I have a lot of practice in sorting through tricky situations. Among the good that happens each day, other things unraveled and cause hardship. The variety of collapse scenarios is wide and colorful. And, no matter the hair gel, the shine of the shoes, or the quick turn of speech, no one looks good in a mess.

But so what? Wouldn’t it be smart of me to expect departures from the straight and true? Isn’t a late surprise, an exposed lie, a medical emergency, fierce natural calamities, outbursts of emotion, or bouts of confusion and frustration part of reality’s progression? As the old koan goes, isn’t it all perfect. Well. . .Maybe.

I have had the benefit of a good number of twists and turns sweeping my school. Two unexpected stunners barreled through this week, bumping my staff and community into a confused scramble for facts, clarity, and a way through. By and large, we proved a brave and resilient group, but the emotions heated up, and people came closer to a familiar set of reactive responses – the storm out, the indignant huff, the threat, the accusation, the blame-a-thon, the out-of-context quote – all understandably used to discharge displeasure at having to experience yet another punch to the gut.

I had a bit of an aha as the week worked my nerves – that leaders preside over these circumstances, whether they arise from an external source or a self-inflicted wound – and can’t help but witness people in various degrees of suffering. In turn, co-workers and community members look to leaders to provide pain relief. Just make it go away. Fix it! Make him pay. Do something! Whatever! The call is always there for leaders to extricate us from suffering, even though suffering, a resourceful whack-a-mole, slips back in.

Since leaders can’t eliminate suffering, what kinds of realistic expectations might we hold for them? How can we avoid holding them responsible for how much each day can hurt? We should expect them to tell the truth, to remained engaged when the circumstances are uncomfortable, frightening or distasteful. We might permit them the latitude to scream, cry, make mistakes, and change their minds. Could we forgive them for their imperfections? Could we acknowledge that their success more likely will result from our own compassionate participation – and not from their implausible capacity to perform super-human feats or magic spells.

We need the ones we appoint to stick with it and we need to avoid setting them up.

Any leader is a direct result of his community, company, or tribe. We make them in our own image and sometimes blame them when we don’t like what we see. What if, instead of abdicating responsibility, we accepted the generative potential for mistakes to shake us and awaken us? We could let leaders help us field test solutions, find opportunities, forge new alliances, and lose all the decorum they needed to in order to bring the fullest rendering of truth to the surface.

Indigenous folks have informative traditions when it comes to the benefit of a good mess. In some tribal cultures, individuals set out on long journeys not to show their perfection, but to make mistakes and learn from them. Only after an individual had made a good number of mistakes – and learned how to hold himself accountable for them – was he deemed to be fit to lead. If we can remember this practice in how we look at our leaders now, we might find that the journey of leadership is one that we all go on together.


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