It was Easter Sunday morning and the large church was filled. The processional was ready to begin. The three pastors, the senior choir, two children's choirs poised at the back of the church--weeks of planning and preparation were about to be fulfilled.
As the organist struck the first chord, a middle-aged man in the center of the church began to sweat profusely, turned an ashen gray, rose partially out of his seat, stopped breathing, and toppled over onto his daughter sitting next to him.
And what did these pastors, organists, and choirs do? They did nothing.
But in less than three seconds, a young man with experience as a paramedic was at the stricken man's side. Quickly and expertly he opened the airway and restored breathing. After several minutes, making sure the sick man's condition was stabilized and on a signal from the paramedic, six men lifted him carefully and carried him quickly to the back of the church where he was laid on the floor to await the arrival of the ambulance, which, having been called for immediately by some unknown person, was already on its way.
When the man was laid on the floor near the waiting children's choir, two youngsters fainted. Two doctors from the congregation were immediately on the scene. One stepped in to help the young man care for the patient; the other immediately looked after the two children.
At this point a man thrust his head into the group gathered around the patient and said, “Are you going to want oxygen?” And when the doctor said, “Yes," he immediately handed it to him, having anticipated the need and gone to find the oxygen bottle.
While all these things were going on, the man's wife (who was in the senior choir and did not know what was happening—-only that the service was being momentarily delayed) was sensitively informed and brought to her husband's side. Others quieted the children's choirs, reassured them that the man was going to be okay and that they should begin to compose themselves for the service. The paramedics arrived, put the man in the ambulance, and took him to the hospital.
As you can imagine, a tender and poignant service now began. At the end of the service, the pastor was able to announce that the man had suffered a severe allergic reaction; his condition was stable; the outlook was positive.
The point in telling you this story is to show that while this church has a hierarchy of more than thirty appointed and elected professionals, committee members, board members, and others, the hierarchy did not respond swiftly or decisively. It is difficult for a hierarchy to allow "subordinates" to break custom and be leaders. The people who did respond swiftly and effectively are roving leaders. Roving leaders are those indispensable people in our lives who are there when we need them. Roving leaders take charge, in varying degrees, in a lot of companies every day.
More than simple initiative, roving leadership is a key element in the day-to-day expression of a participative process. Participation is the opportunity and responsibility to have a say in your job, to have influence over the management of organizational resources based on your own competence and your willingness to accept problem ownership. No one person is the "expert" at everything.
In many organizations there are two kinds of leaders--both hierarchical leaders and roving leaders. In special situations, the hierarchical leader is obliged to identify the roving leader, then to support and follow him or her, and also to exhibit the grace that enables the roving leader to lead.
It's not easy to let someone else take the lead. To do this demands a special openness and the ability to recognize what is best for the organization and how best to respond to a given issue. Roving leadership is an issue-oriented idea. Roving leadership is the expression of the ability of hierarchical leaders to permit others to share ownership of problems--in effect, to take possession of a situation.
When roving leadership is practiced, it makes demands on each of us – whether we're a hierarchical leader, a roving leader, or a good follower. It's a demanding process. It demands that we be enablers of each other.
Roving leadership demands a great deal of trust and a clear sense of our interdependence. Leadership is never handled carelessly—we share it, but we don't give it away. We need to be able to count on the other person's special competence. When we think about the people with whom we work, people on whom we depend, we can see that without each individual, we are not going to go very far as a group. By ourselves we suffer serious limitations. Together we can be something wonderful.
Roving leadership also demands discipline. Interestingly, though in organizations like ours we need a lot of freedom, there is no room for license. Discipline is what it takes to do the job.
It is not a matter primarily of whether or not we reach our particular goals. Life is more than just reaching our goals. As individuals and as a group we need to reach our potential. Nothing else is good enough. We must always be reaching toward our potential.
The condition of our hearts, the openness of our attitude, the quality of our competence, the fidelity of our experience—these give vitality to the work experience and meaning to life. These are what it takes to make roving leadership possible. And roving leadership, freely and openly practiced together, is the vehicle we can use to reach our potential.