Three Keys to Avoiding the Curve that Kills Good Leadership (and Leaders)
Guidance for the Selfless Leader
You and I have a shape, a curve that defines how we live and lead. It is fashioned by a combination of our worldview, our faith, our self-image and our definition of success. Together these factors will bend us in one of two directions.
Think of a lens. In high school science we learned that lenses can be concave or convex. The concave lens is shaped inward where the convex lens is shaped outward. If you look at the world through each lens the views will be significantly influenced by the shape of the curve.
So it is with our own shape. We are either curved in or curved out.
There is a wonderfully descriptive Latin phrase, incurvatus in se, which means to ‘be curved in on oneself’ that provides us a great visual image. It depicts the person who lives primarily for self. Their focus and priority is on serving their self-interests. As leaders, these ‘curved in’ people evaluate situations and make decisions based on self-serving criteria.
In our recent eBook, The Selfless Leader, each author illustrated the shortcomings of ‘curved in leaders.‘ I mean would any of you aspire to leave a legacy that would inspire your friends and family to have incurvatus in se engraved on your tombstone? We all aspire to something greater, something bigger than ourselves.
But how do we achieve the convex shape of the leader who is ‘curved outward’ toward those they lead and serve? Here are three keys.
1. Take the Downward Path
First, we must be willing to follow a counter-cultural, downward path. It is not where most leaders expect to find themselves, but it is where all truly great leaders have trod. It is the way of service, the way of humility, the way of sacrifice…it is the way of the cross.
When John the Baptist saw Jesus walking in his presence, he made the declaration,
“He must increase, but I must decrease.”
Most Christian leaders would say that in their hearts they wish that Jesus would increase and they would decrease, but in a leadership position it is hard to decrease. There are natural trappings that distinguish those in leadership; salary, title, prestige, priority, power, influence, honor, advancement. In each area there are tempting opportunities for increase.
There are also pressures to increase and motivations to build a kingdom in which we house our growing collection of leadership trappings. This desire for the fame and fortune of leadership must be met not only by resistance, but, according to John Adams, we must have “a habitual contempt of them.” Henri Nouwen is even more direct,
The way of the Christian leader is not the way of upward mobility in which our world has invested so much, but the way of downward mobility ending on the cross… Here we touch the most important quality of Christian leadership in the future. It is not a leadership of power and control, but a leadership of powerlessness and humility in which the suffering servant of God, Jesus Christ, is made manifest.
Perhaps the hardest place to decrease is in the influence and the power we hold over people and decisions. For this reason we find Christian leaders who are overly directive at best, and autocratic at worst.
As a result we produce churches and ministries that are rife with ‘learned helplessness’. By overestimating our own worth, we help our people depend on us for everything. And that dependence feeds into our need to be needed, to be the “idea person” and visionary, and to be in control. We tell ourselves that the more we lead in this way, the more our leadership is valued and our presence desired.
Of course, this is not real leadership, but a counterfeit that gives us our increase and expands our kingdom. It also, however, does a terrible disservice to our people, leaving them uninvolved and under-developed. It wastes resources and limits our ministry, all under the guise of strong leadership and the use of our God-given talents for ‘getting things done.’
The downward path is where Christ meets us and promises that He will supply all of our needs, that He will be our strength and shield and that He will do through us more than we would ever dare to ask or dream.
When a leader meets Jesus on that downward path, they are ready to be curved outward for service through their role as leader.
2. Know Who is Leading You
The second key to being a leader that is curved outward toward others is cultivating our inner life in God. The selfless leader, or whom I would call the steward leader, is less focused on who is following them and more concerned with whom they are following.
When we as leaders are first committed to being followers of Jesus, we assume the role of a disciple. Only from that posture can we be equipped to serve those God calls us to lead. The posture of a follower, as Mark Vincent reminded us in The Selfless Leader, is a posture of surrender. It is a life curved outward toward others.
Curved in leadership that is bent on increasing the leader lacks integrity. Integrity is the attribute of honesty, moral behavior and a value-centered life. Integrity witnesses externally all that we are internally. And for that reason, godly integrity begins with our inner life in God. For the Christian leader this means that our self- confidence must be founded in our faith in Christ and our desire to be like Him in every way. We must seek to be Christ-like in our inner being and be confident that “He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it.” (Philippians 1:6)
If Christ is truly living in us, as Paul reminds us, then we can in turn live for others in our work. We will have no need to seek for increase in our positions of power. We will have no desire to build our own kingdoms and advance our own reputations.
Our lives are hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3) and therefore it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us (Galatians 2:20). It is only with this kind of godly integrity that we can seek to decrease as Christ increases in and through our work as leaders.
Truly godly leaders empower their people, give away authority, value and involve others, seek the best in and from their people, and constantly seek to lift others up, push others into the limelight, and reward those they lead; all so that God’s will is done in a more powerful way.
They seek no glory for themselves, but find great joy in seeing others prosper. They take no account of their reputation, but seek that Jesus’ face be seen in all they do. As such, they are curved outward in selfless service to others.
3. Seek the Right Applause
A bookmark of mine carries a thought that stayed with me throughout my career. 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. This is why our being curved outward is so important to the Christian leader.
Only as we are shaped by the Holy Spirit can the leader listen intently for that one source of applause that really matters. Only curved out 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.
Which shape best describes your current leadership? Are you prepared to let God’s loving hands reshape you and your leadership?
If so, it will require that you take the downward path, thirst after deeper knowledge of the One you follow, and only seek applause from nail scarred hands. Let the Holy Spirit take control today to shape you into an outwardly curved leader, a selfless leader, a steward leader.