Giving Life to Leadership: Defining the Job, Providing Help, and Following Through
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“Giving Life to Leadership: Defining the Job, Providing Help, and Following Through,” Ensign, Sept. 1982, 21

Giving Life to Leadership:

Defining the Job, Providing Help, and Following Through

June 6

Well, here we are at the starting line and the race is on! It’s impossible at this early stage to say who will win—the weeds or the vegetables. I’m glad we’ve set up our little “mini-farm.” One of the main reasons we changed our whole life-style is to teach our children the law of the harvest and to provide opportunities for them to learn to work. It would have been a lot easier for us to have stayed in the city, where we could have raised a small garden in the backyard, especially since neither Rebecca nor I have had any farming experience. But we wanted to teach—and to learn ourselves—and this seemed the ideal way to do it.

So now here we are with fresh air, fruit trees, half an acre of struggling seedlings, and unbelievably aggressive weeds. And unbelievably unenthusiastic children. What can I do to help them understand how important this is and how much we need their help? How can I create in them the desire to work together and help them gain the ability to do a good job?

June 7

Roger and I were called into the bishop’s office today where I received the surprise of my life. He told me that the Lord had called me to preside over the Relief Society in the ward. What an overwhelming, humbling feeling!

I know, deep inside, that this calling is of God. It feels right and I know my Heavenly Father will help me. But right now, I also know there is so very much I need to learn. How can I lift and inspire my counselors and other members of the Relief Society board? How can I encourage the women of the ward to come to meetings, to increase their knowledge, and to improve their skills? And how can I reach those who do not yet have the rich blessings of the gospel active in their lives?

June 18

Well, we started the week out with a bang. I decided this farming called for some dynamic family leadership. I called the troops together early Monday morning, lined them up, and passed out the hoes. I led the parade to the first row of weeds and said, “There will be no other activities until the first twenty rows are done perfectly. Now go to it!” Then I left for work.

When I got back that evening the sight that met my eyes was reminiscent of Europe during World War II. Those straggling weeds that did get pulled were flung in the midst of the green beans, tomatoes, and snow peas that also got pulled. Hoes and gloves were scattered between the rows of remaining plants and weeds.

I immediately realized that an accountability session was in order, so I promptly called a meeting and demanded to know why the children had not done as they had been instructed. Five pairs of eyes widened in surprise at my disapproval and a little voice wailed, “But Daddy! We did what you told us to do!”

Something stopped me in mid-anger. It suddenly occurred to me that they really didn’t know what I expected. To me, “weed the garden” meant to pull every weed out from between the growing plants, to stack the weeds neatly between the rows, and to put away the tools. To them, “weed the garden” meant to get out there and pull all the weeds they could out of the ground. And some of them weren’t even sure what was a weed and what wasn’t!

I realized that it was not fair to hold them accountable for something they did not understand. So I took them out to the garden and gave them a personal demonstration of what “weed the garden” means. I carefully showed them the difference between the plants and the weeds. I assigned each one some specific rows to weed. “This is your job,” I told them. “No one else will do it for you. Whether we eat beans (or peas or corn) next winter depends on you.” Then I taught them how to put the tools away when they were through.

I think the rest of the week will go much better.

June 21

I have been through a wonderful growing experience these past two weeks. After the bishop called me, I became increasingly despondent as I became aware of more and more of the responsibilities that are mine. I began to wonder whether I could handle my home and family and serve well in this demanding calling.

Then I did some studying and praying and I realized that the meetings, the dinners, the homemaking skills, the visiting teaching program—all were only means to a much greater end: the growth and development of the sisters in the ward. If I were to try to do all the work of the Relief Society alone, or simply concentrate on seeing that tasks are accomplished, it would defeat the very purpose of the Relief Society. Leadership is not “getting tasks accomplished through people”; it is “building people through tasks.”

My job as a leader is to help people grow. And the way they grow is by doing. If I am going to help build the sisters in the ward, I need to help them learn to accept responsibility and carry it well. And I think the first step in accepting responsibility is to learn what that responsibility is.

