One of the hardest lessons that is learned on our journey to adulthood is that we are not what we think we are. The perception that we have of ourselves is rarely the same perception that others have of us. This can be both good and bad. For example, I tend to be my own worse critic so in a way this could be good news for me. On the other hand, I also think that I’m pretty witty, and the fact that few might fight my humor laughable kind of makes this bad news. We tend to think of ourselves as being a certain way, and because we are intimately aware with our inner thoughts, feelings and motivations, we are justified in believing that this is who we really are. But others aren’t privy to this internal dialog, so they form their opinion based solely on the part of our lives with which they have experience.
Leaders, maybe more than any others, have the potential to be the hardest hit as a result of this consideration. After all, their behaviors are observed by a greater number of people than those who aren’t leading, and leaders are less likely to be really known by those that follow. As my dad has told me “it’s lonely at the top”. Being in a position of leadership means that there are few people who can relate to you; there are only a few that understand you. Even these individuals can not fully appreciate the struggles that a leader must go through and the careful balance that must be maintained between the various contingencies. Leaders are known of by many, but only known by a few. Perceptions of who a leader is abounds, understanding of the leader is scarce. And perhaps the hardest part of the equation is that the reality matters very little. Perception will form the basis of judgment. Many leaders try to manage perception but after awhile that gets pretty futile too. Each person will interpret actions based on their own experiences and biases. Leaders can not make decisions and consider these hidden agendas.
So, what is a leader to do? The right thing. It is only through doing what the leader knows to be right that the leader can be sure that perception doesn’t matter. The leader has made a decision based on what he or she believes will accomplish the most good and which will serve his or her followers. If its a Christian leader, they will also be motivated by the opportunity to bring God the greatest amount of glory. Knowing that the decision is concurrent with the right thing to do, makes misperceptions easier to manage. Even if misperceptions persist, the leader can rest in the knowledge that their decision was motivated by the proper reasons and that the final judgment will vindicate them.
Leadership is never easy. Being judged by others isn’t either. Knowing that you did the right thing can make both manageable.
“One of the hardest tasks of leadership is understanding that you are not what you are, but what you’re perceived to be by others.”
–Edward L. Flom,