Leadership Beneath the Surface: Paying attention to the Invisible

There are over 100,000 books in the “leadership” category on Amazon.  If you’re a pastor, there’s an excellent Leadership Network, and a Willow Creek Network, Soma, church planting networks, and potentially a seminar to attend every weekend, not to mention the possibility of filling your twitter stream with inspiration and equipping for the job of leadership.  I’ve been to enough of these events to know two things:

  1. This stuff has value.
  2. This stuff has limited value.

It has value because everyone could use a motivational shot in the arm, a reminder that God has created each of us, whether pastors, stay at home moms & dads, code writers, marketers, health care workers, teachers, artists – we’re all made by God with gifts to contribute to this broken world.  We’re all made for influence.

These leadership tools are valuable too, because influence is never automatic in life.  Influence is the fruit of actions, what leadership people might call tactics.  There’s a change in the voting rights of African Americans because there was a march in Selma, and an uproar, and another march.   Of course, before there are tactics, there needs to be strategy, and strategy is the fruit of vision.  Leadership tools often inspire people to embrace vision, creating what some call BHAG’s (Big Hairy Audacious Goals).  Gaining voting rights for Blacks was, without question, a BHAG.  So was putting a man on the moon.  So was ending slavery.  We’re encouraged, usually, to think big, and we hear from people who do.

And it’s right here that I move into seeing the limited value of much that is our leadership equipping culture in North America.  It’s limited, not because it’s wrong (it often isn’t), but because it’s incomplete.  It’s as if we’re encouraged to think big, see some need, and then follow the blueprint for making it happen:  vision – strategy – tactics – all leading to the promised land of fruit and influence.  Done!

I want to stand up and shout, “Not Done!”  It’s as if our leadership culture teaches framing, siding, electrical, plumbing, roofing, and finish carpentry, as if those things can build a house.  They’ve vital, but unless there’s a solid foundation, these skills are meaningless, and even worse than meaningless.  I say “worse than” because to the extent that we believe they’re the bulk of what we need, we’ll respond to our frustrations by reaching for a more powerful dose of strategy and tactics.  “We need change management”  “We need better metrics”  “We need an alignment strategy”  Yes!  We do!  But not yet….

First we need to know that we’re doing the thing God has wired us to do, in the place God has called us to do it.  Things break down here more often than you’d think.  People have de-facto assumptions that their vision’s the right one, that they’re called to create a certain kind of influence in a certain place.  Maybe.  But not so fast!  When the Bible says “Without a vision the people are scattered” the word vision actually means “declared revelation from God” so we’d be wise to make certain that we’re in the habit of hearing from God on a regular basis.  That word, by the way, isn’t just for pastors.  It’s for all of us who believe that our Designer has made each of us for unique contributions to the world, and our role is to find what that contribution is by hearing from God.

“Yes, but how does one go about hearing from God?”  We hear from God the same way we hear from anyone.  It requires paying attention and listening, and two disciplines that are central to any relationship of intimacy.  I know how my wife wants a box of kindling before I go to work in the city, how she likes wood to be in the house drying before it’s put into the wood stove.  This is her “declared revelation” to me, as I’m in charge of the wood while home.  I only know what she wants by listening.  I only know what God wants, too, by listening.

I write about habits that will help develop intimacy with God here, but let’s dig deeper, because just telling someone to read their Bible and listen for God’s voice isn’t very motivating.  What would inspire a person to open their Bible and read, to journal and pray, to pay attention to what they perceive God is saying to them through creation, and text, and community, and trials?

I’m only motivated to seek God to the extent that I have a good dose of humility coursing through my veins.  We might be tempted to think of humility as a self-bashing exercise, telling ourselves and others just how worthless we are.  In reality, the Bible teaches that humility is simply one’s capacity to have an honest assessment of oneself.  That means you know your strengths, and as I’ll write soon, are learning to play to them.  But it also means that you’re brutally honest about your weaknesses, not just your presenting weaknesses, but the stuff that’s lurking inside you as well, waiting to push you over the proverbial cliff.  I know, for example, that I’m in over my head on the tactics and strategy side of running a giant church.  Some parents know they’re in over their head too, as do some CEO’s.  I also know that, apart from Christ, there are dark places in me that would rise up, leading me down destructive paths rather than life giving ones.

Humility, once embraced, is at risk of being “treated” in one of two ways:

  1. “Yes.  You are a disaster waiting to happen.  Better to get out now before the damage is done.”  As a result, lots of people are sitting on the sidelines, not serving, not risking, not leading, as they’re called to do, because they’ve listened to the lie that they need to be worthy  before getting into God’s game.
  2. “No problem.  Another ‘upper story’ seminar can fix you.  You just need to learn how to articulate your strategy with more passion, or diversify your tactics, or manage change.  In other words, we can solve your inadequacy problem with better ‘above ground’ skills.

Nope.  Your inadequacy isn’t a problem to be solved.  Rather, it’s a gift intended to lead you to a life of intimacy with your Guide.  When I don’t know the mountain, I stick with the Guide.  And here’s the reality folks:  Whatever it is that’s staring you in the face in the moment – you don’t know the mountain.  So you need the Guide!

“Thanks for that Richard, but I’m OK.  My business is doing well.  My kids are healthy, 4.0, starring on their soccer team, and 1st chair musicians.  To quote the favorite phrase of culture these days, ‘I’ve got this’.

Fine.  If you want to continue living in fantasyland for a little while longer, go ahead.  The reality though, is that every one of us will eventually find ourselves in the land of brokenness, and that’s precisely where all the good stuff starts.  Brokenness, the existential awareness of our failures and inadequacies, is exactly what leads to humility, which leads to intimacy, which leads to the revelation that takes you above ground, and eventually, to the land of influence.

My dad’s death.  My terrible year one in an urban church.  My melancholy.  My fear of rejection born from adoption… these are all part of my brokenness, yes.  But they’re also gifts – the bedrock out from which intimacy with God is born.

My complaint with American leadership culture is that it minimizes brokenness, or even vilifies it.  In my view, it’s a gift.  One author says it this way:  “…so we must stumble and fall, I am sorry to say.  And that does not mean reading about falling, as you are doing here.  We must actually be out of the driver’s seat for a while, or we will never learn how to give up control to the Real Guide!” Yes indeed.  So let’s start teaching and learning the foundational principles of Underground Leadership, in hopes that each of us will find the life for which God has created us.

 

 

 

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