A while back, I read about a phenomenon called the “tall poppy syndrome.” Evidently, it is a common Australian farming practice to cut down any poppy that grows above the rest. Regrettably, this practice is not limited to just poppy farms in Australia. It’s a common practice most everywhere. I’ve seen it in workplaces, politics, families, communities and churches.
It seems to me, our shifting cultural climate toward boldly posting our unabashed opinions and rants on about any topic, has increased this phenomenon. I see a growing trend to attack, criticize, and resent anyone who has talent or achievements that sets them apart from others. This tendency extends to those who resent the efforts of leaders who challenge the status quo. Opponents of change initiatives often attempt to marginalize leaders by attacking their character and questioning their motives. If the messenger is flawed, then the message and vision they offer cannot be trusted. As disappointing as it is, these challenges come with the territory of leadership.
To be totally fair, this isn’t a brand new practice. Apostle Paul of the first century was very familiar with this kind of character assault. He frequently encountered mean-spirited opposition from those who questioned his motive and his methods. We get a sense of the content and the intensity of these attacks from his response to those accusations in a letter he wrote to the Jesus-followers in the Greek city of Thessaloniki: “For our exhortation does not come from error or impurity or by way of deceit; but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not as pleasing men, but God who examines our hearts. For we never came with flattering speech, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed–God is witness–nor did we seek glory from men, either from you or from others, even though as apostles of Christ we might have asserted our authority.”(1 Thessalonians 2:3-6).
The list against Paul was quite extensive and severe: error, sexual impurity, deceit, flattery, and greed. Now, that’s a catalogue of culpabilities. I don’t have room here to go into these allegations and how the Apostle responded to each one. But a careful study of the scriptural text reveals that Paul persevered amidst these attacks and demonstrated the purity of the motives that guided his leadership.
Let’s bring it home. Have you ever been “the tall poppy” at school, on a team, in the community, in your family, or at work? Did others try to “cut you down” because of your talent, idea, vision or position? How did you respond? I wrote about one of my “tall poppy” experiences in a previous blog. It was very uncomfortable. It still makes me think twice before taking risks because I wonder how I’ll be perceived by my peers and colleagues. At the very least, I’m still sometimes hesitant to share with others any of my bold ideas or plans. How about you? How have you responded? How have those experiences tempered your audacious decisions and actions?
And finally, be brutally honest. Have you ever been so filled with jealousy that you tried to cut the tallest poppy in your field? Maybe you pointed out that person’s flaws and failings to others. Maybe you derided their idea or decision as ill-advised or just plain ridiculous. Maybe you dug your heels in and refused to join the vision. I’ve been there and done that. I’ve learned you don’t make the world brighter by blowing out someone else’s candle. And, I am also learning that the more I grow in my emotional and spiritual health, the easier I can celebrate the successes of others.
A pivotal part of my leadership journey toward leaving a lasting legacy was to develop and implement a succession plan in the organization I founded. I can now look back and see that the five years during the planning process and the ten years since the implementation of that succession plan has been a proving-ground experience for me to make significant progress in weeding out the tallest-poppy syndrome from my first and foremost reaction reservoir. I’m much more grateful these days for the beauty of tall poppies. It adds such dimension and splendor to the field.
QUESTION: As you consider either your response to being the target of others attacks or your own resentment of others achievements, what is God nudging you about in your attitudes and motives? What adjustments is He prompting you to make?