The Little Wooden Chair (or What I Learned about Leadership from an Inanimate Object)

The Little Wooden Chair (or What I Learned about Leadership from an Inanimate Object)

I am a leader.

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ll know that once upon a time I was blogging fairly frequently about leadership. It was actually a couple of years ago, so if you’ve been here that long – wow, thank you! (If you haven’t, thank you for joining us, it’s great to have you along!)

It seemed that God was bringing a lot of lessons about leadership into my path for a while, so I blogged about them as a way of helping myself to learn them. (You can read them here, if you’re interested.)

Then I stopped blogging about it for a while, because God brought me the opportunity to step up and be a leader for a while, and I didn’t want to be writing about my team behind their backs, or using them as some sort of blogging material. I wanted to focus on putting it into practice rather than thinking about how I could write it up.

I discovered I wasn’t a leader.

At least, I wasn’t the kind of leader I admire. I was perfectly competent at making sure the tasks that had to be accomplished by my team were accomplished, but that was because they were a great, competent, motivated team. I was good at organising them, and solving any problems we faced, but that was about it.

I wasn’t a leader in the sense that anyone actually wanted to follow me.

I didn’t cast an inspiring vision that made people see a better future and pull together to reach a common goal.

They did what they needed to do, and most of the time it didn’t really make a difference whether I was there or not.

At least, that was how it felt.

I felt like a failure.

I felt I had let the team down, that there was some intangible sense of energy and purpose that I was meant to bring to them, but all I brought was an administrator’s eye and a big bag of sweets.

Feeling burned out and defeated, I stepped down from the role after about a year, and for the year since then I’ve thought that I was not a leader at all, that when I thought I heard God calling me to step up, I heard wrong, and that really I should retreat to the background and kill off these high-faluting ideas of being able to lead. Clearly no-one would ever follow my lead in anything.

Then a couple of weeks ago, a little wooden chair changed my perspective.

My parents lead a small church on the outskirts of Northampton. Its congregation consists largely of elderly ladies who sit on plastic chairs arranged in a semi-circle around the lectern. They all sit on the rear of the two rows (yes, really), and when I’m home I join mum on the front row.

Now, you probably can’t tell by looking at my blog, but I’m quite short. In chairs of a normal height, my feet don’t generally comfortably reach the floor. (This is becoming more confessional than I expected!) If I don’t have something to rest my feet on, I slump and slouch and generally get very uncomfortable. So when I’m at my parents’ church, I take one of the little wooden chairs from the stack in the ‘Mums and Tots’ corner and use its lower bar as a foot rest. As an added advantage, I put my Bible, hymn book and glass of water on the seat of the chair so I don’t have to keep bending over and scrabbling around on the floor every time I need one or the other.

Eminently sensible, wouldn’t you agree?

Not to the ladies.

They laughed at me. They intended to do it quietly, but they’re all a bit deaf, so I was well aware of their whispered comments.

I started doing this when I lived with mum and dad between jobs about 6 years ago. For 9 months I took out a little wooden chair every week, placed it just in front of my big, uncomfortable plastic one, and amused the row of ladies sitting behind me.

Then I moved to London.

In due course, I came back for a visit.

I got out my little wooden chair, and, lo and behold, one of the ladies had started doing the same – I don’t think she used it as a foot rest, but she certainly put her hymn book, Bible and water glass on it for ease of access.

A few months and a few visits later, two of the other ladies were sharing a chair.

A couple of weeks ago I went home for the weekend and discovered that between every pair of chairs on the second row there now stands a little wooden chair for use as a table.

I am a leader after all.

I’m not the visionary type, I can’t inspire people to get up and do anything great (or indeed anything much at all), if I strike out in one direction, very few people will follow me. But I’m a leader nonetheless – a slow-burn, gentle-influence kind of leader.

It was nearly a year before a single person followed my lead.

It was five more years before everyone in the group joined in.

They probably don’t remember that it was my idea in the first place, but they joined in. All of them.

It’s a challenge and an encouragement in roughly equal parts:

A challenge to be sure I’m doing things I’d be happy for people to copy – to ask myself ‘am I being a good role model in every area of life?’

An encouragement that though I may be laughed at today, maybe in six months, six years or six decades’ time, the things I say and the ideas I write about might just begin to catch on.

How about you? Are you leading people without even noticing? Have you got a ‘Little Wooden Chair’ story?

I’d love to hear your experiences, and what you’ve learned about the less obvious forms of leadership.

Thanks for following along so far!


Update, 21 Nov:

When writing this I was looking for the following video as a humorous illustration of what I’m talking about, but couldn’t find it. Thanks Colin Simons for locating it for me, and Andy Tilsley for showing it in church in the first place. Enjoy…

5 Comments On This Topic
  1. Father Stephen
    on Nov 20th at 9:19 am

    It’s strange how most of what we hear we completely forget but some things just stick in the mind and will not go away. For me, one such thing is a sentence I heard when I was young – probably 14 or 15 years old. It was this, ‘Everyone is a leader – we just have to decide where we are going to lead people.’

    Whenever I say that I find someone usually objects insisting that they never lead anyone. Soon someone else follows their lead and joins in what quickly becomes a chorus of objections. The point is proved. The first person to object led others to do the same.

    We have to decide where we are going to lead people. Do we lead them into objectionable things or to something beneficial?

    • Jennie Pollock
      on Nov 27th at 3:54 pm

      Ha, that’s funny, and so true!
      Yes, I meant to make that point – knowing people are likely to follow, even when we’re not aware of leading them, is a sobering thought – where are we leading them…?

  2. jon
    on Nov 21st at 2:55 am

    love it…

  3. theentiretyoflife
    on Oct 1st at 9:11 am

    I understand the short person sitting on a tall chair issue – it’s definitely all about footrests, or sitting cross-legged!
    Where are we leading people is a good question to think on. I’ll be trying to put it into practice today, especially in conversations.


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