I love magic and magicians. I have been infatuated with them my whole life. In fact, I have a number of magic tricks. I know how to do them but have yet to master them. The problem? If you are too close to me, you can see how the trick works…a fatal flaw for any would-be magician. I have the trick and the knowledge but no art. When you are up-close, it all falls apart. The farther you are away from me, the better magician I am!
I also love theatrical production. I remember the opportunity to go on the stage of the Kennedy Center to look at the sets for the production of Showboat. Throughout the performance, I was amazed at the set pieces and backdrops. Once on stage, I was equally amazed that these pieces weren’t nearly as substantive or beautiful up-close. The designers and builders intended them for two hundred foot not two foot viewing.
Unfortunately, these two “parables” can be true of the abilities and character of leaders. We can look better from afar than we do up-close. If we’re not careful, we can build ourselves for long-distance rather than intimate impact. Like a poor magician or a Broadway set, we can lose our luster as people get closer to us.
Frankly, we often worry about appearance over substance. As leaders, it is vital that the image we present be a manifestation of our true character. In short, we need to be driven by our personal relationships rather than our public persona. Authenticity and honesty, not image and facade, need to be the hallmarks of our leadership.
Think about the leaders that have your respect. Think about the leaders that have had the greatest impact on you. More than likely, their public image is congruent with their personal conversation: What you see is what you get. It honestly doesn’t take any time at all to discover a leader’s depth OR uncover false portrayal of character– Once I got up-close, it didn’t take me long to determine that the riverboat on stage was no boat at all!
Here are some questions:
- Do I spend more time on image or relationships?
- Have I developed a public AND a private face?
- Do the people closest to me find me to be consistent?
- Am I the same person at three in the morning as I am at three in the afternoon?
- Do I have friends and colleagues with whom I’m appropriately transparent?
- Am I spending time on developing the quality and depth of my character and spiritual life?
The best magicians are not the ones that perform only huge illusions. There is craft but, on the whole, it is more about theatrics and presentation. The REAL magicians are ones that can do table side magic…the close-up magicians. With a coin or a card, they can astonish you no matter how close you get. They don’t depend on dancers or smoke to distract you or draw your attention. Watch as intently as you can. The good magicians will have you scratching your head. They are as good, or better, up-close as they are at a distance. In fact, they invite the scrutiny.
Leaders ought to be just the same. We ought not only to be good at table side; we ought to invite the scrutiny. We ought to relish relationships and questions that challenge us and probe our depths. Only really bad magicians and stage props (AND superficial leaders!) need to keep people at a distance.