I loved playing with dominos when I was a kid. I’d spend hours standing them up in a row and starting a chain reaction by tipping the first one over. (I never created anything all that amazing with dominos, but click here to watch an incredible example of what I’m talking about.) It was thrilling for me to map out an intricate pattern and execute a successful sequence. The time consuming process on the front end always paid off ‒ eventually ‒ even if it required a lot of trial and error along the way. Sure, the process was frustrating at times and required more patience than I had on hand. There was just something about seeing the dominos fall that got me excited enough to reset them and do it all over again!
Leadership is a lot like playing with dominos. It’s fun and frustrating at the same time. On the front end, it’s exhilarating to create a vision for the future and scope out a game plan to get there. Then, reality hits. Every piece needs to be put in place, tested, and refined. Sometimes the perfect plan works as expected; other times it’s derailed. Sometimes undesirable results are due to poor design, while at other times it’s because unforeseen roadblocks get in the way. You may try your best to eliminate unpredictable variables, but leadership always happens in an imperfect world with imperfect people. And the inevitable result? Imperfect outcomes.
Fact: If you don’t like playing with dominos, you’ll hate leading.
In Leading with a Limp, Dr. Dan Allender writes: “No doubt every leader feels the constant and chronic weight of obstacles, but it isn’t one problem or even a whole set that eats our lunch, it’s that each problem requires a response that seldom resolves the issue. Instead, the response simple creates multiple new problems.” (Leading with a Limp, pgs. 13-14)
Did you catch that? Spend any time in a season of leadership and you’ll soon find out that bringing order from chaos rarely, if ever, ends the tipping of dominos. Instead, it lays out a new pile of opportunities to sort through, set up, and see what happens next. These challenges aren’t all negative, but they’re definitely stretching and can leave you wondering if you’re insane for agreeing to be a key player in the leadership game.
For Reflection/Discussion: What’s Leadership All About?
You and the leaders around you may be struggling with leadership being like playing with dominos. Here are three questions that can help put things in perspective. Reflect on these personally and use them as discussion starters at your next team meeting. They’ll challenge your paradigms about what leadership is really all about and strengthen your resolve as you forge a future together. (And, if you’re really up for some fun, bring some dominos to play with and let your team loose!)
- How much do I (we) enjoy setting plans in motion and letting go?
Every leader is tempted to hold on too tight and for too long. Whether you’re dreaming about starting a business, establishing a ministry, or fixing something that got off the rails along the way, you have to release what’s dear to your heart for it to thrive. If you have a hard time handing over the reins, talk about why and take steps to grow in giving up control.
- How open am I (are we) to seeing what happens and learning on the fly?
I’ve taught both of my teenage sons to drive. The process was fairly simple and straightforward when we were limited to an empty parking lot. But once we headed out on the open road, I had a harder time biting my tongue and not pushing my foot through the passenger-side floorboard. In the realm of leadership, you need to be able to take risks and test the waters ‒ even if you don’t have all the details ironed out. You also need to take in data and make adjustments in real time. Take time to consider your openness level to venturing out into the unknown and sense-making as you go.
- How comfortable am I (are we) with shaping the future and living with varied results?
Designing a vision of “what could be” in a conference room is exciting for leaders and their teams. What’s taxing is discovering well down the line that you have to endure whatever comes of tipping over the dominos. You’re guaranteed to experience successes and failures whether you like it or not. Over time, great leaders become more at ease with a mixture of positive and negative outcomes. They don’t take it personally and they don’t take it out on the people around them. They learn to live with reality and press forward through seasons of celebration and criticism. Reflect on your level of comfort regarding shaping the future and living with varied results. Then, write down and discuss how you’re developing wisdom, discernment, and courage as a leader in this area.
Don’t forget! Whenever you fall back into believing that leading is about solving problems once and for all, think again! Leadership is an endless experiment in lining up a fantastic future, heading in that direction, and adjusting accordingly every step of the way.