeptical of anyone in charge. I like to think that it made me a better investigator and writer. But when the journalism industry shrank and I needed to take my skills elsewhere, my cynical-reporter mindset made me a terrible employee.

Working for the first time within large organizations, I soon realized that all leaders are not hypocritical and selfish. If I was to help them, I needed to understand better the role leaders play and the challenges they face.

Over the last few years, working as the communications officer in the office of the president of World Vision, one of the largest Christian organizations in the United States, I’ve stopped being a leadership cynic. It hasn’t been easy; old reporter habits die hard, and it’s always easier to criticize than to be constructive.

But as I’ve “unlearned” my skepticism, I’ve learned a few things about leadership -- and, perhaps more important, how to support and follow good leaders. Here are three lessons I’ve learned:

1. Leadership is hard -- really hard.

Anyone who works on the front lines of an organization knows its problems -- and the solutions. They’re obvious, right?

“If we could just get proper reporting! This process is too complex; we’ve got to reduce the number of approvals if we’re going to get anything done!”

But what looks clear and simple from the front-line vantage point may be murky and complicated from the leaders’ perspective. The leaders are looking at the organization as a whole to determine the best course of action for everyone, not just one department or division. Other areas may have good reasons why multiple approvals are needed; changing the reporting requirements will affect many interdependent relationships.

In other words, knowing what fixes to make is the easy part. Chances are, the organization’s leaders are already aware of the problems and the steps that need to be taken. But how and when to implement those solutions can be incredibly complicated. Many people throughout the organization will be affected; their concerns and worries have to be taken into account. Good leaders will address an organization’s problems, but not necessarily on everyone’s preferred timetable.

2. So have a little humility.

The board of directors has the final responsibility for an organization and its success. It is their job to hire a leader who will achieve their goals for the organization.

After my many years of pummeling leaders with tough questions as a reporter, it took me a while to realize that I’m not the one in charge. I’m no longer the defender of the little guy. The board thought long and hard about who should be leading the organization, and they didn’t pick me. They picked someone else -- the person they thought best for the job.

I don’t need to second-guess that decision. Instead, I can support it, knowing that the final responsibility is with the board. Yes, some boards may be too far removed to understand fully an organization’s challenges. But it’s their job nonetheless.

As I began to understand the challenges leaders face, I became much less skeptical about leadership and much more humble about my own role. Very few leaders are self-serving or unaware of what goes on at the lower levels of the organization. Their job is bigger and broader than mine, and they must answer to the board who hired them.

3. Take constructive steps to improve things.

When I first started working closely with organizational leaders, I thought part of my job was to make sure they knew the challenges or grievances of the line staff.

“So-and-so is concerned about that,” I’d tell them.

Or, “This department needs to be working more efficiently.”

I quickly learned that no one wants to hear raw complaints, especially people who already have a lot of responsibility in a very hard job. Leaders don’t want people who merely recognize problems. They want staff who can fix problems. It is easy to complain but much harder to work to improve things.

No matter your official authority or responsibility, you can always take steps to improve how the work gets done. When you offer to help, you put yourself in a position to make a difference, as well as in a different frame of mind. We don’t worry about finding fault when we are working hard to find a solution.

Even if you become a successful problem solver, the organization’s leaders will still have plenty of issues to address. So offer good advice when you can. But don’t worry about whether your solutions are implemented, and don’t fight for your ideas alone. Try to understand your leaders’ concerns and point of view and make them your own. Then work hard to execute the leaders’ decisions.

Even now, when I sit in on top-level meetings, a small part of me sometimes wants to critique or offer cynical commentary. But I’ve learned that being humble and constructive is a much more spiritually mature response, one that also makes me a better employee.

Seeking the good in others and helping it to flourish is a healthy spiritual practice -- and it’s good for your career.