On Leadership, Suffering and The Sacrificial Leader

Essential Elements of Right and Effective Leadership

There is not one leader reading this that hasn’t struggled with the mystery of suffering or wrestled with the mastery of personal sacrifice.

These are universal and timeless concepts—regardless of background, education, economic status, etc. But what I’ve found over the past 30 years as a student of leadership is the selfless commitment to take pains with them is firmly embedded in the footings of every real leader’s platform.

Every real leader puts deliberate thought into how their commitment of the will in these areas is going to shape their behavior…their actions and the impact they have on others.”

The Case for Suffering & Leadership

Buried deep in the historicity of Leadership is this idea of suffering. Originally taking on the context of movement by appointment, the term ‘Leader’ began to take on additional association with words like passion and suffering as freedom-loving Gothic leaders stood against high taxes, Roman prejudice, and government corruption in the late 4th Century.

I love how Quint Studer covers this in Hardwiring Excellence:

At the heart of every success story is a person whose passion…has driven them to reach out in some extraordinary way to their fellow-man and make a true difference.”

Quint is really on to something here. This act of reaching out in some extraordinary way to our fellow-man in order to make a true difference requires sacrifice, and almost all sacrifice will cause suffering. There is no gain without pain in many areas of our experience, and real leadership is no exception.

Passion, Drive and Sacrifice

I see a lot of passion in today’s leaders (self-included), but not a lot that is driving us to make essential sacrifices or to suffer for and with others in order to get the right things done extremely well. And there’s good reason for this, according to Ronald White in A Short History of Progress:

In a progress trap, those in positions of authority are unwilling to make changes necessary for future survival. To do so they would need to sacrifice their current status and political power at the top of a hierarchy.”

Have we really become this enamored of status and power as leaders that we can’t make the changes—the sacrifices—necessary for our collective success? If we’re honest, an affirmative answer is not difficult. As I’ve written elsewhere, we can get so mired in past success (accumulated while climbing the corporate ladder) and trapped by a desire to maintain that position in the hierarchy that we don’t see the natural and negative consequences:

  • Empowerment to renew and improve dries up
  • Yesterday’s solutions become today’s problems
  • Low hanging fruit grows back
  • All upward and outward movement grinds to a halt

From Transactions to Transformation

In contrast, we could learn a lesson from A.J. Russell:

All sacrifice and suffering is redemptive. It is used to either teach the individual or to help others. Nothing is by chance.”

And herein lays a benefit that deserves repeating. Sacrifice and suffering are used either to teach (this is personal transformation) or to help others (this is organizational transformation).

There is really nothing in the world like the force multiplier created by sacrifice and suffering when it comes to breaking away from the daily leadership grind of transacting with others to produce short-term results. Approaching others and our work this way is a sure-fire way to stay trapped on the performance plateau.

By learning and helping others—by sacrifice and suffering–we begin transforming.

Are You Ready?

At the risk of stating the obvious, sacrifice is seldom easy. If it were, we’d see it happening far more frequently. As with other things in life, when it’s needed most it gets practiced least. But only those with a sincere wish to sacrifice—to put the needs of others before his/her own—can lead transformation, first for themselves and then for their organizations.

And there is no need to focus on the suffering, just commit to making essential sacrifices out of love for your fellow-man and you’ll find that suffering itself will take on a whole new meaning and have a completely different context that what you may otherwise be accustomed.

So, when was the last time you made sacrifices and suffered as a leader? What sacrifices can you make today that will kick-start transformation? Here’s an even tougher question: What sacrifices is your team, group, company willing to make today because of the authority of your example? I would love to hear your thoughts!

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Richard Dillard

Richard S. Dillard is Founder/ Managing Partner at Dillard Partners, LLC
Pursuing Success at the Speed of Leadership!
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3 thoughts on “On Leadership, Suffering and The Sacrificial Leader

  1. This is a fine article. A part of the suffering is the loneliness of the risk of reaching out with the possibility of failure. Learning to live in the ambiguity of not knowing is a big change. Our world is not simple and linear; it is complex and dynamical. When we see organizations as complex adapting networks of people, full of self-organization, we can engage these dynamics releasing the energy, creativity and vitality of the people. For more on this see http://www.RNKnowlesAssociates.com.

     
    • Thank you, Richard. There is so much in what you’ve written here, but your words certainly reminded me of what I read years ago from Meg Wheatley in Leadership and the New Science. It has long been one of my favorite books on Leadership and I continue to explore the mystery embedded in these ideas.