In my last post, I unpacked the art of influencing. The second major challenge of second chair leadership is to understand the nature of authority. This is key to leading when the vision or the decision is not yours.

In John 19, Jesus stands before Pontius Pilate in the face of questions about where he came from, whether he is a king, whether he is the Son of God. Pilate finally asks in frustration, “Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” (v10). Jesus shares a secret of authority in that moment, to that sole audience: “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been give you from above” (v11). Authority comes from above—from the power you represent, the one who sent you, the one in whose name you act.

The Roman centurion in Luke 7 shows an astounding grasp of the principle that leadership is stewardship of the authority we have been given. Jesus himself marvels at the man’s faith, which flows from his understanding of the authority given to Jesus from above. He believes Jesus can simply speak the word, and his son will be healed. Why is he so certain? “For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it” (Lk 7:8). It follows that if Jesus is acting on behalf of the Creator, he has command of the very elements. Indeed, in the next chapter, even the wind and waves obey Jesus’ orders (Lk 8:25).

There are three primary challenges to a second-chair leader when it comes to authority.
1. When lines of authority are unclear. Confidence comes from clarity in direction and scope of authority. When either is unclear or confusing, a leader’s ability to lead is undermined. When there is daylight between the first- and second-chair leaders, followers can be disillusioned, or they can be emboldened to take advantage, playing one against the other.

2. When we disagree with our supervisor. It is inevitable that you, as a second-chair leader, will be asked to carry out a decision you don’t believe in or spoke out against. Even leading within a servant leadership model, where each has ample opportunity to be heard and to provide input toward a group decision, will lead to decisions that weren’t unanimous. So now you are committed to carrying out a decision that you once argued against. Your team may well make the same arguments you made. Is your job as a second-chair leader to toe the company line or confide in your team that you made the same objections?

Siding with your team against those in authority is not leadership. Leadership means carrying out a decision even if it’s not popular, even if you might agree with some of the criticism, even if you have your own doubts. The time to make your opinions, your arguments, your doubts clear is in the privacy of a meeting with your boss or leadership team. Once you leave that room, you move forward with one voice. The alternative erodes trust and undermines leadership authority.

3. When our authorities disagree. The confusion for believers is that we have a higher master than our immediate supervisor. Christ is our master, just as he is master over our direct reports and our supervisor (Eph 6:5-9). When our two sources of authority disagree, the choice over which authority we will obey is clear. When we’ve expressed our objection on biblical grounds, and our earthly supervisor disagrees, what then?

Think about Joseph again. He is a man under authority. First, he could clearly see God’s hand in his life—the successes, the tragedies and the waiting were all part of his preparation for this role. He knows God has sent him to this position (Gen 45:8), and he is a man who will not compromise his high morals (Gen 39:9). Yet he is clearly also under Pharaoh’s leadership. If he disagrees with Pharaoh, can he disobey? Besides loss of position, he may face exposure of his past, perhaps a return to prison, perhaps a loss of life. But Joseph could make a stand, or surely he could engineer an escape from the country. Most of us, even leaders, can quit if we’re faced with bad choices.

On the other hand, Joseph knows that the prophecy hasn’t been fulfilled, and God hasn’t completed his mission. He can’t walk away. God has prepared him, led him to this point and filled him with his Spirit (Gen 41:38). So Joseph co-leads Egypt through this period of adversity as best he can, balancing the tensions to the point that today, we can’t see light between him and Pharaoh.

Ultimately, confidence comes from the knowledge that your supervisor will be held to account. The Lord himself raises up and removes authorities (Dan 2:21, Jn 19:11), holds leaders to account (Heb 13:17), and rewards faithful servants (Eph 6:6-8). We can only be responsible for ourselves and the way we respond to the situation we’re dealt. God will take care of the rest.


Joseph series:

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Having examined the defensive positioning and offensive weaponry of our warfare in previous blog posts, I want to return to my main point. How do we as leaders respond to these attacks, these schemes, these tactics? What does wartime leadership look like, when others are depending on us and looking to our lead? How can we assist our followers and our organizations in fighting back appropriately?

