We have probably all heard someone described as a person who just “get things done.” We give and take that line as a compliment. Last week I had the chance to dive back into one of my ongoing writing projects. Thankfully, the church I serve lets me set a bit of time aside each year for this kind of work. My goal last week was to wrestle a long piece of historical work into publishable form. The essay–which still isn’t “done”–tries to show how a particular non-profit organization became involved in a colonialist project. I have a lot of data. There are lots of dates and names to keep strait, lots of related government agencies and other political structures . It’s difficult to keep it all straight. Yet what I noticed is that one particular individual kept surfacing throughout the story. In network speak, he had a high level of “betweenness centrality.” He was known as someone who “got things done.”
What I observed is that from a historical vantage point being someone who “gets things done” is a more ambiguous quality than we think it is in the present. It’s true that taking initiative and seeing things through are valuable qualities. As a pastor, as a member of a non-profit board, as someone who collaborates on occasion with editors, I like people who “get things done.” No organization can do the good stuff it does without these kinds of people. And speaking personally, there’s little that drains my energy more than having four or five unfinished projects that for one reason or another I just can’t wrap up.
With historical hindsight, though, I’ve seen that people who “get things done” don’t always take the time to dig deeply into the question of whether the “thing” should actually be done. People who “get things done” like to dig into challenges and make a difference. They like the sense of accomplishment that comes from running events and building organizations. Yet these folks are often really bad at maintaining relationships and relating to those who ask hard questions. The individual that keep surfacing in my historical work was regularly described by colleagues in terms of his ego, the demands he placed on others, the theological language he used to paper over his own decisions, his anger, his confrontational nature and his bullheadedness. The historical record includes the fact that he needed to make a number of public apologies.
My hunch is that we give people who “get things done” a pass on this kind of stuff because in the short run they appear incredibly productive. They “get results.” However, I’m seeing that as the decades roll by, even the massive organizational accomplishments of leaders who “get things done” becomes less impressive. We realize that at key times they pointed their energies in the wrong direction. Sometimes they became so obsessed with getting the “thing” done that they caused others to suffer. It seems to me that we need leaders who don’t just have the power to “get things done.” We need leaders who get the right things done at the right time in the right way.