Leading With a Towel In Hand

Ethiopian orthodox art, unknown artist

(Artwork: Ethiopian Orthodox Art, unknown artist)

There are plenty of days when it becomes painfully clear to me how inadequate my leadership has been throughout the various seasons of my vocation. As a leader, my clumsiness has often eclipsed my proficiency.

Still, I spend a great deal of time thinking, reading, writing, and praying about leadership, particularly about the leadership practiced in the ministry of the church. I suspect that I am driven by the hope that I might become a better leader tomorrow than I am today.

In recent days, several convictions about leadership have resonated with particular clarity in my thinking. I share the convictions here, not because I am arguing for their absolute rightness, but because I believe that the journey toward good leadership demands the risk of articulating what one believes ABOUT leadership.

Here are some of my personal convictions in that regard, freshly illuminated by the challenges of a new season of ministry.

Healthy leadership is less about having all the right answers and more about a right engagement with the most important questions. When leaders fall into the trap of believing that leadership is primarily about having right and immediate answers, they run the risk of reducing their leadership to a narcissistic autonomy or a desperate pursuit of techniques and rhetoric. Leadership must certainly lead to some good answers. But the deepest answers come, not through authoritarian pronouncement, but through an individual and communal engagement with the pertinent questions. Such an engagement helps leaders to see themselves, not as autonomous oracles, but facilitators of a deeper and more comprehensive discernment.

Healthy leadership never fixates on a destination at the expense of the journey. Destinations are important. Leaders must have a sense of where things are headed. They must envision a bold and imaginative future. It is possible, however, for leaders to become so myopically focused on the desired destination that they begin to overlook or even ignore the relationships, conversations, and circumstances that form the day-to-day pathway upon which good leadership must travel. Granted, journeys are often messy and unpredictable. Timetables may have to change. Extra conversations may have to be scheduled. Adjustments to the course may have to be made. Even the destinations may have to be modified. Even so, paying attention to the nuances of the pathway is nothing less than essential, since healthy leadership finds its most vibrant and urgent expression, not in the arrivals at destinations, but in a dynamic attentiveness to the journey.

Healthy leadership grounds itself, not in the maintenance of an institution, but in the transformation of an institution’s culture. There is a great deal of institution-bashing these days. To be fair, however, people tend to bash institutions only in those places where the institution is not serving them or providing the things that they personally want. Healthy leadership is tasked with the responsibility of seeing institutions for what they are—broken but potential-rich instruments that groan for redemption along with the rest of the fallen world. Healthy leaders never become preoccupied with institutional maintenance, as though the institution were an altar at which to kneel. Neither do healthy leaders devote their energy to railing randomly against the institution in which they lead, as though the institution itself were nothing more than an enemy to be conquered. Rather, healthy leaders become channels for transformation through which institutions can be reimagined, reconfigured, and reborn. Healthy leaders help portions of their institutions to die with grace when the time for death has come. Likewise, healthy leaders help their institutions to thrive where their institutions are supporting the priorities of their articulated mission.

Healthy leadership does not validate entitlement but entitles that which is valid. There is a common spirit of entitlement that can lead to deep resentment. It often comes from an inflated sense of the uniqueness of one’s own gifts, viewpoints, or trajectory. It grounds itself in a strong sense of what is owed. Healthy leadership seeks to cultivate an environment in which entitlement gives way to the kind of shared covenantal commitment that subordinates self-determined privileges to grander priorities.

Healthy leadership treats vision, not as the property of a charismatic individual, but as the territory stewarded by a missional community. When vision becomes solely the product of an individual voice, the road to egocentric leadership becomes painfully short. Healthy leadership sees vision as something more complex and organic than this. More specifically, it sees vision as the progeny of a creative community seeking to live more fully into its mission. To be a healthy leader is to be an attentive listener as well as a guiding presence—a relational participant in meaningful conversations who helps the community to name, clarify, and implement the route into its best future.

Healthy leadership breathes most deeply the air of confession and repentance. For leaders to lead in healthy and holistic fashion, authentic repentance must become as natural to them as breathing and every bit as urgent. Good leaders become the voice of repentance for the many offenses perpetrated by the communities they lead. They also become vulnerable enough to name their own brokenness, their own insecurities, and their own failures. Only a spirit of consistent and expansive repentance can keep a leader’s heart appropriately attentive to the hearts of others and appropriately broken over the distortions of his or her own leadership.

Healthy leaders recognize that they are secondary characters in the story of their own leadership. Leaders are important, but they are the supporting cast. The main characters are the people they lead. For leaders who follow Jesus, the most central character of all is a Savior who equips our best leadership and who redeems our worst leadership. Remembering this helps leaders to structure their priorities rightly and to value themselves truthfully. Furthermore, a leader who lives out of a spirit of secondariness can more easily subordinate entitlement to gratitude, egotism to servanthood, and resentment to hope.