Hacks Are Not Leaders

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Writing about writers, Steven Pressfield offers a chilling definition of a "hack." A hack is someone who "second-guesses his audience. When the hack sits down to work, he doesn't ask himself what's in his own heart. He asks what the market is looking for. The hack condescends to his audience. He thinks he's superior to them. The truth is, he's scared to death of them or, more accurately, scared of being authentic in front of them . . . He's afraid it won't sell. So he tries to anticipate what the market (a telling word) wants, then gives it to them. In other words, the hack writes hierarchically. He writes what he imagines will play well in the eyes of others."

Sadly, his definition of a hack describes much of what passes for leadership today. Over the last forty to fifty years a new style of leadership has emerged that is devoted to managing perceptions, polling, and positioning that avoids, or postpones, tough decisions. The results have been devastating for both the church and society at large:

  1. Uncertainty is chronic.
  2. Critical decisions are forever postponed.
  3. Disaffection and outright hostility toward the church and other institutions are widespread.
  4. Leaders manage perceptions, focusing on preserving their own positions, instead of attending to the needs of the institutions that they are charged to serve.
  5. The failure to act decisively fosters a climate in which the laws, canons, or disciplines that govern common life are regularly violated in the name of forcing change. (The hacks themselves enforce them depending in large part on which way the wind is blowing.)
  6. As a result, even the oldest and most revered of institutions are now drifting badly.
  7. A cynical disaffection is setting in that neither expects, nor strives for anything better.
  8. Failed leaders move from institution to institution, in spite of their failures.
  9. A younger cohort of leaders and other potential leaders gradually surrender any real interest in the needs of the institutions they serve, preferring to focus on projects over which they can exercise a higher locus of control.
  10. And, worst of all, dreams, energy, and creativity are the casualties.

An increasing number of people I meet live at an emotional arms-length from the places that they work. They can't wait to retire. And the ones who have retired live at a disaffected distance from the places that they once worked—that includes clergy.

Hacks sell all of this to us waving the flags of conversation, collaboration, and inclusion—and that's seductive because every good leader needs to learn how to listen and enlist the creative energy and insight of the people organized around a vision or mission. But much of what passes for the ability to listen and enlist today is simply testing the wind—the hack's effort to anticipate the market. By contrast—even when we disagree with them—in general, institutions are better off when their leaders are people who can make a decision, provide a rationale, and press forward.

How did we get here? A twenty-four hour news cycle that treats polling as if it were an event—sound-bite leadership that tests the waters of public opinion before jumping in—a generation that focused more on leaders than leading and then sought to reproduce the appearance of being a leader without the hard, uncertain work of actually leading.

But the temptation to act like a hack is universal and intergenerational. So, it's worth remembering a few things that can serve as an antidote to its seductions:

Accept that not everyone is ever going to be happy with the direction in which you lead.

The role of a leader is not to make everyone happy, nor is the mark of a good leader someone who is universally popular.

Remember that someone will lead. Nature abhors vacuums. It abhors spiritual vacuums in particular. And leadership positions have an intrinsically spiritual nature that makes them the prime targets of mischief and evil. If you think that by not leading, good will surface, you have miscalculated.

Campaigning, recruiting support, and testing the wind are not forms of leadership. The time allotted for collaboration, listening, and learning need to be measured against the complexity and the urgency of the decision to be made and then a decision needs to be made.