I remember the conversation with Vern in his office as if it was yesterday. He was a quiet, humble, and unassuming leader I was blessed to work with for many years. I always learned a lot from him and on that day, I received one of those special “pearls of wisdom” I’ve never forgotten. We were talking about the reactions of some people who were not happy with changes being made to the status quo, and they were vocal. We talked about the reasons behind the changes, communication, and the long-term consequences if the changes were not made. Then he gave me a little smile and said,

“My job as a leader is twofold. I must comfort the irritable, but I must also irritate the comfortable.

What wisdom. I’ve worked with many leaders in my career and as I reflect on the best ones, they had the balance Vern spoke to me about. Those leaders did what was needed for the situation. I found they were rare as leaders tend to fall into one camp or the other.

Some leaders avoid decisions that will make someone unhappy. They are “pleasers” and tend to be good at comforting, but not at challenging. Pleasing others isn’t a bad thing, but in trying to please everyone, they end up making no one happy. Why? Because in trying to please people, your standards waver to accommodate what others want. They hate to say “no” and don’t like to hold others accountable, which usually translates into no standards. A leader who is a pleaser makes no one happy.

The flip side of the pleasers are those leaders who seemed to take great delight in always irritating and aggravating people. They know how their biting words and actions impact others. It’s as if they want people to hate them, they like having that tough reputation. Keeping the pressure turned up so that no one was comfortable is the norm, meaning everyone is in a constant state of irritation.

Neither of these extremes is helpful. Are you ready to be a servant leader and do what is needed for your team, even if it makes you uncomfortable?

Joe had a team of leaders who had managed their areas for a long time. Turnover was non-existent because everyone wanted to work in the organization. While they did good work, he knew they were too comfortable, operating on autopilot and that wasn’t good for them or the organization. He knew he needed to do something and wrestled with what would be best. He carefully planned out a strategy and executed it one morning, to the shock and surprise of his team. At a morning meeting he told them he was re-organizing the division, not because of poor performance on any individual’s part, but because he believed they needed to grow. He announced a “shuffling of the deck”, moving every manager into a different role. Everyone was dumbfounded by the announcement, no one saw it coming. He told me later it was one of the best things he’d ever done, as it reinvigorated his leaders. They needed to dig in and learn a new function, meet new staff and new customers. In their new roles, they came up with new ideas and strategies which propelled the function forward because they had “fresh eyes.”

Different circumstances will require you to lead differently. Don’t be afraid to stir the pot, when necessary, but also be the leader who senses when the team needs comforting.

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens Ecclesiastes 3:1

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