Confessions of a Recovering Leader (Part III)
Final Thoughts on What it Means to Be a Leader of No Reputation
I began this three-part blog with a confession. I was wrong. In summing up my experience in leadership I was wrong in my understanding and preconceived notions of leadership in Christian ministry. I was wrong in my expectations of others and myself. And I was wrong in my motivations, which may be the hardest thing to admit.
My problem was not with preparation, motivation, or even with a sense of true calling and a sincere desire to serve God with the best of my skills and abilities. The problem lay solely with my pre-determined understanding of what Christian leadership is really all about.
In reflecting on my time on leadership, I have come to believe that true Christian leadership is an ongoing, disciplined practice of becoming a person of no reputation, and thus, becoming more like Christ in this unique way. In his reflections on Christian leadership, Henri Nouwen refers to this as resisting the temptation to be relevant.
“I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self.” (1)
In my past, I have rejected this idea outright. In doing so, I was wrong. Today I see and affirm this important notion that lies at the heart of godly leadership.
In parts I (click here) and II (click here) we looked at the first four of five areas where I have begun to learn what it is to be this sort of Christian leader. In each area I found that I began with a misunderstanding of what true Christian leadership looked like, and I have been on a journey of transformation, introducing me to a new way to serve as Christ taught us to serve. Let’s looks at the last one and ask where we go form here.
5. Seeking the Right Applause
A bookmark of mine carries a thought that stayed with me throughout my term as president of Eastern Seminary. It reads,
“It doesn’t matter if the world knows, or sees or understands, the only applause we are meant to seek is that of nail-scarred hands.”
Leaders are exposed to opportunities to generate applause. It can come in the form of commendation from the board, approval of our decisions by employees, recognition of our institution’s work by constituencies, admiration of our leadership abilities by co-workers, and words of appreciation from students.
As public figures, we receive both the undue criticism for the failures of our institutions, and the unmerited praise for their successes. The true calling of leadership requires us to accept the former and deflect the latter. That is, our job is to take the blame for mistakes made by those under our leadership and to deflect the praise and re-direct it to those most responsible for our success.
In this way we keep ourselves in balance, never taking the criticism too personally and not accepting the praise too easily. But this balance is often very difficult to maintain.
One axiom of leadership I have come to appreciate reads,
‘leaders do not inflict pain, they bear it’.
In the same manner, leaders do not absorb praise, they re-direct it. The success of any Christian leader lies significantly in their ability to keep this two-fold movement of leadership in balance. Leaders who inflict pain lose trust and dishearten their people. Leaders who absorb praise produce resentment and sacrifice motivation.
Returning to where we began, this is why God’s anointing is so important to the Christian leader. Only with God’s anointing can the leader listen intently for that one source of applause that really matters. Only anointed leaders truly “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.”
If we seek our affirmation elsewhere, the distracting noises that vie for our attention and tug at our hearts for allegiance will drown out all else. And if we seek for this other applause, we will never hear the one from the Master’s hands.
Two significant temptations come to play here. The first is the fear of rejection that causes us to run from confrontation. The second is the desire to make everyone happy and to measure our performance, our effectiveness and our ‘leadership’ on that scale.
The two are very closely related. The first temptation is motivated by the idea that good leaders will not generate conflict, and that rejection of our performance in our role as leader is a rejection of our personhood and character. These are significant pitfalls for a leader. They are generated from that deep-seated desire to hear the applause of all with whom we work.
The second temptation is to lead by reacting. We see which way the wind is blowing and steer that direction, regardless of the situation. We do not want our people to be anxious, to question our decisions or disagree with our reasoning. We want harmony and unity, which is commendable.
But left unchecked, this desire will cause us to sacrifice courage, vision and risk-taking. It will bring us momentary applause, but will ruin us in the end. To use a variation on a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson,
“Some leaders worry themselves into nameless graves, while here and there some forget themselves into immortality.”
So we must ask ourselves just what kind of applause are we seeking? If it is human applause that validates, that affirms and that encourages us, we will also find that same applause binds us, boxes us in and ultimately strangles the life out of us.
When our daily self-worth and the measure of our effectiveness come primarily from the reaction of those with whom we work, then we are finished as Christian leaders.
I was always amazed at how many decisions I was called upon to make in any given day; some in private, some in meetings and some in the public arena. Every day there were multiple opportunities to make ‘applause-generating’ decisions. And sometimes the temptations to make them were enormous, especially when considering the price that would be paid if other alternatives were chosen.
However, I was equally amazed at how often God’s will and following His word took me down a different path. It is at that intersection between doing what God is telling us to do vs. doing the expedient and popular that true leadership takes place. It is there that we know to whom we are looking for our affirmation.
The goal of the Christian leader must be to go to bed every night with a clear conscience and a right heart with God. God only asks one thing of leaders; that we seek with all our heart to know and do His will.
Before taking on my leadership position I spent a couple of hours with a man whom I respect for his wisdom and leadership abilities. He gave me encouragement and good advice, and before I left he told me something that both inspires and haunts me to this day.
“Scott, in whatever you do, always strive to be a man that God can trust.”
I now believe that a man or woman that God can trust is one who seeks only the applause of nail-scarred hands. It is also one for whom the cultivation of reputation carries no value.
I did not have a clear understanding of this need for balance in the life of a Christian leader, and I have come to see it as an essential component for leadership in the kingdom of God.
Leadership in Transformation
My five years in the presidency is a study in transformation. I came in with a wrong set of expectations, values and ideas about Christian leadership. I was not thirsty for power or obsessed with the trappings of leadership, but I also was not seeking to be a leader of no reputation, nor was I responding to the call because I was a servant first. And it was here that I was wrong.
I used to reject the notion that good Christian leaders were only those who were brought kicking and screaming into the position. Or that anyone who ‘wanted’ to be a president should be automatically disqualified. I still believe that God prepares people for His work, and some aspects of this approach are not in keeping with our giftedness.
However, the truth in this view is that servant leaders are servants first, and only as true servants are they called to lead. For those who see themselves as leaders first, these temptations to stray in leadership are enormous.
“The long painful history of the Church is the history of people ever and again tempted to choose power over love, control over the cross, being a leader over being led. Those who resisted this temptation to the end and thereby give us hope are the true saints.” (2)
I have left my years in leadership with a dramatically transformed understanding of godly leadership, and one that continues to be transformed today. In the end, our work as leaders is all about lordship. Before it is about vision-casting or risk-taking or motivating others or building teams or communicating or strategic planning or public speaking, it is about lordship.
Where Jesus is singularly and absolutely lord of our life, we will seek to be like him and him only. That will be our sole calling.
We will be called to our work and that work will carry God’s anointing.
We will be called to decrease that Christ may increase.
We will be called to be people of God before and as we do the work of God.
We will be called to pray and look for the miracle of leadership that God may work in our midst.
And we will be called to strain our ears for that one sweet sound of two nail-scarred hands affirming all that we do in his name.
In these ways, in responding faithfully to this calling and striving after these ideals at the cost of everything else that may tempt us, we become leaders. And as we do, we will be transformed into the likeness of Christ.
**Click here to read the full article:Becoming a Leader of No Reputation (R. Scott Rodin, 2012)
1 Henri Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus (Crossroads: New York, 1996), p. 17.
2 Nouwen, p. 60.