I think it’s appropriate to look at Nehemiah as a case study. The first half of the book of Nehemiah lays out the man’s extensive work to rebuild a wall to protect a city long-term, while at the same time using his builders as armed guards to keep watch against local enemies. The attack never came. Nehemiah was successful, and through his visionary servant leadership, the wall was completed in 52 days.

But as I read through the book recently, it struck me that the attack did come. It wasn’t one large military force coming at the gates or besieging the walls; it was a thousand darts that came from unexpected places. This is my partial list:

This list is much more devastating and effective than sticks and stones. It’s amazing how fear of shame, derision and jeering can keep the mightiest leader firmly in his chair. Nehemiah could have held onto his position in Persia and considered himself there “for such a time as this.” But his calling was different than Esther’s. By challenging the status quo and stepping up to lead the change himself, Nehemiah put his own reputation on the line. He risked not only his position and his safety from outside attack; he risked internal attack if his followers gave way. For an interesting parallel, consider what Moses put up with as he led over a million men, women and children through the wilderness.

So how did Nehemiah circumvent, undermine and defy the attacks of his enemies? We can learn an awful lot from his example. Here are a few key lessons.

1. God awareness
Nehemiah was constantly aware of God’s role in his success. When the king granted his request, he knew it was the result of prayer, because “the good hand of my God was upon me” (2:8). When it came time for Nehemiah to get everyone on board his vision to rebuild the walls, his punch line was his testimony: “I told them of the hand of my God that had been upon me for good, and also of the words that the king had spoken to me” (2:18). They were convinced. Of course, when the wall was finished in a remarkable 52 days, he claimed no credit. Instead, Nehemiah said it was obvious even to their enemies “that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God” (6:16).

Nehemiah constantly pointed his followers back to the Lord, inspiring them with God’s greatness (4:14), encouraging them that God would fight for them (4:20), challenging them with the fear of God (5:9), and decisively dealing with sin as treachery against God (13:27). It seems clear that the courage he consistently demonstrated came from his constant awareness of God’s presence and a sense that he would be held accountable as a leader. That same courage is available to us. It starts with the same awareness.

2. Never get undressed
In the busiest, most stressful part of the project, the threat of attack imminent, Nehemiah decreed that everyone must stay in Jerusalem for the night as a guard for the city. Then he noted that they kept their weapons within reach, and “none of us took off our clothes” (4:23). If you haven’t had time to read my last blog post on the right clothing, now’s a good time to read that. When we realize that we are at war, we don’t ever let our guard down. We continue to protect ourselves and our families with truth, righteousness, readiness through the gospel of peace, faith, salvation and the Word of God. We don’t ever take off compassion, kindness, meekness, patience, forgiveness and love.

Have you seen the scene in Saving Private Ryan where, in the thick of battle, a bullet clangs off a soldier’s helmet? He takes off his helmet to marvel at the dent, only to fall to another shot? If we take off our armor even for a moment, we are incredibly vulnerable.

3. Practice prayer rhythms
Nehemiah’s prayer life certainly included prayer and fasting marathons during times of waiting (ch 1), but his day-to-day management was stabilized by a prayer reflex that helped him handle difficult situations:

  • When he was almost paralyzed by fear before the king, he sent up a quick prayer to God (2:4).
  • He took out on God his rage at his enemies, rather than letting the people see it (4:4-5).
  • When he heard of new plots, his response was twofold: prayer and setting a guard (4:9).
  • His sentence prayer at the end of chapter 5 suggests that his generosity in sharing his table wasn’t without personal cost of some kind.
  • When he exposed plots against himself, he took strength from the Lord (6:9) and trusted God to pay his enemies back (6:14).
  • I believe it was this rhythm of prayer that allowed him to see and understand the plot against him in 6:10-13. Discernment comes from time spent with the Lord.

It’s in that communing, that constant awareness of the Lord that you learn to hear His voice for encouragement, wisdom and venting.

