Leading from your upbringing

Recently (and finally), I began reading Ruth Haley Barton’s Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership. Judging from the first third, I know it is going to end up near the top of my list of leadership books and will be worth a re-read down the road. She builds her book around the story of Moses, which suits me fine because I’ve always been intrigued by his leadership model.

I never saw it before, but Moses is a classic third culture kid. He was Hebrew-born, an identity forgotten in his childhood but that he longed to retrieve as an adult. He was raised as an Egyptian, an identity so woven into him that he doesn’t deny that label when first introduced to the priest of Midian. Born into poverty and slavery, he was raised in the home of Pharoah. His education and wealth was surely both a huge privilege and a weight. Barton concludes that “He lived between two worlds and yet was not fully at home in either place.”

As an outsider both among his own people and among the Egyptians who raised him, he probably wrestled every day with issues related to his identity. Should he fit into the environment in which he had been raised and follow the path marked out for him there? Or should he identify with his own people and try to make it by those rules instead? Neither one was a very good choice. Either one would bring about emptiness and loss.

In many ways, I can identify with Moses as a Canadian and an American who is really neither Canadian nor American. In reflecting on my own path into leadership, I think the pivotal moment for me was my transplant at age eight from the suburbs of Toronto to the suburbs of Atlanta. I remember struggling with the question of whether to assimilate or hold stubbornly to my culture that first year. I remember wearing the wrong clothes, pronouncing words the wrong way and knowing nothing of “importance” — usually pop-culture references that went over my head. Fortunately, I was a quick study. I chose assimilation and blended in successfully. However, that sense of imbalance as an “outsider” was a feeling I never wanted to experience again. I’ll bet I could trace much of my leadership style to that stage in my journey.

However, I can see the benefits of third-culturehood. Putting myself in Moses’ shoes, I can sense the conclusion that eventually began to formulate in his mind. The Hebrews needed rescuing. Who else was in a better position to be the solution? Why else had he had such a unique upbringing? He was born for such a time as this, and God had gifted him in leadership. In addition, confidence and power had likely been built into him every day in Pharaoh’s home and schools. His sense of justice began to stir as he explored his roots. The mantle of “savior” had fallen on him. All he needed was opportunity.

Days after the glorious failure of his salvation initiative, Moses traveled alone in the wilderness, forced to confront the ugliness in himself. There was the raw anger that blazed out of control. He hadn’t intended to kill the guard. There was the lack of support from the Hebrews. Didn’t they see that he was appointed for this task? There was the loss of privilege that he hated and yet was so attached to. There was the shame of failure. He was through with leadership.

Over months and years in Midian, God began to peel away the coping mechanisms, the assumptions, the scabs and calluses from his wounds until he could come face to face with his core issue of inadequacy and pain. There’s a moment that sums up his 40 year journey. Barton puts it this way:

He fathered a son, and it became a touchstone in his life, an opportunity to name something about himself with more courage and realism than ever before. When his son was born, he named him Gershom because ‘I have been an alien residing in a foreign land’ (Exodus 2:22).

As a leader, what do you do with your upbringing? Like it or not, you will lead out of it. Anything else would be disingenuous and unsustainable. Suppressed pain and experiences will eventually emerge when you face crisis, complexity, loneliness, betrayal and weariness. Better to embrace what shaped you and lead from there.

That means seeing — or waiting for — the right opportunity. Moses wasn’t wrong about being the “savior.” He was wrong about doing it in his own strength and timing. Only after his 40-year education could he see how the pieces fit together. Only after arguing vociferously but ineffectively with God could he embrace the idea of a second attempt.

That means leading out of brokenness. It means allowing God to do a deep work to redeem your pain. It also means stepping out in faith when you don’t feel confident. Barton quotes Os Guinness, who offers a unique spin on the idea of a leadership calling:

Calling is not only a matter of being and doing what we are but also of becoming what we are not yet but are called by God to be.

Don’t wait to be the person you think God needs. Believe the One “who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.” (Romans 4:17)

That means leading out of power. Counterintuitively, there’s real power in leading out of who you are. You might not like what you see in the mirror, but opening your soul and leading from who God made you to be is a powerful starting point. Barton points out that Moses was equipped to lead the Hebrews through 40 years in the wilderness only because he had emerged from 40 years in the wilderness.

There’s a remarkable current-day example. Wess Stafford, president of Compassion International, says he got the job because he cared about children the most. His own story of abuse is remarkable and the driver behind all that he has accomplished. He admits, “I am never more than 10 seconds away from tears.” His willingness to put his own pain out for all to see has given him a platform to accomplish amazing things.

I remember hearing Stafford speak at Willow Creek Leadership Summit in 2009. He urged leaders to spend 30 minutes in front of a mirror, taking the time to ask yourself some tough questions. Who am I? What do I care about? Why do I lead what I lead? Is my passion driven by pain or success?

Knowing who you are is the greatest platform for leadership.

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Suspect your ability to handle power

As I’ve been reading The Lord of the Rings to my boys, a series of moments stick in my mind: the times that Frodo seeks someone to give the ring to. Surely Aragorn or Gandalf or the Lady of Lothlorien would use the power benevolently to combat the evil of Sauron! Each one contemplates briefly the possibility of harnessing such amazing power and concludes that they wouldn’t be any less ruthless and horrific than previous owners. They therefore studiously avoid touching or looking at it, some even taking great satisfaction that they passed the test.

