Let me use an unpleasant word to describe a powerful truth of leadership. We all know what constipation is. The Latin term from which we get the word constipation is constipio. It means, narrowly, “to stand together tightly.” Broadly, it means to stand so tightly together that nothing moves.
Let’s apply this to leadership. We humans tend to like the familiar and the near. We flock together with our own kind. We like what we already know. In other words, we like to pack in tightly with the customary and comfortable. This is fine for family and friends, for enjoying the neighborhood hangout or a favorite chair and book. It can be death to great leadership.
Great leaders lean to the “other.” They yearn for perspective from outsiders, wisdom from the new and unfamiliar source. They hunger to be challenged by new ideas and new perspectives. They are open to “foreign” influence. They welcome the well-intentioned stranger who comes with disturbingly strange ways. The leader has to allow the new, filter wisely, but welcome the riches of worlds other than his own.
Some examples. I know of a church that only hires from within its own congregation. This church is constipated in the true Latin sense. They are so alike, so inbred, and so monolithic that they have ceased to innovate. They are clogged by the old that is never forced forward.
I know of another organization that has not done well in about fifteen years. The reason? The board has no provision in its bylaws for rotating its members. So some of the board members of this mediocre organization have been on the board for forty years. Old ways prevail. Old thinking dominates. Elderly personalities set the tone of the whole. They are, frankly, dying, but they don’t know it. You have to look out the window of a car to know if it is moving. If you never look out the window, you can’t tell if the car is moving or rapidly idling. It’s vision and perspective that gives you the information you need.
Finally, I know a leader who fears anything new. He is fundamentally insecure. The new makes him feel inferior because he is intimidated by what he doesn’t know rather than excited to learn new things. So, his department’s technology is dated. His people are under-trained. His leadership style is antiquated. He has a sub-par staff of people who adore him. But his department is constipated. Nothing is moving anywhere fast, but everyone is enjoying the thick familiarity this leader encourages.
Now, I’m being harsh. The reason is that constipation isn’t healthy. It causes other systems to shut down. It is painful. It can, in some cases, be fatal.
The great leader has to be addicted to challenge, has to love learning, has to thrill to improving, and has to stir everyone within reach to abandon every unproductive old way in favor of the innovation that leads to success.
One more thing. Please don’t hear me saying that tradition and legacy and long-term relationships aren’t important. But there is a way to live and celebrate them while still allowing the fresh sea breezes of innovation to blow. That’s what I want for your leadership.