Can You Hold My Ladder, Please?

Last September, Kate, John, Roland and I came for our usual monthly meeting. The sun had begun to hide its scorching rays in the dusk and vigorously beckoned on the moon to come forth in its regal splendour. We could feel the chill of wintry wind winding in. Birds bid us good night as they tweeted their evening songs. We had started a small group that met monthly to share ideas, brainstorm, support each other and explore creative ways to add value to our community through social entrepreneurship.

All of us thoroughly enjoyed no-holds-barred, gut-level, naked-and-not-ashamed, brutally honest discussions of the previous three months. We always looked forward to the next meeting. And there came September. Another time to challenge ourselves. Another time to review our lives. Another time to hold hands together. Another time to share challenges and struggles. Another time to ask for advice and the way forward.

I sensed something strange before we started our discussion. The lively atmosphere we usually enjoy became dull. Conviviality died. I just couldn’t place my finger on what could have gone wrong.

We didn’t come to talk about Leadership, but found ourselves zeroing in on it. It came on the front burner. All of us had experienced different types of Leadership at different times in different places. We began to share our experiences. Each one came with a bespoke story. Kate’s hazel eyes looked like a murderer’s dagger – sharp. John’s finely-chiseled face could melt Gibraltar. And the air which blasted from Roland’s nostrils could generate a Kilowatt of electricity.

First, she “broke the ice.”

Icebreaker Kate began with a forlorn look on her face, clasping her hands. Her usual Pacific-wide, attractive smiles flew into oblivion.  Then she whimpered in a weak voice:

“These past few weeks have been very trying for me at work. I have not had the best of times on my job. My productivity has nose-dived. You all know that I am an unrepentant advocate of good and inspirational leadership. Leadership is a beauty to behold when it lives up to its bidding. Oh the joys of people who are blessed with capable, sound and servant leadership! Leadership that has the skills and competence to take people from where they are, to where they should be.”

Then she paused.

That pause took longer than I anticipated. I thought she was making a recollection so she could continue. No, she wasn’t.

Next, she bowed her head.

She buried her head in her hands. Then a tear dropped. And another tear rolled down. And another. I didn’t get it. What was going on? Why the tears? Why was Kate suddenly overwhelmed? Then she lifted up her head and wiped the tears. With a dampened tone occasionally interjected with abrupt pauses, she continued:

“Recently, I have experienced not very good leadership at where I work. And that experience back-tracked me and walked me down memory lane to some past experiences few years ago in my faith community,” Kate mumbled as her voice began to crack under the weight of emotions. “Leaders should validate their proteges. Every human heart has an intrinsic desire to be affirmed. To be commended. To get a reassuring pat on the back. Human hearts yearn for caring validation and hearty approbation irrespective of race, class, creed, or any other classification. Strong and effective leadership is a powerful tool that can cause the led to operate at their maximum capacity.”

So much power…

“Leadership is a powerful thing. Everything rises and falls on effective leadership.

Leadership is about holding the Ladder.

Leadership is about holding the Ladder.

A leader who can first get peoples’ hearts can get them to do anything. A leader that can effectively articulate, and continuously articulate his vision through various communicative channels, inspires people to buy into the vision. Effective communication is key in leadership. A leader cannot not communicate. I need to say that leadership that deeply loves people, and is genuinely interested in people, will not put people down. Nobody wants to be put down. Not even in private. Leaders break the production capacity and self-esteem of their followers when they verbally abuse them. Or treat them with disdain. Worse still before others. And sometimes they don’t do these verbally, but you will see it in their body language. What they do; what they refuse to do; or how they act – speak loud and clear. Because man cannot not communicate – verbally or nonverbally.”

“I came here with a heavy heart. Can anyone help me? Can anyone advise me? I’ve received several public verbal attacks from leaders at various times in my life – at work, at school, and in church. Severally. Particularly recently at work. I have tried to explain things, but it’s been difficult to sink a point. Have you ever had your cord broken? Have you ever had your heart bruised. Once? Thrice? Ten times? Many times. At work? In school? Somewhere? By those who lead you? We all have virtues and vices. Strengths and weaknesses. I think true leaders should not consistently amplify the weaknesses of their proteges with uncaring abandon. That would break their strides. And it could take a very long time for those broken pieces to be put together again. And their hearts to be mended. And, depending on the personality of the broken, the damage could be near irreparable.”

