Thursday, December 10, 2009

Dirty Dogs Bark First

My Song - Brandi Carlisle (mp3)
Working in a Coal Mine - Lee Dorsey (mp3)

New leaders should be wary of those most eager to catch their eye or bend their ear.

I wrote this on a scrap piece of paper, in a left-handed scrawl, and bent to slip it under the door of our recently-hired pastor's office. But I didn't do it. It felt too sneaky and snaky, too cowardly. But that's the rub, no? If you go in person and offer this kind of advice to a new leader, aren't you precisely the kind of person about whom said leader should be suspicious? Perhaps that is fine. Perhaps that proves your point. But perhaps the new leader chooses to eye you and only you suspiciously, leaving himself or herself all the more vulnerable to the real Slytherins.

Surely you've witnessed this yourself, either in your workplace or in some other organization or group to which you belong? New leaders, clueless to the details and specifics of their new environments, must rely on the information and experience of those around them, to ease them into the culture and expectations of a place, to acclimate them to their new environment and show them the ropes. And who are the very first people most eager to serve such a role? People with agendas. People hoping to move up that glorious corporate (or social) totem pole of power and influence.

Perhaps studies have been done. Perhaps there's a specific percentage. I don't know. But some very large fraction of those most eager and excited to grab audience with a new leader are in it because they're Lookin' Out for Numero Uno, like a legion of Grima Wormtongues hissing into the ear of King Theoden.

It happens in churches, in schools, and definitely in companies. It happens anywhere power is bestowed upon those unfamiliar with a group or a community and their environment. And in those transitional moments, those who have been marginalized -- often for good reason -- begin slinking back into the light from the corners and crevices where they'd been hiding and biding their time, anxiously waiting for regime change, for a new opportunity to squeeze into higher realms, to regain a foothold of influence.

To be sure, some who seek audience and attention from a new leader have unselfish motives. But if I had any single advice for a new leader, it would be this: the faster someone is at your door, the more suspect their motives.

The last time such a transition happened at my workplace, I was so far down on the pecking order that it didn't matter. But it was still interesting to see various people jockeying for position, nipping at one another for pecking order rights. The next time a change at the top occurs, presuming I'm still around, I'm going to be caught up in this game. I might not actively participate. I might not be one of the first squeaky wheels to enter the new boss' doorway. But not doing it is still a way of playing the game by a different strategy. As Rush so wisely puts it, "If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice."

What little I've seen of life at the top o' the heap offers little to envy. It seems lonely. Even those with whom you are closest and most intimate in the work place are ultimately answerable to you. Which has to eventually create some friction, some awkwardness. But when you're at the top, you hardly have time to make friends outside of work, to have a life outside of work, because that level of responsibility requires grotesque amounts of your time.

By happenstance, I became something of a trusted friend and confidante to my former pastor. We would go out for beer once a month or so, and we would talk about anything and everything, but often it was his chance to safely express frustrations with our church. The people who drove him craziest. The rules or expectations that bothered him. The theological discussions that, had certain parishioners heard him, would have sent him packing in a New York minute.

In a perfect world, a leader has someone they can trust without having to worry about power plays or greed. In a perfect world, a leader finds people whose focus is on the greater good and not on himself or herself. And, in reality, most good leaders find these people. Most good leaders can sniff out the snakes and weasels, at least more often than not. In fact, most good leaders know that snakes and weasels both can serve very important functions inside a thriving and healthy backyard setting so long as they're kept in check and in their proper places.

But in those first few months and years, when a new leader is going through the ropes, it's tough to watch the snakes and weasels come back out to play, because you never know who will move up, only that a change of power at top inevitably creates ripples down the line.

"My Song" is off Brandi Carlisle's second album, The Story. She has a new one, Give Up the Ghost, that just came out if you're interested. This is my second posted version of "Working in a Coalmine," but this one's the original '60s hit.


Jade Leonard said...

This is great! I am an independent singer songwriter and I learn a lot from reading blogs like this - thanks so much for sharing.

Bob said...

love to know the apropos inspiration for this insightful piece.

troutking said...

Any piece of writing that quotes Rush has to be good...says our friend Randy.

Randy said...

Damn, beat me to giving a shout out to the Rush reference.

I've always loved that phrase, and thus, I must vote this the best blog article ever.