Last week at a leadership development event, we read together Henri Nouwen’s message, In the Name of Jesus. Nouwen is a Harvard man of great earthly success who ended up as a priest working among mentally handicapped people at the Daybreak community near Toronto. He cautions against the rationalization many Christians go through regarding power: that as long as it’s used to serve God and other human beings, it’s a good thing. He points out the irony that, throughout Church history,  followers of the one who emptied himself of power have used power for crusades, inquisitions, enslavement, opulence and manipulation of all kinds and forms. Then he cuts to the point.

What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistable? Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.

Wow. Whether you follow Nouwen’s logic and conclude that love is the opposite of power, his words sure slice deep. He’s right: it is easier to control than to love, and yet the latter is clearly God’s command for anyone, but in particular leaders. Nouwen spoke from a long personal journey into the messy world of loving those that our culture overlooks. Control and ownership are wrong methodologies arising from wrong motivations from a wronged heart. Nouwen continues,

One thing is clear to me: the temptation of power is greatest when intimacy is a threat. Much Christian leadership is exercised by people who do not know how to develop healthy, intimate relationships and have opted for power and control instead. Many Christian empire-builders have been people unable to give and receive love.

I remember when I worked in youth ministry that I lost count of the people who got into that field because of their own pain growing up. Few came from a healthy place and wanted others to share in that health; many more were on a personal journey to redemption and sought to help others avoid what they had experienced. But if you haven’t experienced real healing, how do you avoid temptations like power? I think Dan Allender has a lot of solutions in his book, Leading with a Limp. He suggests we confront our brokenness and allow God’s grace to redeem it. Failure and brokenness are not necessarily obstacles to leadership; they can be incredible motivators and a foundation for the right kind of servantly leadership. But those core needs must be addressed and the failures brought into the open.

Nouwen based much of his message on Peter’s example of being restored after abandoning and denying his friend and Rabbi Jesus. The lessons he learned on that beach in John 21 were to love deeply, receive love and give love to others. That was the basis for Peter’s leadership of the Church. It’s a lesson that many of his successors failed to get.

My boys were surprised when I told them I think of Lord of the Rings as a Christian story. I’m still teaching them the idea that a Christian story doesn’t mean that Jesus is a character, or that God is explicitly mentioned. Failure, redemption, fear, ambition, love, evil and desires are deeply woven into the story. And I think I can learn from the characters who suspected themselves and wouldn’t allow themselves to get near to raw, unbridled power.

Transformation

As I mull over Jesus’ death and resurrection this Good Friday, I’ve been thinking about Peter’s transformation. I would put the change in his life up against Paul’s for scale of impact of the gospel.

Peter is the kind of guy who thinks out loud, who says what everyone else is thinking. He acts first and thinks later. He’s an uneducated fisherman who learned his trade from his father. For me, the following events sum up his nature.

When he sees Jesus walking on water, he makes the jump of logic that if Jesus can defy rules of nature, he should be able to as well. What incredible, uninformed passion he shows as he climbs out of the boat and tests the surface tension of the undulating waters! It’s amazing to me that, in front of the eleven disciples who never left the boat, Jesus remarks on his lack of faith.

No other chapter sums up Peter’s complexity better than Matthew 16. When Jesus asks who the disciples believe he is, Peter declares his conviction that Jesus is the Messiah and the son of God. It’s on this confession that Jesus will build his church. Yet, a few verses later, Peter reprimands Jesus for talking about his upcoming death, and Jesus puts him in his place: “Get behind me, Satan.” Now, that’s a rebuke! I picture Peter like a dog. When he goes in the wrong direction, you give him a smack or yank on his leash. He sits there stunned for a minute, then shakes it off and sets off again in a different direction. He doesn’t take rebukes personally.

John 13 shows that he’s a long way from getting it. He refuses to let Jesus do such a menial job as wash his feet. Then he pledges loyalty, denying that he would ever deny Jesus. Couple this with his swordwork at the olive grove a few chapters later, and you begin to see that it’s an issue of expectations. I think Peter believes Jesus is preparing to lead an earthly insurrection. Servanthood, arrest and death don’t fit his view of Jesus’ destiny and goals.

Then there’s the lowpoint. While the other disciples flee, Peter sticks around and follows from a distance, only to try to protect himself from the same fate by distancing himself and then flatly lying about his connections to Jesus. His anguish over his denial turns to flight. He heads back home to comfort, the life that comes naturally to him, trying to move on from his failure. He goes back to fishing.

So, when Jesus steps out of the picture, his successor is not at all ready. Is this really the man you want to turn the church over to? Jesus puts a lot of stock in the fact that Peter will rebound from the harsh lessons he learned out of betraying his rabbi and disappointing himself. Jesus turns Peter’s focus from a spiral of dispair with a brief and direct conversation on the beach. Then he’s gone, and Peter is on his own.

Along comes Acts, and Peter is a different man. His hotheaded, impulsive, speak-first ways have morphed into a boldness with a lot of maturity. Maybe you could call the upper room his coccoon. The first words from Peter include a number of quotes from Scripture. I believe he spent the silent days after Jesus left, immersing himself in the Scriptures and in prayer — the qualities the apostles will become known for.

From there, we see a Peter in full command of himself and his followers. He preaches to thousands. He looks lame beggars in the eye and heals them. He faces down Pharisees and Jewish leaders, who can only marvel at his transformation, noting only that he had been with Jesus. Sure, he does some things wrong. I think some of his early decisions are a bit suspect, and Paul later calls him on some hypocrisy. But no one can deny Acts portrays a different Peter than the gospels depicted.

In Leading With a Limp, Dan Allender says that a leader cannot have true humility without being humiliated. And he can’t be truly successful without acknowledging his brokenness. Peter became the leader of the early church because he went through such a deep valley. He came out motivated, compelled by grace and love to follow this Jesus who had done so much for such an undeserving failure.

That’s what Easter is all about.