The past few days I’ve posted on themes related to the movie The Green Zone from a couple years back and the book that inspired that movie, Imperial Life in the Emerald City. The sub-title for the series could be called “How do we know we are serving?” or “How do we know our success is truly success when considered from a human and ethical lens?”
Leadership Phenomenon Observed: Party-based Allocation
The somewhat disillusioning conclusion to the events captured in Imperial Life in the Emerald City was that Americans who were tasked to lead change and lay a foundation for Iraq’s rebuilding, government, and economy consistently celebrated the greatness of their contribution and work – despite fairly obvious failure and disappointment to anyone truly paying attention to the full impact of the western helpers on the nationals.
Rose Colored Self-Congratulations
Maybe you’ve experienced it – but reading the book it just blew my mind how so many things could just go horribly wrong, so many dollars wasted, and so little tangible results, still could be celebrated as great success.
How does this happen? Why does it happen?
I’m sure it’s complicated with politics, ethocentrism, and other things playing a part. But it’s simple too. None of us ever want to look at something we’ve worked hard at and enter into that feeling that it might have been a total failure and all of our work was worthless. That’s kind of dark place to go to.
So we find something to feel good about. We seem to have endless capacity for justification, rationalization, and glass half-full thinking. We can walk away never experiencing the impact, the pain, the reality of missed opportunities or unintended consequence. There’s an existential crisis in this of sorts – for to come face to face with the possibility that all of your best efforts were just not good enough is to be pretty close to the deeper questions about who we are and whether we can make a difference in this life.
There’s the overly positive people – who only can see the “wins” no matter whether the losses overwhelm them.
There’s the spiritualizers – who believe whatever you’ve done somehow is what God wanted to happen.
There’s the positive fatalists – who believe that whatever happened was meant to be so why question it and just be content with your efforts and approach.
And of course there’s the blamers – those who congratulate themselves and justify the success of their personal efforts while blaming others for the failures.
Resolving Not to Grieve
Something we see in the Green Zone is an unwillingness to face disappointment, failure, and missed opportunities. In short, we see resolution to avoid grief. Instead, we must focus on the bright side. Or maybe we rationalize that we did our part and now it’s up to “them” to do theirs. That’s a pretty insidious mentality though especially amidst clear failures. In a sense it’s blaming those you are “helping” for the failures of setting them up for success. This happens – we invest dollars and throw bodies at problems or priorities without much awareness or thought as to the dynamics involved, and then when the results we want don’t happen we find it a little easier to put it on the little guy instead of look in the mirror. And it comes from an inability to grieve – to face our own failures in setting others up for success.
Walter Brueggemann describes this “resolution to not grieve” as a part of the “royal consciousness.” It’s part of the psyche that comes with being part of the establishment that has an instinct towards self-preservation. It’s why people just seem to struggle to empower those not in power, no matter what their stated hopes and intentions are. There’s a general lack of awareness of what is serving. It’s all seen through the eyes of privilege and power.
In ministry or general leadership, I’m sure most of us have had experiences where we’ve been part of great initiatives that didn’t go well or even good. I’m sure most of the time you’ve seen a general effort to have positive takeaways. How often have you truly entered into the grief of failed efforts to serve others, failed stewardship of resources – human or financial, or even the sad reality of missed opportunities.
When’s the last time you were a part of an authentic sense of loss about a missed opportunity – what could have been and we just missed the moment? Culturally we just love moving on and just focus on the next thing. We can sometimes grieve tragic and obvious failure, because it’s in our face. But what about missed moments that represent what could have given huge lift to a situation or people and was missed because of a lack of preparation, awareness or intentionality?
Recommendations for the Aspiring Serving Leader
Learn to be able to see your failures. I think a certain capacity to handle failure precedes being able to see them sometimes. But we have to be able to ask the hard questions about whether people were served.
More often than not we focus on whether we worked hard or not as an indication of our service. But we should ask the question, “Were the people we were trying to serve, truly served?” It’s a sure sign that you are drifting from the heart of a servant when your thoughts primarily go to your intentions or effort in evaluating whether you did the job.
I’m not advocating focusing on the negative. I’m advocating focusing on the people. Feel good about what can be felt good about. As humans we don’t usually struggle with finding things to justify our efforts and feel good about. But feel bad about what you should feel bad about. Acknowledge it. Feel sad. Make amends if needed.
Aspire to find the “moments.” Don’t settle just for the “low hanging fruit”, but for what truly will inspire, serve, and help in a given moment in context. Pay attention to not just what went wrong or went went right – but also about what good could have been accomplished if we just were intentional about it.
How do you guard against losing the sight of people’s reality when evaluating your success? How do you fight the temptation to justify your own contributions and existence in the face of disappointment and failure?
This work, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.