4. Face the problems head-on
Sitcoms have overdone a common storyline: someone who needs to have a difficult conversation, but they constantly avoid it and choose the easy path until the problem blows up to comic proportions. I find those storylines incredibly frustrating. Leadership is about tackling the tough issues head-on. That’s what Nehemiah did in chapter 5 when class warfare raised its ugly head. When he discovered the rich were making profit out of the desperation of the poor, Nehemiah wasted no time bringing this exploitation to light and challenging the rich (5:6-7). By using his own example, deliberately choosing not to assert his rights, he managed to do it in a way that brought them on board, to the point that they closed the matter with a worship service together!

In chapter 13, he took on another problem with similar forthrightness, but with a different approach. This time he evicted a resident of the temple, confronted officials, warned and threatened merchants, and then cursed, beat and pulled out the hair of Jews who knowingly committed sin. There’s a progression of increasing anger, frustration and violence, punctuated by frequent prayers for God to remember him for these deeds. His constant refrain reveals his motives: the fear of God trumped fear of people.

As Jesus said, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 10:28). Ultimately, Nehemiah had one audience, and he never let the fear of man hold him back from what he needed to do. As David put it, “In God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can man do to me?” (Ps 56:11)

Here’s the bottom line: anyone doing “a great work” (6:3) is going to face attack, and we can learn a lot from the way Nehemiah approached his mission. If you’re in the middle of a swarm of fiery darts, don’t give up. It’s not about you; it’s about God from start to finish.

For it is God who is at work within you, giving you the will and the power to achieve his purpose. (Phil 2:13)

I remember a young lady in my graphic design classes at Georgia State University who had a take-it-or-leave-it approach to conflict. She would offer her opinion and, if someone challenged it, would respond, “What do I know? I’m just a graphic designer.” Her delivery of this line contained overtones of pluralistic acceptance and a passive-aggressive conflict style, but I’ve heard similar words expressed with different undertones.

That phrase – taken at face value – could be read a different way. It could reflect a deep-seated lack of confidence. Think of Gideon, who protested God’s call by claiming his clan as the weakest in his tribe, and he the least in his family. I can hear him now, saying “I’m just a grain farmer.” But God didn’t see him that way; the angel greeted him, “Mighty hero, the Lord is with you!” Wow.

Many of us think too little of our abilities or hide behind a simple skill-set when God has called us to much more than that. As a friend reminded me the other day, I could have skated by on my artistic talents instead of getting into leadership roles. Now, I’m not badmouthing graphic design; I’m badmouthing skating. Each person should pursue with enthusiasm and courage the role God has called him to and gifted him for.

If you’ve been reading my blog for long, you’ll know that I’m not suggesting that leadership is a greater gift, skill-set or body part than any other. Instead, I’m about matching giftings with needs. I’m about taking advantage of opportunity and moving forward courageously. And I’m completely against settling or skating by.

But let me turn the issue around. I think we are in danger of typecasting and overlooking people. Let me give you a couple of examples. I recently picked up my wife’s copy of the historical fiction book Lineage of Grace, by Francine Rivers. Rivers provides insights into the lives of five important women in Christ’s lineage:

  • Tamar was “just” a Canaanite wife, one of the foreign women God warned his people about intermarrying with. When she was mistreated by her father-in-law, she masqueraded as a prostitute to expose his hypocrisy.
  • Rahab was “just” a Canaanite prostitute who nevertheless believed in the Hebrew God and became the sole survivor when Jericho fell.
  • Ruth was “just” a Moabite widow who gave up her family and culture, risking everything to take on a Jewish identity and care for her mother-in-law.
  • Bathsheba was “just” a rape victim, stolen from her husband and forced to marry King David after he got her pregnant and killed her husband.
  • Mary was “just” a poverty-level teenager who consented to fulfill prophecies of a virgin birth at the risk of  having her reputation trashed by false charges of cheating on her fiance.

These five were the only women worthy enough to be mentioned in Jesus’ family tree in Matthew 1. Where man might overlook them, God honoured them and angels greeted them as “highly favoured.”

