RARE Leadership

I’m sure I’m not alone in this, but with all the books out there on leadership, very little surprises me when I pick up the latest best-seller. Seems like every author just rehashes the same old formulas.

Happily I’ve been reading a book recently that actually covers some new territory. It’s not that I’m some great expert on leadership who’s seen it all; but it is refreshing to get some new ideas to rejuvenate and challenge my own approach to leading.

In their book, Rare Leadership: 4 Uncommon Habits for Increasing Trust, Joy and Engagement in the People You Lead, authors Jim Wilder and Marcus Warner unpack four habits of rare leaders. They use the word RARE as an acronym for their four points. At the risk of this sounding like a book report, I’m anxious to share what I’m learning.

Wilder has spent his life studying brain science—he has a Psy D from Fuller and has continued his research throughout his adult life. His most recent studies have been around narcissism and its striking prevalence among pastors and leaders within Christendom.

Let’s pause and let that fact sink in.

Somebody has finally called out a huge blind spot that exists in our churches: we are colluding with … asking to be led by … blessing and voting for narcissists to lead us! Then when it is our turn to lead, we may not be full-blown narcissists, but we thoughtlessly engage in predatory attitudes and actions that reduce our followers to things to be used, not God’s sons and daughters who ought to be treasured.

Something is wrong here. Wilder’s research has identified four domains that ought to characterize healthy, non-narcissistic leadership. We need to put these in place in our own leadership, and insist that those who lead us are vetted properly so they, too, exhibit these qualities.

One of Wilder’s counter-intuitive points is this: You do not simply set out to do these things. They have to be trained into the unconscious functioning of our minds.

Simply put, there are two broad types of brain activity, what he calls the “fast track” and the “slow track”. These roughly correspond to brain hemispheres and the different types of neural connections that the brain lays down. Research shows the fast track operates at 6hz within the white matter in the brain, and the slow track operates at 5hz within the grey matter of the brain. Reaction speeds in the white matter can be up to 200 times faster than the cycles in the grey matter.

That is why habit consistently dictates our actions more than conscious thinking. Our slow processing just can’t keep up with our habituated responses. So to be a RARE leader, you don’t just try to do better things; you have to rewire the brain so you reactively do what is required. Conscious thought can be useful, but leaders cannot use their problem-solving skills effectively if they have not trained their brains to have mature and helpful fast-track reactions to people and problems. These leaders best practices aren’t activities they think about—they are reactions that occur unconsciously and almost instantly because they have been wired into the fast-track systems of the brain.

Here are the four habits Wilder and Warner lay out

  • R stands for “Remain Relational” meaning these leaders have trained themselves to keep relationships more important than problems
  • A stands for “Act Like Yourself” meaning these leaders have consistency of character that lets people know that whatever emotions the leader faces, he knows how to act like himself and followers don’t have to walk around on eggshells
  • R stands for “Return to Joy” meaning these leaders quickly return to joy from upsetting feelings and help their people recover quickly as well; they don’t ooze their emotional states all over their followers
  • E stands for “Endure Hardship Well” meaning these leaders know how to suffer well and aren’t afraid of hardship

As you read those habits, which seem to be the most needed in your leadership?

  • Remain Relational — Do you stomp all over those you follow when things don’t go well, oblivious to the harm you’re doing while you angrily “solve the mess” they’ve created (and are)?
  • Act Like Yourself — Do people know what to expect of you or are they constantly wondering which leader they are going to get because of your unpredictability?
  • Return to Joy — When you are upset, do you express that in unhealthy ways and stay angry for long periods of time, unable to get a grip on your emotional ups and downs? Do you know how to calm and sooth yourself, and help those around your recover quickly instead of spreading fear, dissention and negativity?
  • Endure Hardship Well — Though no one likes to suffer, do you seek the lessons that hardship has for you and teach those around you to do the same? Do you practice appreciation? Do you know what drains you and what refills you? Are you careful to avoid joy substitutes that can lead to medicating instead of facing the hardship, and refuse to let addictions numb you to pain you must feel and the hard work you must step into?

Consider how much of a RARE leader you are. There are ways to train yourself to be that leader, so that when the need arises, you will simply do by reaction and habit the right things that come from the best version of you and lead to a good future for all.

By Judson Poling

Judson met Greg Huston (The Crucible Project’s founder) in 2002 and staffed his first initial weekend the following spring. Judson is a founding board member of The Crucible Project and co-developer of The Crucible Project’s four second-level weekends. He also served on staff of Willow Creek Community Church for 29 years. Judson is now a best-selling author and President of Cambia Resources, LLC, doing consulting, coaching and freelance writing.

Photo Credit: Culveer Vilk via Creative Commons.