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  • Teri O'Connor

Leading Through the Hard Places

As an advancement consultant, I often work with leaders as they are preparing their organizations to reach some new milestone, or are stretching to accomplish something they have never done before. I love getting to watch their fledging uncertainty in the vision turn into an unstoppable assurance as we work to build the campaign’s case for support. This intentional process is exciting, exhausting, frustrating, and exhilarating by turns, but it is only the beginning of the arduous work we will do together to meet their organizational goals. A leader will not lead for very long without a clear direction, vision, and purpose.


I have been doing this type of work, managing campaigns (and leaders), for long enough that, I can sit with them at the beginning and circle almost to the day on the calendar when they are going to panic. I will even show them, "This is where you are going to want to freak out. You will be overwhelmed and frightened and want to turn around, but it is too late. Everyone will be mad and think this is your dumbest idea yet, but you can't quit. Keep going. Promise me you won't give up, and I promise that when we get a few weeks further down the road you'll be very glad you didn't, and so will everyone else." Most every client I have had laughs during this particular conversation, and tells me they are made of much sterner stuff than that, and that they don’t panic easily. And later, when they freak out and panic I have to remind them about our conversation and their promise not to quit. The good news is these leaders have been able to accomplish some amazing things just by believing in their vision and being willing to walk through the hard places. Sometimes just having a clear vision and being willing to keep going, in spite of the obstacles, is more inspiring than loudly proclaiming passion for a project.


I think that leadership develops as we push through the hard places. Gardner’s (1990) approach to leadership resonates with this idea of commitment and endurance. It is a call to be honorable leaders; and that to do so we must offer focus, commitment, and sacrifice. “But to mobilize the required resources and to bear what sacrifices are necessary calls for a capacity to focus our energies, a capacity for sustained commitment” (Wren, 1995, p.4).

A few years ago, I worked with a mission organization to build a campaign for a significant Anniversary. This particular project was highly visible, had a lot of external pressure, and required me to lead people from other departments, countries, and cultures whom I had no direct authority over. I was also asking them to do something they had never done before, on a scale that was almost inconceivable.


While I was enjoying the learning of new information and the interaction with so many different communities and cultures, I was also incredibly overwhelmed at times with the magnitude and scope of what we are trying to accomplish together. There were days that I had so many Skype calls in different time zones around the world, that I had jet-lag without even leaving my office. We spent an entire year building the campaign and traveling to 13 different countries and 9 major US cities to train and prepare the leadership teams and staff at each location. We had articulated the vision and cultivated buy-in and enthusiasm for what we were trying to accomplish together, then we invited them to help and gave them specific ways to get involved. “Developing good business direction isn’t magic. It’s a tough, sometimes exhausting practice of gathering information. People who articulate such visions aren’t magicians but broad-based strategic thinkers who are willing to take risks” (Kotter, 1990, p. 117).


If I were going to sum up my own leadership traits I would put futurist and strategist near the top, but my willingness to unwaveringly believe in a project (and the people I’m working with) and stay with it to completion, is what truly benefits my clients. I believe there are times when, as leaders, we have to have enough faith for the entire team. Not because we are unafraid, and not because we don’t understand or appreciate the danger, risk, and cost, but because we are leaders, and as leaders, we must lead.


References

Gradner, J.W. (1990). The cry for leadership. The leader’s companion: Insights on leadership through the ages. Wren, J.T., ed. (1995). New York, NY: The Free Press.

Kotter, J.P. (1990) What leaders really do. The leader’s companion: Insights on leadership through the ages. Wren, J.T., ed. (1995). New York, NY: The Free Press.

Wren, J.T. (1995) The leader’s companion: Insights on leadership through the ages. New York, NY: The Free Press.