“Every person has a bad side. John – you do. Roland, I know you do. Bryce – you do. I do. And those bad sides could be nauseating. Very nauseating. But I know you all – John, Roland, and Bryce – are all making steady, concerted efforts to prune them. I’ve noticed your efforts. We’ve talked about this in our past sessions. I am, too. I’m working hard on my bad side. You know what? With the best of my ability, I work hard to achieve good results on the jobs I’m assigned wherever I work. It is draining when your efforts are not appreciated. John, Roland, and Bryce – I need help. I need to detox; to clear this negative emotion. Who here will mend a broken reed?”

Then he broke the silence…

Everywhere was quiet after Kate finished speaking. We all recoiled into our shells. No one dared talk for about five minutes. Then…

John broke the silence:

“Kate, I feel you. I might not have been in your exact situation, but I, too, have had a sour taste of the not-so-good part of leadership. That part that is opposite of good. That part opposite of nice. The part that is opposite of effective. I am not John Maxwell. I am not Bill Hybels. I am not Sam Chand. I am not Ken Blanchard. I am not Colin Powell. I am not a foremost authority on leadership. But I know a little about good leadership. I know effective leadership when I see it. I know that effective leaders “liberalize the space.” “Liberalize the space” is a phrase that I have coined.”

“One thing I know is that effective leaders are not thrifty or miserly with power. I don’t personally subscribe to that paradigm that subordinates should never outshine their bosses. I don’t like that word, ‘outshine.’ Could you give me a break, y’all.? Outshine? No. Not in the sense of competition. I don’t believe in competition. Life is not competitive sports. We all have different gifts and talents, and we should complement and contribute wherever we are. Yeah. Not compete. But contribute. And complement. It’s not a good slant when leaders think that those they lead are outshining them. For me – and I know many others who share my view – the true test of leadership is when your subordinates achieve much more than you have achieved, yet you’re not threatened or unhappy at their results. Look at this. Think with me. Would a father not be proud of his own biological son who achieves much more than him? Would he not beat his chest and shout in exuberance , ‘This is my beloved son in whom I’m well pleased?’

“Effective leaders and mentors are cool with it when their proteges achieve more than them. Let’s cast our minds back to history. Is it not this  pull-the-boy-down mentality that made Saul seek to kill David? Don’t you remember, people? It’s so painful to watch insecure people lead others. Yes, proteges could be more brilliant than their leaders. More educated than their leaders. More attractive than their leaders. More fluent than their leaders. That’s the beauty of the mix. Variety brings colour to the equation.”

“Bad leaders seek to deflate – or exterminate – their outstanding proteges just because those proteges have perceivable or real comparatively advantage over them. It’s sad. It’s so sad. I, John, have had a sour taste of this kind of not-too-good leadership. Kate, it’s not you alone. I, too, have been wounded. And I know some young, vibrant, and upcoming leaders who have been wounded by bad leadership. There are there in the marketplace. There are there in the business world. In Politics? Aplenty. It’s really terrible in Politics. Well, maybe not to rampant in the Church. This poison has killed many fine and promising young people. I don’t think this is right. So, Kate, this is my contribution to the issue you brought up. I had to say something about it. too. Now, what should we do? Do we keep quiet and let the music play on? Are we to be nonchalant and keep dancing to its tune? Do we look the other way and let business continue as usual? My answer, your answer, our answer, is needed now. We must speak now or forever hold our peace.”

When ecstasy is unbridled …

As soon as John finished his tale, Roland bursted out in unbridled ecstasy, praise-singing:

‘‘Mine is the exact opposite of the experiences of Kate and John. Good and effective leadership is better experienced than explained. I have experienced beautiful, effective, servant leadership.

Leadership is about holding the Ladder.

Leadership is about holding the Ladder.

