I was talking to a leader this week who has come under fire from a group in his church who is opposed to the change he and his team are making.
I won’t go into the details, but it’s a change about 99% of you reading this post would advise he make. It’s actually not even that controversial. It’s common sense.
You know what he’s doing? He’s leading.
But he’s getting a crazy amount of pushback from a tiny group of people, less than 10% of his community (as I wrote about here, the opponents almost always a tiny group even when you think they’re not).
He was clearly rattled.
It’s hard to come under fire.
It’s painful to have people spread untrue rumours about you.
It’s tough to see your popularity (even with a small group) sink.
At the core of it, he’s dealing with one of the hardest dynamics any leader faces: opposition. And handling rejection poorly creates the fastest path to becoming an ineffective leader.
We’re All Afraid of Opposition
Here are the dynamics around rejection and opposition most of us face.
You work hard on an idea. You
Sweat over it
Pray over it
And you hope—really hope—that when your idea is unveiled, people will like it.
Before you dismiss that, and announce “I don’t care what people think!” have you ever unveiled an idea or project you sincerely hoped people wouldn’t like?
Didn’t think so.
So the desire to have your proposal accepted is pretty universal, isn’t it?
Almost every leader is afraid of one thing: opposition.
And not just personal opposition, but opposition that rejects your ideas as well. Your hopes. Your strategy. Your dream.
And your dream for the mission.
Here Comes the Trap
What happens next is critical.
When you announce your idea and it’s met with opposition—any opposition—most of us freeze.
That’s the position my friend was in. He was discouraged, dejected and rattled. (That’s actually a sign of a healthy heart by the way. It’s good to be bothered by criticism. Only pathological people aren’t.)
Faced with push back, even from a splinter group, here’s the mistake most leaders make.
Afraid of rejection, you and I revise our ideas until we think they have the greatest chance of acceptance.
And in principle, that’s a good idea. Who wants to introduce something that ultimately only 5 people on Planet Earth are going to find helpful?
But often, in the process of trying to get people to buy in to our initiative, we take the edges off of it.
We dilute it. We compromise. We talk about what’s acceptable, not about what’s best.
And we all die a little inside.
So, because you’ve been rattled, you then re-introduce your slightly watered-down idea/product/change/innovation hoping that people applaud wildly.
Except they don’t. People still don’t like it.
You hear from the critics
A few people leave
More people threaten to leave
You get really scared
So you retreat.
You revise your plan. You sand more edges off. You compromise more fully. You try to offend as few people as possible.
And you die even a little more inside.
Except now, your proposal becomes, literally, unremarkable.
Maybe You Had Something Remarkable
Perhaps you originally had a remarkable idea.
And criticism, at its heart, is a sign that what you’re proposing is remarkable. Think about it: the presence of critics indicates you might have a truly remarkable idea.
Do you see what you often do when you water down your bold changes as a result of criticism? You change a remarkable initiative into an unremarkable one.
You’ve chosen inoffensiveness over effectiveness.
And being inoffensive ultimately makes you ineffective.
And Suddenly You’re on the Fastest Path To Irrelevance
And that’s why far too many leaders end in a place where they are too afraid to be bold. Too afraid to try something new. Too afraid to even dream.
They reduce potentially great initiatives to the least offensive form they can find, hoping everyone will buy in.
Except that your ability to attract new people just went out the window.
The only people who really like your new idea are a small core of the people who already liked your old idea…and any growth potential is jettisoned.
Here’s the lesson far too many leaders never learn about trying to offend as few people as possible:
If you attempt to offend no one, you will eventually become irrelevant to everyone.
Where does this land you as a leader?
With worship services that are bland enough to inspire no one, including almost none of the 40 or 400 people who are there but who strangely want to keep it that way.
Adopting mission statements so drab they could have been lifted from an HR manual.
With a vision for the future that looks far too much like the past.
It’s not that difficult to head down the path to irrelevance.
So what do you do?
Four things can help a leader usher in bolder change and avoid irrelevance:
1. Be Bold
Don’t stop dreaming. Introduce some bolder changes. Incremental change brings incremental results. Bolder change will bring bolder results.
2. Lead with Humility
No one likes an arrogant person; even fewer people like an arrogant leader. Being bold is not a licence to offend. Leading from a place of humility can help you broker change far better than leading from a place of arrogance.
3. Take the Long View
A key difference between leaders who successfully navigate change and those who don’t is the ability to stick out the initial waves of criticism.
The fact that some people don’t like your change is natural. Take the long view and realize that this too shall pass.
And it will pass sooner than you think.
4. Focus on Who You Want To Reach, Not Who You Want to Keep
If you focus on the 10% of people who don’t like the change, you will lose the thousands of people you can reach by making the change.
Again, this is not an excuse to be stubborn, arrogant or bullying. But it is permission to be courageous. To be true to your convictions, and to lead with some conviction and even some occasional daring. I share more specific strategies on how to effectively lead change here.
If your mission is as important as you say it is, it deserves your best leadership and courage.
My Guess Is…
…that you are not trying to be ineffective.
It’s just that gravitational pull we all feel in leadership to please everybody is almost always counterproductive. Sometimes, you even end up being nothing to anyone.
So what’s keeping you back from acting on your best strategy?
What’s keeping you back from being more daring?
It’s fear, isn’t it?
Fear of being rejected.
Fear of offending people.
Well…just know what’s at stake.
Inoffensive is ineffective.
In your attempt to offend no one, you just might become irrelevant to everyone.
My friend called me at just the right time. He hasn’t retreated from his team’s initiative. And he shouldn’t. He’ll keep leading, and his church and community will be better for it. And he’s leading humbly with grace.
Maybe you’re at the cross roads where the push back is becoming so intense from a small group that you want to throw in the towel.
If you have a great idea that you and the team believe is great, hang in there. Just hang in there.
After all, inoffensive is ineffective. And neither you nor your organization want to land there.
What do you think? What would you add to this conversation?
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