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Healthy Leaders are Willing to Take A Punch

Yesterday, a staff member from our church described our pastor with a uniquely insightful compliment. “He is willing to take a punch for us.”

I happen to know that he has indeed taken more than a few of those punches. I only hope my staff feel the same about me.

Knowing how or when to take a punch for your team is a subject not normally listed in the leadership course syllabus. It’s something we learn in the trenches. However, it’s clearly not learned by everyone.

Commonly, we see leaders who throw people under the bus instead of taking responsibility for what happened on their watch. We see leaders who make someone else the scapegoat in order to protect themselves. We suffer under leaders focused on their personal reputation rather than the success of others.

I’ll never forget a moment when my boss took a punch for me. In what seems like another lifetime, I was a Youth Pastor and was taking a group of high school students away for a weekend retreat. One girl showed up without the signed parental consent and contact info I required of everyone. We called her mother and agreed to a little detour in order to meet that mom and get that form on our way out of town.

However, the mother was irate. She saw this situation as so inconvenient that after the retreat was over she and her family left the church. I felt badly for the conflict my decision initiated. I felt somehow responsible for the fallout. I had no second thoughts about my actions, but my boss—my Sr. Pastor—took the full brunt of that mother’s fury.

He took the punch on my behalf. He defended me. And, during a debrief with me afterward, he taught me an important lesson. “If she was willing to get that upset and leave the church over something this small, sooner or later she would left in a huff over some other issue.”

Great leaders learn how to take that punch without taking it out on others. When they do, they create a culture of safety and freedom and innovation that makes leadership a joy.

Healthy leaders take the punch on behalf of their people.

  • They defend the character and good faith efforts of their staff even when an innovation goes badly.

  • They make hard decisions and own responsibility for them, even when they know that fallout is coming.

  • When a customer or a congregational member wants to complain they refuse to outsource the response, and step up to take the heat.

  • When results fall short of expectations great leaders find ways to honor the hard work and good faith effort of those involved, while owning the fact that the results happened on their watch. (Whether intended or unintended.)

  • They hold people accountable for mistakes or poor decisions, but they do so in private, in an appropriate way, rather than allowing public humiliation.

  • They stand before the onslaught of public opinion and take the brunt of the heat for a decision that was made by their team.

Taking a punch for the team is a lot like Jim Collins insight on the “Window and the Mirror.” In what he calls Level 5 Leadership, Collins identifies a consistent pattern. When something goes wrong, great leaders look in the mirror to evaluate their own contribution. When something goes right, they look out the window to see who they can praise.

(See Jim's book, Good to Great.)

It is not far from the famous plaque on Harry Truman’s desk: “The Buck Stops Here.”

I don’t know how often you find yourself in the situation where you need to take a punch you didn’t deserve, but welcome to the club. It is the territory of leadership.

Anyone in your orbit taking a lot of heat these days -- anyone who would benefit if you could take a punch for them?

Thank You:

  • Luke Simmons (my pastor): you are one of the healthiest leaders I have ever known.

  • Wes Engstrom (my boss back then): that moment kicked off my understanding of dealing with conflict.

Photo Credit: Johann Walter Bantz on Unsplash


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