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Leadership Ellipse

No matter how visionary, well-aligned and committed an organization may be, it can become quickly poisoned by interpersonal conflict. This is especially true if the tension is within the top ranks of leadership. Like contamination in a river that pollutes everything downstream, relational tensions among leaders produce an environment that becomes unhealthy for everybody else.

A further complication is that the people we lead also have the same struggles. How can we help them to have better relationships and not live with unresolved tensions? Part of the answer is rooted in who we are.

We cannot lead people on paths that we are not willing to walk on, and we cannot do that just by ourselves. We need mentors, pastors, spiritual directors, counselors and close friends who help us see our weaknesses and encourage us to pursue spiritual and emotional health. We need insight, an openness to change and wisdom in how to do so.

But another part of the answer is to practice healthy relationships and to provide a healthy environment for such relationships to develop. When we foster a healthy relational environment, we are less likely to be a feeding ground for strained relationships and a toxic organizational culture.

How do we do this? Although there are a multitude of things that can be done, the core orienting principle for me is the “practice of attentiveness.”

The Practice of Attentiveness
When we believe that every conversation is a divine appointment, we are more likely to keep eye contact with people and not look over their shoulders for someone else to talk to. When we are curious about God’s activity in someone’s life, we respond honestly to the person’s questions and ask him or her questions rather than just trying to talk through our agenda. We pay attention to others because in doing so we are paying attention to the work of God in their lives.

I find such attentiveness difficult. As a leader I want others to pay attention to me, to my vision, to my ideas and needs. Most top-down, command-and-control organizational cultures exhibit this leader-centered orientation as the unofficial, if not official, way of doing things. An organizational culture becomes unhealthy when most of the focused attention is toward the leader and precious little is given to those who are following.

So, I have worked at identifying and practicing various behaviors of attentiveness to guide the use of my time and leadership. True attentiveness needs to be instinctive and organic—not worked out through a formula. Nevertheless, I’ve found the following alliterative categories of intentional leadership helpful in training myself to remember how to practice attentiveness to others.

Staying Involved
The first category of attentive leadership is staying involved with people. Just associating or talking with people is not the same as being involved with them.

Perhaps the greatest expression of attentiveness is listening. It takes humility and will power to do it well. As leaders, we are used to giving our opinions, lectures, sermons and presentations. But to be really effective, we have to listen even when listening is threatening to our leadership propensity to be in control.

When we listen in an active way, we are yielding, or at least sharing, control of the conversation. When we listen for understanding, we are standing under the other person so that the person and his or her story have prominence. Although we may want to give someone our advice or expertise or opinion, what people often want and need the most is simply someone to listen to them.

Learning from others is also a form of attentiveness. It is important to learn from those in our organizations and churches who may not have the same academic pedigree, life experience or level of responsibility. If we don’t, we can unconsciously become elitist in our learning and miss out on what others have to teach us.

Staying Invested
The second category of leadership attentiveness is investing in people. When we think of people as mere units of labor or as “giving units” or as worker bees, we demean them and shirk our leadership responsibilities.

We need to provide resources and opportunities for them to be healthy and grow. This is not always easy, because sometimes our financial and personnel resources limit what we can do. But the key is thinking of them and not just us.

Evidently, one of the most difficult tasks to do in training a Seeing Eye dog is to get the dog to be able to judge the height of its master for walking under low objects. The dog knows its own height, but to judge the height of its master requires lots of practice. Leaders sometimes need to be like Seeing Eye dogs to those we serve. As we become more aware of where they want to go, we then can lead them appropriately.

Inspiring Others
The third category of being an organizational ecologist is inspiring others by enunciating vision and empowering or encouraging them to use their gifts to their fullest.

Sometimes we may try to inspire people, and they resist because of their own spiritual battles. The danger comes when we try to inspire them through our self-conscious leadership energy. It is far better to not think of us but of them and their need to flourish in our organization. Then we are better able to inspire and enunciate vision.

One of the easiest and best ways to empower others is through open, easy access to information decision-making processes. If people feel that they know what is going on and are able to contribute to meaningful decisions, they are even more empowered in their own particular responsibilities.

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Adapted from The Leadership Ellipse: Shaping How We Lead by Who We Are by Robert A. Fryling. Copyright 2010 by Robert A. Fryling. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press (, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515

is former publisher of InterVarsity Press and vice president of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. He writes, speaks, and teaches in the areas of spiritual formation, leadership, Christian faith, and culture.

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