Do you want to become a great leader? We all do. David McKenna’s 12 lessons on leadership in his excellent book Never Blink in a Hailstorm provide wise maxims on outstanding leadership. In the last post, I talked about his first two principles of great leadership. I continue the discussion of his 12 lessons in this post.

Never Go Solo

“Leaders are often lonely, but they must never go it alone” (41). Outstanding leaders do not yield to the temptations of the “soloist”: (1) to confide in no one, (2) to confess to no one, and (3) to accept criticism from no one (41). McKenna’s right: with their superiors, leaders have to be “performing artists.” With their peers (and I might add followers), they have to be “insatiable optimists.” “With whom can they be themselves?” he asks (43).

We need a few solid people whom we can trust, in whom we can confide, and by whom we can be held accountable. And we need to be open to criticism: Leaders who “go solo without the check and balance of someone who can say ‘No’ are courting trouble” (43).

Never Steal a Paper Clip

Outstanding leaders are first and foremost ethical leaders, and this begins and ends with the smallest details of integrity. McKenna thinks leaders are more liable to ethical lapses because the more visible we are, the more vulnerable we are. Leadership opens us up to greater temptation, and in the face of that temptation, we must grow closer to God and major on honesty and humility.

Never Swallow Perfume

“All of us love the fragrance of flattery and all of us are in danger of swallowing its perfume,” McKenna insightfully says (55). Too many leaders “thrive on praise” (55). The trouble comes in when we “begin to believe what we hear or read about ourselves” (55), a temptation to which those from humble beginnings, he thinks, too often fall prey.

Never Build without a Balcony

Leaders need to have ways to retreat from the “trenches” of leadership. We “live in trenches where controversial issues are confronted, contentious people are encountered, and disputable decisions are made” (61). We need a way to find “release from the pressure” to “regain perspective” so we won’t “flame out, flunk out, and fall out” (61). Going to the balcony can be done by taking some time off to clear your head, or simply waiting before you respond to a critic or going off by yourself to consider the proper course of action.

Never Waste an Interruption

Effective leaders resist the temptation to let their drive for efficiency keep them from allowing their schedules to be interrupted by people. “Like the best-laid plans of mice and men, the daily schedule of an executive invariably includes surprises that wreak havoc with any prearranged agenda” (74). But, Dr. McKenna urges, we must learn to see these interruptions as opportunities. They are “not only our business, they are our ministry” (75).

Never Die from Failure

As Harry Truman said, “If you can’t handle failure, get out of leadership” (85). Everyone will make mistakes; the crucial factor is how the leader handles them. Fear of failure keeps people from being able to take risks, and calculated risks are key to transformational leadership. McKenna reminds us that “to lead is to risk” (86). But when you take risks, you will experience failure. Count on it. It happened to all the great leaders in world history. But the good thing is that we learn and grow from our failures. Like learning to ski, “if you’re not falling down, you’re not learning” (90).

Never Hide Behind a Gas Mask

When toxic fumes fill the air, a leader can’t just put on a gas mask and hope the fumes will go away (98). What he’s illustrating here is avoiding confrontation, a sign of a weak leader and a dysfunctional organization. This reminds me of a book I once read entitledToxic Workplace, which talked about allowing toxic people to poison your organizational culture. Sometimes in Christian leadership, we’re so “nice” that we allow toxic people to toxify our organizations. We put on a gas mask, and hope the toxin will just go away. McKenna offers some tremendous counsel from the life of Jesus to help leaders engage in loving confrontation if necessary by speaking the truth in love.

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