I have thought deeply about this and have decided to follow Father in Heaven’s example. He makes certain we have a written copy of what he expects of us (the scriptures) so that we can refer to it frequently if we have questions. I have designed a questionnaire for each of us on the Relief Society board to fill out so that we can be certain we know what is expected of us in our callings and will have a written copy we can refer to when necessary. It asks such questions as: (1) What are my specific responsibilities? (2) What meetings am I expected to attend? (3) To whom am I accountable? (4) When am I accountable? (5) What are my resources? (6)How can I measure my success?

Having to search for and write down the answers to those and other questions has given me a much better understanding of my own calling. I hope this will be helpful to the other sisters as well.

June 25

There’s no question now that the children understand what they are supposed to do. After my little demonstration, they seemed willing enough to go out and try—for a few days.

But I’m still having some problems. I guess having a responsibility clearly defined is important, but it isn’t enough. They have to feel responsible. They have to want to be successful. I’m making this a matter of earnest prayer. Maybe I should set more serious consequences if the work does not get done.

July 3

My counselors seem to appreciate the “Calling Description” sheets I gave them. They both said it was helpful for them to have to define their responsibilities in their own words and to know specifically what they are to do and when they need to do it. They also indicated that the sheets have been helpful to them in working with those they supervise. It has given them the opportunity to go over each sister’s responsibilities with her and to answer questions and concerns.

For the most part, the sisters on our board are enthusiastic, dedicated, and anxious to magnify their callings. We do have a couple of teachers who don’t place much importance on attending stake leadership meetings, and some of our visiting teachers do not have the real vision of their calling. But I have come to understand that these are leadership opportunities. If we can teach and lift these sisters to greater heights of understanding and performance, we will be doing the Lord’s work. And if we can do it by loving them and serving them, we will be doing it in the Lord’s way.

July 6

Today I gained some real insights I want to be sure to write down.

After clearly defining the responsibilities of each of our “laborers” I had decided that it would be better to schedule their work at a time when I could work on my rows too. Then, I thought, they would not have to work alone. (Also I thought I could keep an eye on them—we were still losing some green beans along with the weeds.) A leader is supposed to teach correct principles, and I can’t do that if I’m not there at the right time to teach.

So I organized the work force right after dinner. I worked along side them with gusto, hoping the example would be imitated. But I found myself constantly criticizing what they were doing. “Hey, watch out for that plant there,” I’d say, or “No, don’t do it that way!” After half an hour, I was a nervous wreck and they were totally discouraged.

I know that raising children is more important than raising vegetables, but if we keep going at this rate, we won’t have to worry about either by this winter. We’ll all have starved to death!

I have to teach them. I’m not leading effectively if I don’t. But there has to be a better way to do it than by constantly monitoring their progress (or lack of it). One of the most basic assumptions about leadership in the gospel is that the people we are supposed to lead are children of God with intelligence, creativity, and agency. I can’t let the children’s mistakes or even their failure negate that basic premise in my mind. I have to build on a foundation of faith in them and trust in their righteous desires and eventual capability.

I guess the question is, once I have given them a particular responsibility, how can I be a real source of help without unrighteously usurping that responsibility?

July 29

I feel really discouraged tonight. My counselors and I decided to take an aggressive approach to our 79 percent visiting teaching average and launch a massive campaign to teach correct principles and lift our visiting teachers. We set up a special meeting for them this month and even invited the bishopric to speak. We worked for hours on the program, and I know it went well. All those who came (and that’s part of the problem—some didn’t) seemed to be really inspired. But I just reviewed the statistics for the month—77 percent!

Perhaps the “blitz” is not the right approach. I watched Roger out in the garden last night. He was kneeling in the dirt, side by side with the children, trying to teach them how to do their jobs. He was a little frustrated and things did not turn out as well as he expected, but seeing his efforts to encourage growth in the garden and in the lives of the children nourished a seed in my own mind. Perhaps that’s what I need to do—get out there and teach one-on-one, side by side.

The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that a personal relationship with those we serve is critical to success. That seems to be one of the ways the Lord did his teaching when he was here on earth.

August 2

We had a great time in the garden this evening! I think we just may have discovered how to create the spirit of love and togetherness and the pride in a job well done that we were searching for.

