Cheap and Costly Leadership

Real leadership has a cost.

What does it mean to practice sincere leadership?

It’s actually a very difficult question to ask, because the notion of leadership gets so diluted across so many different axes of meaning.  Steve Jobs was an astounding leader, and a really bad one. It just depends on which leadership lens you look at.  He was either a fantastic industrial visionary (true) or he was an awful individual leader (probably true, too).

After contemplating cases like Jobs, I think it’s fair to say that there really are two kinds of leadership…let’s call them cheap and costly leadership.

If you’ve made it this far and are of a certain persuasion, you may recognize “cheap and costly.”  That’s because I’ve stolen the notion from mid 20th century Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book The Cost of Discipleship.  In that book, Bonhoeffer outlines two kinds of grace within the Christian faith: cheap grace, which can be “sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares,” and costly grace, which “costs a man his life.”

Cheap and costly leadership are analogous.

Cheap leadership is only winning. It’s the notion of “by hook or by crook.” It’s making your numbers but not your reputation. Cheap leadership is telling people what they want to hear. It’s knowing the price but not the value.

Cheap leadership is handing out books and forwarding memes.

Costly leadership, on the other hand, is winning and building at the same time.  It’s saving something for later.  It’s investing time in both the mission and people. Costly leadership is costly because it takes time.  It’s one on one meetings that do more than check the box on some HR form.  It’s envisioning someone else’s career without doing it to serve yourself. It’s letting people go…and grow…and flourish.  It’s taking the time to think about how your decisions impact others.

Costly leadership is taking that time on a Friday evening when you are utterly exhausted to talk with your team member about his career.

Interestingly, costly leadership is also about delivering a few swift kicks and pointed corrections. Some subordinates may flock to the cheap leaders who never give them real feedback, but their careers will show it eventually.

Costly leadership is what we should aspire to. Why is it costly?  Because it doesn’t have an immediate payoff.  Because it takes time and energy that may not feel on mission.  Because it, in short dear reader, is not about you.

And that may be the final thought I’ll leave you with:  Costly leadership is about what you build, both on the financial balance sheet and the one that shows the people you’ve built up along the way.

Now, it’s your turn… How do you think about practicing costly leadership?  


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