Leadership Myth-busting #8… first in, last to leave

It’s been a while since I’ve posted on leadership myth-busting. This is where I try and examine certain leadership mantra’s or practices that perhaps do not align with Jesus’ model of leadership… or are simply unhelpful to sustain leadership for the long-term. Please check out some of the previous posts in the series by clicking here…

So the Covid reality has given us a chance to reflect on practices that were perhaps standard fare for organisational leaders, but – in hindsight – were, frankly, quite weird. I’ve been doing some reading about our addiction to busyness and the importance of getting a better balance to life, work and ministry. There’s some great material out there… two recent best-sellers are Peter Scazzero’s Emotionally Healthy Leadership and Marc John Comer’s The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry. I’ve also been delving into some of Dallas Willard’s writing – which is ridiculously challenging (e.g. see this post I wrote). And then this comment by Frank Viola hits where it hurts:

‘Don’t be deceived. Busyness is a myth. We all make time for what matters most to us’ (Viola 2018:429).

There are different dimensions to the myth of busyness… and what I want to expose here is one that I bought in to during my early years of leadership (and perhaps is so ingrained that I’m struggling to shake it off). It’s simply the myth that leaders should be first in, and last to leave. Maybe millennials won’t struggle with this – but I think it’s something of a subconscious maxim for Gen X leaders. The myth is that we should be at our desks and begin being furiously productive before anyone else gets to work… and then we should still be poring over reports, making phone calls, and demonstrating great commitment to the cause long after everyone else has clocked out. Watch any TV show or movie that features a workaholic leader and they will be depicted in this peri-heroic way… sacrificing personal pleasure (and wellbeing) on the altar of success and productivity.

The logic behind the myth is perhaps two-fold… we’re leaders so we must demonstrate and model an impeccable work ethic. And we’re leaders, so we need to justify the higher salary we receive and put in the extra hours to demonstrate our true worth. It seems synonymous with the so-call protestant work ethic… that hard work and self-sacrifice are the true ingredients for success. And one key way that this is demonstrated is through being first in, and last to leave.

Perhaps the motives are more pernicious? I would suggest (from my own experience) it’s a combination of pride and addiction. We like to boast about the long hours we slave at the office and we are addicted to the pursuit of success, even when it comes at a high price. Maybe, at its most insidious, this all stems from a god-complex! We feel we can run our organisation, control our world, and wield power – all from behind our desk.

However, when we think about this rationally, it’s actually ludicrous. What are we thinking? And what are we modelling to others?? We think being first in and last out models commitment, hard work and the self-sacrifices needed to be successful. But how about we model something different? Can we not be leaders that are committed to other priorities such as family, leisure, church, relationships, serving others, community involvement? Shouldn’t we be making time and space for a multi-dimensional life rather than being chained to the desk?

Now, we know that Jesus didn’t have a 9-5 desk job, but he does give an example of pursuing a balanced and healthy approach to life. Yes, he worked hard, but he also retreated from the crowds in order to be refreshed and listen to God. He took time to hang out with friends, attend weddings and parties, and spent plenty of time outdoors. A quick read through the action-packed gospel of Mark and you can see Jesus’ leadership was not one-dimensional.

Maybe a post-covid world will break this myth. But, I’m not so sure. Perhaps they’ll be a danger of simply reverting to type. (Or maybe working virtually will completely blur the lines and cause other challenges – but that can be a discussion for another time).

So, whether you have already returned to your office – or intend to in the near future, maybe you need to join me in trying to do something radical. If you’re first in, be the first to leave. And if I’m not first in, that’s fine! I can make my contribution within my contracted hours, and happily leave my desk knowing I’ve given my best and still have energy left to also give my best in other areas of my life.

Peter Scazerro writes this:

“Limits are often simply God’s gifts in disguise. This makes them one of the most counterintuitive, difficult truths in Scripture to embrace. It flies in the face of our natural tendency to want to play god and run the world” (Scazerro 2015:205).

When we buy into the first in, last to leave myth, we are in danger of operating beyond the limits that God has put in place. Perhaps if we seek to honour those limits, we will find we can be more productive and sustain good leadership performance for the long haul.