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Why Leaders Must Not be Afraid of Doing Hard Things

What image comes to your mind when you think of a “servant”? 

Many think of two images: (1) A hard-working, action-oriented person who is always busy, and (2) A quiet person who is always doing things behind the scenes, so that others hardly ever notice them. 

However, both of these images can be lacking in what I believe “serving” truly means.

In the first post of this series, I used this definition of leadership: “seeing what is most needed or important in a given situation or relationship, and serving in light of that — even when it’s uncomfortable and unnatural to you.” In the latest post, I mentioned the need to define the word “serve” very carefully, because serving isn’t just about the first image of a “servant” listed above. It’s not just about working hard, when you can easily lose sight of what it means to serve others and the greater good, while forging ahead in plans and execution. Serving actually requires healthy space to consistently reflect and evaluate, asking ourselves the hard and important questions.

But the second image of a “servant” mentioned above can be equally incomplete. 

In many settings, especially in cultures that have a history of non-confrontational behavior, leadership can become idealized as not harming or hurting others. 

This can take “indirectness” or “harmony” to an extreme form of never telling people what you really think, not giving honest feedback or criticism, and being afraid to disagree or “be the bad guy.” It can take subtle forms as well, such as leaders who keep their distance under the guise of “not wanting to get in the way” of those they lead, so they can avoid conflict or having to hold people accountable. This is not loving, nor is it leadership.

One of the television shows I watch regularly is Restaurant: Impossible, hosted by Food Network chef, Robert Irvine. In each episode, Irvine goes to a failing restaurant to try to help fix their woes, which is often a combination of bad food, décor, business decisions, broken relationships — and ultimately poor leadership. He’s a big, muscular British man with a “no-nonsense,” tough-love approach, and he is the complete opposite of the “non-confrontational” leader I described above. He is direct to the point where feelings of people are frequently hurt; he is honest and vocal about his criticisms, and relentlessly holds leaders accountable — expecting them in turn to hold their own people accountable. He certainly doesn’t “get out of the way” — he gets into people’s faces!

What’s most fascinating to me is that, not only do the restaurants ultimately appreciate his approach and eventually admit that “it’s exactly what they needed,” but Irvine’s directness and honesty are what make the show so popular among American viewers.

This is not just a theme of Restaurant: Impossible. Shows like Kitchen Nightmares (Gordon Ramsey), American Idol/The X-Factor (Simon Cowell) and Dancing With the Stars (Len Goodman) all have truth-tellers who aren’t afraid to confront contestants, with the intention of helping them to genuinely improve. And in a strange way that must trigger our deepest colonial memories, most of these people are British. Remember the game show The Weakest Link? Why do we enjoy having British people yelling at us, anyway?