Leading by Invitation

jim-sharonThe ancient story of Cain and Abel provides vital insight into leading people. Cain and Able, you will recall, bring their gifts to God. Abel’s gift is regarded favorably but Cain’s is not. Cain becomes depressed, the victim of perceived injustice, inviting God’s response.
This problem is as common as the story is old. Your Cain, perhaps, is another officer or a volunteer whose work is wanting and whose heart needs changing.

How should you respond? How will you show that person love while nurturing responsibility? There are two common answers to this dilemma: the leader who assumes a Parent-to-Child relationship, or a leader who takes the Adult-to-Adult approach . Which are you?

Let’s look at both models, comparing each to how God responds to Cain and how you might respond to your staff and volunteers.

Parent-Child Leadership
The “Parent-Child” model of communicating and relating to others is very common among Christian leaders and nearly always executed with the best intentions. It is common because it feels good to be a loving parent. After all, God is love and loving others is our first priority. Indeed, taking care of another–showing kindness, compassion, and empathy—is the very heart of Jesus. So protecting your volunteer as a father would protect his child must be the right response, yes?

Not according to Scripture. Look at how God the Father responds to Cain . . .

“Why are you angry?” God asks Cain. “Why is your face downcast?” (Gen 4:3-4)

God recognizes Cain’s feelings, but God does not take on Cain’s emotion. Instead, God invites Cain to see the source underneath his feelings. Do you see the difference? There is a wide gulf between caring for people and taking care of people. When caring for becomes taking care of, you assume a Parent-Child role. You take on the feelings of the other to manage his emotional response and protect him from feeling bad. The problem with this protecting response is that to protect the other you inevitably compromise truth. You withhold information, provide limited or false information. Your desire to reassure and protect becomes telling people what to feel, think, and do. Protection is appropriate for infants and toddlers, but parenting is counter-productive for leading adults. Further, Parent-Child leadership is not love.

In contrast, God’s love for Cain is expressed in encouraging Cain to recognize that his feelings are chosen. A truly loving Father urges his son to see himself truthfully by locating and owning the origin of his son’s emotions.

Adult-Adult Leadership
Adult-to-adult leadership starts with the assumption that a leader is not a parent overseeing children. Rather officer and volunteer are both responsible adults. Parent-Child leadership often backfires because the “child-worker” feels put-down and manipulated by the “parent–leader.” This leads to greater resistance, not greater commitment. The “child-worker” becomes frustrated, rebels, or merely complies with what is asked, doing the minimum he can to meet the requirement.

The people you lead do not need or want your protection. They are men and women who deserve your respect as adults, responsible for their own actions, decisions, and emotions. They are responsible for how they feel and what they do. So, God the Father says to Cain,
“If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.” (Gen 4:6-7)

God invites Cain to do what is right. The invitation offers a pathway for Cain to see the risk and prove his true character. If Cain obeys he will be accepted and gain mastery over sin. But if Cain refuses, the true nature of his heart and his offering will be revealed. Perhaps the sin crouching at your door is the need to lead like a Parent over children instead of a leader of responsible adults?

Great leaders lead by invitation, inviting all around them into honest conversations where difficulty is acknowledged openly, responsibility is owned completely, risk is stated directly, and a choice is given clearly. The secret to leadership by invitation is this: always frame issues in questions that invite responsibility for self-discovery and personal accountability.

[1]  See, Authentic Conversations: Moving from Manipulation to Truth and Commitment, by Jamie Showkeir and Maren Showkeir, 2008, BerrettKoehler Publishers, Inc. San Francisco  ISBN 978-1-57675-595-2

[1] For ease in reading, I use masculine gender to follow the Genesis story. Of course, the lessons apply equally to female and male leaders and workers.