I’ve worked with leaders who have invested in me. Leaders who go from good to great invest in their proteges. Holistically. They see their proteges as extensions of themselves, their work, and their ministries. They keep the big picture ever before them. They see into 50 years down the line after they will have left the stage. They pour out their lives into building others, not just their proteges. By doing that, they’re building a high rise, not a thatched house. By doing that, they’re digging their wells. And they’re digging it real deep. Let me tell you something, Kate, John, and Bryce. Recently, I read a Bible passage in the Gospel of John that I’d love to share with you. You can look up John 4:11-12. It’s about Jacob’s Well. Bible Scholars say that well was 105 feet deep, seven and half feet in diameter, and had in it fifteen feet of water. It was walled with masonry to a depth of about ten feet, below which was cut through solid rock. It was dug through a thick bed of soil to limestone rock. This well showed the ancient engineering skills and how much work the diggers put in. The digging of that kind of well must have been a back-breaking, labourious and costly undertaking. That’s why it lasted for generations after Jacob, and was still producing water at the time about which the author wrote. Tell you what, folks? Great leaders dig deep wells. Because they want their well to still produce water after they are long gone. That’s the greatest investment any leader can ever make. That’s how great leaders live, long after they’re dead and gone.”

“I, John, have had the profound privilege of working with, and serving under secure leaders who are comfortable in their skin. Need I say this? Great leaders are secure. Very secure. They wear the praise on others. When they win awards and accolades, they give others the credit. They depersonalize operations. They are humble. They are not obsessive about people pleasing them. They are comfortable to work with others who disagree with them. They are not authoritative and dominating. They don’t cow people into line. They have learnt how to handle criticisms. They are not defensive. I have served under leaders who admit that they were wrong. Great leaders apologize to the proteges when they are wrong. They are not defensive. They have nothing o prove. They don’t need to prove that they are the boss. They show they are humans, and humans are fallible. I get really broken – in the positive aspect of brokenness – when a leader comes back to tell his protege, ‘You were right; I was wrong. I blew it; pardon me.’ It is very rare to find such leaders. I have had the profound privilege of serving under few of them. Even when I moved on from them, we still keep in touch. We are bonded for life.  Such leaders, I say again, are very rare. They are not self-promoting or competitive. And you know what? They intentionally create opportunities for people to grow. I have experienced this kind of leadership. I long for more of it.”

This has to change!

So, I was troubled by the apprehensions of Kate and John. I knew that something had to change in their lives. Kate and John are my friends, as well as your friends. They are the voices of reason that we often muzzle. Right now as you read this, wherever you are, these voices speak unapologetically to you in tempered, tender tone, ‘‘This has to change.’’

This has to change!

This resolve is occasioned by inspirational thoughts and positive experience of Roland. I couldn’t hold back the anticipation and heart cry for that kind of leadership that Roland had experienced. Kate and John sat up as Roland narrated his experience. I could see a longing in their brimming eyes for something similar. Or more. Kate would like to experience it.  And much more. John would like to experience it too. And much more. Roland, having tasted it, would like to continually experience it. And much more. And I know would like to experience it – if you haven’t. And much more.

Keep searching. Don’t stop till you find…

Kate, John, and Roland are the voices of reason that we often muzzle. If you ever desire to have effective leaders and mentors who can move your life beyond where you are now, I’d love you to know that it is possible. You can have it. It may be difficult to find, but not altogether impossible. Ask, and you shall receive. Seek, and you shall find. Knock, and the door shall be opened unto you. Right now as you read this – wherever you are – these voices speak to you unapologetically in tempered, tender tone, ‘‘Keep searching. Don’t stop till you find.’’ If you have not yet experienced this kind of leadership, start the search. A search for authentic leadership. You have dreams. You have mental pictures of your preferable future. You know where you’re headed. Every day, you put out one foot after the other on the rungs of your dream-ladder. You want to get to the top of that ladder. You want to fulfil your dreams.



But you need the dexterous, skilled, competent, and steady hands of a leader who can hold your ladder while you climb.

Yeah, a leader…who can hold…your ladder!

Is this your deepest cry?

Is this your passionate plea?

Do you need a hand to steady your ladder while you climb?

Are you saying to a prospective mentor, “Can you hold my ladder, please?”

So, as my voice fades, and my pen decelerates to a halt, I’m straining my ears in all directions to hear the soothing whisper of a prospective leader and mentor, who would say to these people on a search:

‘‘Search no more. I will hold your ladder…

… I can hold your ladder.’’


Do you have someone who’s holding your ladder? Or are you holding someones ladder while s/he is climbing? Please post your experience here. I look forward to your thoughts on this post.

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