IVP - Strangely Dim - The Unscented Leader

June 11, 2004

The Unscented Leader

By David A. Zimmerman

Leaders are like deodorant. I’m serious. I drew this conclusion in a moment of epiphany as I was anointing my armpits with what my family has affectionately called “stink-juice.” My deodorant had a sticker on it that read “Unscented leader!” Nobody smells less than these folks, apparently, and in the world of deodorant, unscentedness is next to godliness.

I liked the phrase so much that I peeled it from my deodorant stick and stuck it to the back of my PDA, a gentle reminder to myself that if I am to lead, I am to do it in away that doesn’t raise a stink.

After all, unscented leaders are uncommon. We live in a celebrity culture that stretches to big business, to the point where corporate big shots such as Les Moonves (CBS) or Michael Eisner (Disney) or Steve Jobs (Apple) or Jeff Bezos (Amazon.com) are household names.

Such high-profile leaders render their employees anonymous—probably not on purpose, for I’m sure that they recognize the contributions their staff make to their companies’ success. But if you work under a celebrity CEO, you’ll probably find that you punch in each morning and clock out each night, and even your family members, on mention of your company, are more apt to think of your boss than you. Don’t take this personal, all you high-profile CEOs out there, but you smell a little.

But a celebrity culture generates celebrities as a matter of course, as much because we demand to have them as because people strive to be them. The high-profile leader broadcasts the scent a group wants to be known for, and as consumers, we want to know ahead of time whether, for example, we’re going to smell like waterfalls or fire or any such other manly scent. There is, however, an internal odor to leadership that’s more onerous to me: the stink that power can bring to an otherwise collaborative relationship.

There is absolutely a place for leadership in most ventures, I’ll gladly grant. Without coordination a complex task is doomed to failure, and to borrow from the Scriptures, without vision a people perish. But just as deodorant is meant for the armpits and not, say, for the eyeballs, leadership has a specific and limited function in any collaborative effort. The leader who rolls over her subjects without cause impedes the agenda of the group and potentially causes pain and a nasty rash.

Pastor John Ortberg has spoken of church leaders as “leading servants” to convey the idea that they serve the cause of something bigger than them just as their workers do. Similary, Jim Collins in his book Good to Great exhorts leaders to aspire to “level five,” where they see themselves as part of a team earnestly working together toward the same goals rather than seeing themselves as shepherds looking after a bunch of dumb sheep. Their concepts appeal to me as someone who is more often sheep than shepherd: If I’m trying to do my part in a collaborative effort, an unscented leader will do for me what I can’t do for myself but let me do what I can do best, for the good of all of us.

But mostly I like to think of leaders as deodorant because it helps me take them off the pedestal that I or we or they have put them on. Leaders serve a purpose, and I benefit from them when they are adequately serving their purposes. With the right leader applying the right leadership to the right place at the right time, we all come through the toughest problems smelling like a rose.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at June 11, 2004 3:27 PM Bookmark and Share

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Behind the Strangeness

Lisa Rieck is a reader and writer who likes to discuss good ideas over hot drinks and gets inspired by the sky. She takes in all kinds of good ideas as a proofreader for InterVarsity Press.

Rebecca Larson is a writer/designer/creative type who has infiltrated IVP's web department, where she writes and edits online content. She enjoys a good pun and loves the smell of freshly printed books.

David A. Zimmerman is an editor for Likewise Books and a columnist for Burnside Writers Collective. He's written three books, most recently The Parable of the Unexpected Guest. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/unexpguest. Find his personal blog at loud-time.com.

Suanne Camfield is a publicist for InterVarsity Press and a freelance writer. She floats ungracefully between work, parenting and writing, and (much to her dismay) finds it impossible to read on a treadmill. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild and blogs at The Rough Cut.

Likewise Books from InterVarsity Press explore a thoughtful, active faith lived out in real time in the midst of an emerging culture.

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