Good leaders don’t let problems fester

Posted on September 04, 2018 in: Articles

By Owen Phelps

Director, Yeshua Institute

One of the many great blessings in my life was the opportunity to lead a chain of weekly newspapers at the tender age of 27.

It was a great blessing for me, but probably not so much for many of my colleagues on the payroll.

They had the mixed blessing of being on hand to see me grow – struggle upon struggle – as a leader. Sometimes the hard lessons landed hardest on me. Sometimes they landed harder on my colleagues.

One of my most prominent weaknesses – from a long list of weaknesses – was my inclination to let problems fester. To my credit, I’m not one of those people who fly off the handle every time some little thing goes wrong. And let me assure you, that is a virtue in the fast-moving, highly volatile world of media.

But to my debit, I can be slow to take any action at all when action is needed. My problem is that I’m acutely aware of the Law of Unintended Consequences. As a journalist I had observed way too many times that the typical reaction to a problem is to either make it worse or to cause a new and bigger problem.

So all too often I was inclined not to act when action was called for.

This was especially true when there was discord in the ranks. Let’s face it, trying to deal with personnel problems that are personal problems is nearly always a hug headache – or a pain somewhat lower on the body.

But while I dithered, relationship problems got worse and became more costly – both to our company and to the people involved in the conflicts.

There are many great ways to resolve such conflicts. I just did an search for books about “resolving conflicts” and found 839 of them available. Of course we didn’t have when I was a 27-year-old trying to figure my way through a succession of leadership challenges. But there were still many good ways to resolve conflicts and I was woefully ignorant of most of them.

So all too often I hemmed and hawed while little wounds grew into big ones.

I wish now that I had been a more observant student of Jesus in the Gospels. If I had paid more attention, I could have been a much more effective leader from the get-go.

I’m thinking now in particular about what Jesus does and says when discord raises its ugly head in his small band of apostles. We find the key passage in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 20. The mother of the sons of Zebedee, James and John, asks Jesus to give her sons places of prominence in his kingdom. In effect, he tells her and her sons that he can’t do what they are asking him to do.

No harm. No foul. Case closed, right?

Not exactly. For then we read: “When the ten heard this, they became indignant at the two brothers.” (Mat 20:24)

Jesus could have ignored this problem. He could have decided to just let it go, or in any event to do nothing and see if the problem went away – just as I tended to do when I was new to leadership. But that’s not what Jesus did.

The passage continues: “But Jesus summoned them and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave. Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom* for many.” (Mat 20:25-28)

Not only does Jesus not let the apostles stew in their own juices. He takes the initiative and turns the problem into a critical teaching moment. Going forward, the apostles know that Jesus expects a different model of leadership from them.

As we know, they will struggle with that from time to time. But they’ve got no reason to be indignant any more – and as far as we can tell, Jesus’ own initiative as a leader saved him other headaches down the line.

Just wish I had paid better attention and learned that lesson from him before I was thrust into a leadership position.