Wycliffe taught me early to be nice to everyone; you never know which staff member who reports to you today will end up being your boss. There is no natural ladder to the top in this organization, so never underestimate what people might have given up to take a current assignment.

I learned this life lesson the hard way when my wife and I were going through Wycliffe’s four-week orientation course in 1997. We were studying basic linguistics through the form of exercises and word puzzles that gave us a false sense of being gifted as translators. Each week, the exercises got a little harder until we reached a language with clear rules that were undecipherable by our group of aspiring linguists. It turns out the language was from North America, home of some of the most linguistically-complex languages in the world. In fact, one of them was used as a basis for the only code the Japanese never broke in World War II. Once we were sufficiently impressed with this language’s complexity, our instructor sprang the trap. He pointed out that the translator of the New Testament in this language was on the orientation program staff. After we exhausted our guesses of all obvious candidates, he pointed to the little, hunched-over lady who had been in and out of the room the entire month, running errands and making copies. I don’t think I had ever even noticed her. She was just an administrative assistant, right?

Who are you overlooking? Is it someone else, or yourself? I firmly believe a leader’s job is to make heroes of the “just” castes. We need to notice them, and we need to tell their stories. So here’s to all the administrative assistants, maintenance staff, receipting clerks and graphic designers who fly under the radar.

Remember, dear brothers and sisters, that few of you were wise in the world’s eyes or powerful or wealthy when God called you. Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God. (1 Corinthians 1:26-28)

Incidentally, I still look at the world as a designer — a unique viewpoint that sometimes allows me to see opportunity in challenging contexts. I’ve used that line before in leadership. At the end of the day, I’m “just” a graphic designer.

16 And don’t think you know it all!

…or act like you know it all. I remember working at Pace Warehouse when I was in college. There was one area of the store that I devoutly avoided. If a customer asked about it, I would try to find someone else to answer their questions or pretend I never heard them and walk away: Tires. I knew nothing about tires, and customers could tell I knew nothing about tires. That’s when a veteran employee — aged 25 or so — took me under his wing and explained that customers don’t like it when you don’t have answers for them. It’s all in the delivery; you have to speak with confidence.

Even worse than acting with confidence you have no right to have is thinking you know everything when you don’t. Ambition and self-confidence grow from the same stock. Both are good, but easily abused. Many young leaders think they have the skills and ideas to solve the world’s problems right now, and perhaps they do, but they lack opportunity and credibility.

Let me offer some perspective from Bob Creson, Wycliffe USA’s president:

It’s hard to say this (as an older leader to younger leaders) but there really is no substitute for experience.  And, often it takes one or two very difficult experiences to form the foundation of a leader’s future success.  My father-in-law likes to say, “Education is expensive.”  He’s not talking about formal education but rather the hard knocks required learning the lessons of leadership (and life, for that matter).  I can point to several of these in my own experience (both inside and outside of Wycliffe) that continue to shape my approach to leadership to this day.

It goes back to your attitude. Do you approach life, colleagues, reports, kids and clients like you know it all? Or like a learner always willing to have your views challenged with a new perspective? The question I have to ask myself again is, “Are you more interested in being discovered or in being developed?

As we start a new year, and I wrap up my series on Romans 12, let’s agree to approach 2010 as learners. There’s always more room to grow in our leadership abilities.

Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying.

How does a leader maintain perspective in chaos and crisis? With everyone’s eyes on her, the leader has to keep her calm and her optimism. We expect it of our leaders. They are our barometer and our plumline. Leaders cannot panic, and they cannot show their despair. So what does she do if she fears the same things that panic her followers? She has a choice to either fake quiet confidence or find some bedrock of her own.

I want to suggest three ways to do that, inspired by Paul’s words above. I’ll cover the first one here and follow with the others. The most important thing is that a leader has to know where to find hope for herself. David penned Psalm 121 for pilgrims climbing the long, steep, dry mountainous road toward Jerusalem. He recognizes that his hope doesn’t come from the strength of mountains or the literal and figurative strength of the city Jerusalem.