Rebecca came out for a while after dinner to help. She took quite a while to do one row, but as she worked she made little comments like, “Oh, look at this row! Aren’t we doing a nice job?” “Let’s get those nasty weeds away from the plants so they can get all the nourishment they need.” “Won’t these potatoes taste delicious this winter when we take them hot out of the oven and put melted butter on them?” She was so enthusiastic and happy about what she was doing she even made me want to get those “nasty old weeds” away from my delicious winter dinners-to-be.

She never once commented on what the rest of the children were doing, but by the time she got to the end of her row, they were working like happy beavers.

Leaders have to be a source of help, but how that help is given makes all the difference. The individual has to know that the responsibility is truly his and that no one else will do it for him. But the example of the leader and the confidence the individual gains from a supportive relationship can provide a firm foundation for his success.

August 3

I met with my counselors to discuss the results of our visiting teaching effort last month. One of them suggested that if the visiting is not done by the 20th of the month, we should go out and do it ourselves. I know this would assure us of a 100 percent report every month, but I am just as certain that it would be devastating to the sisters. There is no visiting teacher can feel that the responsibility is truly hers when she knows that if she fails to do her job, it will be done anyway by someone else. That responsibility is hers and has to remain in her hands.

As we talked about the problem, I shared with them my feelings concerning the need to work with the visiting teachers individually. Our manual indicates that we are supposed to hold interviews with the visiting teachers on a regular basis, but we have placed our efforts in other areas of organization. I think, too, I have subconsciously avoided the idea of “accountability.” I feel uncomfortable when I think of other people having to account to me for their performance.

Nevertheless, many of the sisters in our ward are not receiving the blessings of having the visiting teachers in their homes. Some of our visiting teachers are not receiving the blessings of magnifying their callings. And I am accountable for doing what I can as a leader to improve that situation.

So, after praying together, my counselors and I have decided to set up the interviews right away. This will gives us an opportunity to establish a one-on-one relationship with each visiting teacher.

August 18

I can hardly believe what is happening in the garden and, maybe more important, what is happening inside me!

After our experience a couple of weeks ago I decided that I would set up a regular time each week for the children to account for their work in the garden, and the rest of the time I would simply set a good example, work right along with them, and keep my mouth shut. It was really hard for me the first few days when I saw the mistakes they were making. But I forced myself to bite my tongue, grabbed my hoe, and worked even harder on my own row. “Let each man learn his duty,” the scriptures say. And that letting is quite a challenge!

When our first Saturday morning accountability session came along, I walked past the rows with the children, one at a time, and let them show me what they had done. They looked at their rows; they looked at mine. And they could see there was a difference! Their eyes were opened, and they were learning for themselves. I really didn’t have to say much at all.

But two wonderful things happened. First, they started asking me questions. They are much more teachable now that they can see more of the results, and they want to learn how to do better. And second, my eyes have been opened, too. I can see that our garden will produce what we really want it to produce only as we use the tools forged in eternity to bring forth the greatest harvest.

August 25

I have just come home from one of the sweetest experiences of my life. My counselors and I have been holding interviews with our visiting teachers all week and the effort has brought blessings far beyond what my limited vision had foreseen. I don’t see them as “visiting teachers” anymore; I see them as individual sisters, each with her own talents, abilities, problems, concerns, needs, and level of spirituality. And I see that, as a leader, I need to know each sister well enough to be able to help her according to her uniqueness.

As the last sister came in for her interview tonight, I could tell she was a little nervous. We sat down and prayed together and I asked her how she felt about her stewardship. She looked miserable and told me she felt she was not doing well at all and wanted to be released.

I took a deep breath and was ready to deliver an enthusiastic sermon on how she really wasn’t doing as badly as she thought, when I suddenly realized that she was doing as badly as she thought. She hadn’t even been out visiting for months. As I looked at the pain in her eyes, I realized that she did not need flattery or a lecture. She needed honesty and help.

So I didn’t argue with her analysis of the situation. I quietly asked, “What’s the problem?” The next hour brought us both very close to each other and to the Spirit. What a glorious experience! There is no feeling in the world to compare with being in the right place at the right time to be a source of real help to another of our Father’s children.

