Leadership is Local - Adam McLane

Leadership is Local

The grave danger is to disown our neighbors. When we do so, we deny their humanity and our own humanity without realizing it; we deny ourselves, and we deny the most important Commandments of Jesus. Herein lies the danger, the dehumanization. But here we also find an opportunity: that the light of the love of neighbor may illuminate the Earth with its stunning brightness like a lightning bolt in the dark; that it may wake us up and let true humanity burst through with authentic resistance, resilience and persistence.

~ Pope Francis, February 17th, 2017 – Message to popular movements meeting in California

Some of what I explore in my new book is a recalibration in my life, distinguishing between things that seem important in a 24/7/365 world and what’s really important.

This reflects a now-decades-long theme I’ve visited and revisited is this core question: What is the interplay between my vocation– which is largely national and my daily life– which is largely local

Like, how does that work out in real life?

I can say, with certainty, that they are inter-related. My national (and international) work informs what I do locally just like what I do locally informs what I do nationally and internationally. I can’t separate them because they are both who I am. Nor can I make one more dominant than the other for the same reason. Both make me better!

But– and this is a line I’ve been drawing more and more clearly for this phase of my life– one has to win out for my time and attention.

And, like Pope Francis implore above, I refuse to disown my neighbors.

The Management Trade-Off

My first adult career was a management role with a large health care company. That probably sounds way more white collar than it really was.

In reality, I started as a part-time quality control clerk making $7/hour. When I showed proficiency there I was put in charge of a massive storage area, which I completely reorganized and made more efficient, then was put in charge of a small embossing machine working quietly in a corner by myself, and finally moved up to an off-hour machine operator– running a brand new, highly computerized mess of a machine that no one could quite make hum.

I’d come at 4 o’clock, as the union staff finished their shift, and stay until I completed the days work they didn’t get to finish because of meetings or malfunction or other reasons.

Since I was a college student I’d set-up the machine to run for as long a period of time as possible so I could read or study. So while they’d get stuck in the weeds all day and I’d just fly at night when the 22nd floor was just me, the Bosnian refugee cleaning lady, and loud music.

When it became obvious that I, a part-time person, was outperforming two full-time unionized folks, I got hired to manage them. [It was more than this, but for simplicities sake…]

As our company grew so did our little shop of high tech printers. As a frontline manager I used the techniques I learned as a late-night operator to keep the machines rolling 24/7/365. My hands on management style blurred the line between “management” and “union”, we worked together seamlessly to get the job done and that’s really all that mattered. Sure, we had standards and rules and all of that… but together our goals was to get the work done quickly and perfectly so people would leave us alone to listen to our loud music and have a good time.

It wasn’t long before “the suits” in the company took notice and started to wonder how they could take the success of this one department and spread it around the company.

This is where the struggle began.

The people who wore suits every day wanted me to start going to meetings with them. To them, meetings where were things got done. But to me, meetings were things where work didn’t get done. (The struggle was they saw me as a success because work got done, not because I sat in meetings eating bagels. If I wasn’t with my team I wasn’t sure we would succeed.)

This came to a head when a very high up person pulled me aside to explain to me how management worked: Management is 10% doing and 90% planning.

When he said that… he felt like he was sharing a trade secret. And I felt like I had my tongue pressed to a 9 volt battery.

That’s a gross way to look at work.

What I heard from that was the suits make all the money by not doing anything… which is precisely why no one below them did anything.

And, as my co-workers would say, “That’s a fact, Jack.

I mean… think about their point of view? “Why should I work hard if the guy wearing the tie and making 5 times more than me just goes to meetings and eats bagels all day?

They don’t. By their definition bad management was not leading by example, it was going to meetings to talk about why things don’t get done. It’s upside down!

I think that’s the difference between a manager and a leader. Leaders take people where they couldn’t go by themselves alone while managers eat bagels and go to meetings.

Given the choice I’ll pick leader all day. We get stuff done. 

Embracing My Role in Local Leadership

Ultimately, I believe, great leadership is deeply rooted in the daily grind of frontline work.

At least the type of leader I want to be.

That’s why I’m leaning towards local right now. I want to leverage who I am and what I have for others in my community.

  • I don’t want to go to national meetings about youth ministry without being increasingly engaged in a local youth ministry. (Won’t I be more interesting at those meetings if I do?)
  • I want to address the needs at my kids schools.
  • I want to know about and do something about issues on my block and in my neighborhood.
  • On and on…

It’s not that I’m saying I don’t want to be involved in larger scale things. Not at all. But I am saying that I want my local leadership to inform my other work more than the other way around. I’d rather lead from a locally grounded posture “up” than eat bagels in a meeting and talk about what’s happening “down there.”

The grave danger is to disown our neighbors.






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