I lift up my eyes to the hills—
where does my help come from?
My help comes from the LORD,
the Maker of heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot slip—
he who watches over you will not slumber…

“Our confident hope” means that the leader takes confidence in nothing but the faithfulness of God and the work of Christ. God is the one who doesn’t change, the great Creator who never sleeps. Christ is the one who took the foolish things of this world and appointed them over the wise. There’s no reason any of us should be leaders except for the fact that Jesus redeemed us from our brokenness and gave us hope.

Starting from that point means a leader can strengthen her inner core, find confidence and even rejoice in spite of chaos and crisis around her. Circumstances don’t sway someone who has a strong foundation. And setbacks don’t derail someone with a strong vision that goes beyond their organization or even their tenure in office. And a leader who doesn’t lose hope inspires those whose eyes are watching her.

Moses was one of those kinds of leaders. His foundation was firmly set on a personal relationship with God and his eyes fixed on the vision of “a land flowing with milk and honey.” Over and over, Moses’ response to adversity was to go to God for help. He spent hours with God and was transformed by the experience. He dumped his complaints before God and urged Him to defend His name. In return, God was his avenger, speaking on his behalf and even striking down some who publicly spoke against him. Moses’ help came from the Maker of heaven and earth.

I’ve just finished reading Leading With a Limp, by Dan Allender. He says hope comes most out of situations of despair and disillusionment, when a leader’s optimism and idealism “suffer a mortal injury.” When the leader realizes that she can’t do everything or that she can’t solve this one problem, she hits the wall and her own limitations become clear. That’s where the God whose “strength is made perfect in weakness” can do His best work. God alone is our hope, and we realize it most when all of our other idols are exposed. That’s the best position to lead from.

As my friend Paul Edwards said once, “We gaze at Christ and glance at the waves around us.”

That last post brings me back to the core of my blog: what does a leader look like in a postmodern context?

As I’ve observed my generation’s forays into leadership — including our new president, who was born on the cusp of Generation X in 1963 — I suspect a number of things will prove true about Gen X leaders as a whole. Granted, these are stereotypes and the characteristics may well prove to have positive and negative ramifications. I want to dig into what a leader looks like over the next month, but I’m going to be sporatic until I take my new position in April. Hang in there with me, and set your RSS feed.

I think Gen X leaders are not always immediately identifiable. They may not be the most vocal or the one up front. When you walk into a room of young people, you’re likely to note a few extroverts who stand out for being the most vocal. A few seem to command the ears of the rest though they’re not as outspoken. Others might carry the right technology or always seem to wear the right clothes. But the one in charge – the one who called the group together and did the behind the scenes work to get them there and subtly shift the conversation – may not be any of these.

Leadership is influence, after all. You can have a huge amount of influence without being the one in front. I gave an example of this kind of “back row leadership” in my very first post. Here’s another: do you remember in Amazing Grace how William Wilberforce was the vocal one in the House of Commons, but prime minister William Pitt was secretly pulling strings without offering any emotion from the floor? There was no question that Pitt was the power broker, though Wilberforce got the headlines.

So, why not lead from the front? There could be a lot of reasons, but let me suggest a few:

1. We have an iconic view of leaders. To be a leader, you have to have the complete package: a face for magazine covers, great speaking ability, amazing organizational aptitude and abundant confidence, empathy and wisdom. Who can measure up to the image? Either leaders are larger than life or they’re failing gloriously. Or both.

2. I think there is a strong preference for avoiding risk. It’s easier to sit in the back row and take potshots at the person at the front. The one at the front is putting his neck out, and that takes courage and confidence — two traits that seem to be lacking among many young people. Perhaps we’ve been too sheltered. Anyway, it’s easier to influence someone else to get out front and take the risk instead.

3. Younger leaders prefer facilitation. It’s a philosophical difference. We like to do accomplish things together, and sorting out the roles to recognize success gets messy when it was done as a team. Maybe it doesn’t matter who gets the credit, after all.

4. I think many in my generation see power as a trap. They’re not interested in all the perks that go along with position. No amount of power or money can make up for the long hours, the cost to family, the stress or the inability to wear jeans to work. Better to keep your freedom and your balance.