As she left with some goals firmly in mind and a desire in her heart to serve the Lord, I knew that one life had been touched in a way that all the sermons from the front of the Relief Society room would never begin to approach. And I also knew that the change in her life would touch the sisters she serves in the visiting teaching program, and her family, and others I would never know about.

More than anything else, this experience has filled me with a deep and abiding love for the sisters I serve. Seeing their goodness, their struggles, the righteous desires of their hearts, and the obstacles they have to overcome has given me the understanding and the desire to serve them better.

August 30

Unbelievable though it seems, our garden accountability sessions have become a rewarding experience! Now that I am not on their backs all during the week, the children and I have developed a much better working relationship. We work as friends and companions, and once in a while they ask for my advice.

And another wonderful thing has happened. Now that the children are more aware of their responsibility for the success or failure of the garden, I am no longer the only one in family prayer praying for its success. We are praying together for results we are working together to achieve.

I’m sure our garden will not provide our winter supply this year. In fact, it may not for several years to come. But the foundation is being laid and the habits and skills are being learned. And “good old dad” is learning to appreciate the efforts more than the results.

September 7

What a glorious day! Roger invited me to come on a three-day business trip with him, and we spent the entire morning driving and talking. It’s wonderful to have time together to share feelings, experiences, and ideas on a deeper-than-usual level.

As we discussed some of the things we have each been learning during the past few months, we came to the realization that, although our paths have been different, we seem to be arriving at some of the same conclusions about effective leadership. The same principles that have provided such a bountiful harvest in our garden are also taking root in the lives of the Relief Society members. And as we expanded our thinking, we began to see that they could well apply in any circumstance of church, home, business, or community service.

I quickly got a notebook and a pen out of my purse and together we identified three fundamental things any leader could do to be effective: (1) clearly define the responsibility, (2) be a real source of help without usurping the responsibility, and (3) provide an opportunity for an accounting.

As we looked over what we had written, we realized that we had seen these principles, couched in various phrases, in a number of places before. We had even already applied them with varying degrees of success. But somehow, these past few months have seemed different. Neither of us has ever before felt so much appreciation for the efforts of others, so much joy in their successes, or so much love for those we have been called to serve. We wonder, what has made the difference?

September 15

Rebecca and I just returned from the temple tonight. As we realized that Father in Heaven uses the very principles to do his work that we discussed and wrote down last week, we became even more convinced that these principles are necessary for us as we do the portion of that work delegated to us. And we also recognized the key that has unlocked this new level of joy and success we have found in doing the Lord’s work.

We are called to build the kingdom of God. But the kingdom is not the garden, the Relief Society room, or the chapel. Zion is, first of all, “the pure in heart.” People are more important than programs, and only as we focus our efforts on growth in the hearts and souls of individuals will we truly be following the Lord’s admonition to seek that kingdom first.

Living solely by the “letter” of the law of leadership—merely following programs or going through prescribed steps, no matter how good they may be—will never allow us to truly influence those we serve. And the real essence of leadership is influence—the ability to reach and change lives.

As we clearly define responsibilities, teach our people how to succeed in those responsibilities, and provide them an opportunity to account for their performance, the most important thing we can do as leaders is to follow the example of the Savior and fellowship those we are called to serve: We must walk with them, step by step; kneel with them in prayer; have heart-to-heart empathy and communication with them; listen to them; and constantly reinforce their righteous efforts.

The “spirit” of the law—the Christ-like love, the individual concern, the personal relationship and fellowship with those we serve—is the key that gives life to the leadership process!

Let’s Talk about It

After reading “Giving Life to Leadership,” you may wish to discuss some of the following ideas and questions during a gospel study period:

1. Review the three principles of leadership the authors learned from the gardening experience and from the experience in Relief Society. What is the “key” that makes them work?

2. How can you apply these principles to your present church calling? Your home environment?

3. Why is it paramount that a leader respect the principle of agency? In what specific ways can a leader show respect for this principle?

4. What important truths about people have you learned from this article? How can you use these truths to improve your relationships with others?

  • Roger Merrill, director of planning and development in the Church Welfare Department, is a member of the Church Melchizedek Priesthood general committee; Rebecca teaches Relief Society lessons in their Lehi, Utah, ward. The couple have five children.

Photography by Michael McConkie