Leadership in tune with God’s presence

Of course, God’s presence is not as obvious as it was in Moses’ day. Remember that the context was different. God knew that Moses and his followers needed visual assurance of his presence, so when Israel as a nation first began to experience is active leadership, God gave them the pillar of cloud and fire, the cloud descending during the dedication of the Tabernacle, the bread of the presence and the Ark of the Covenant. In fact, he even provided Moses with a point of focus in Exodus 25:22: God told Moses he would meet with him in the Holy of Holies and speak to him from between the two cherubim carved in its cover.

I wish God didn’t give us the benefit of the doubt that we’re any better at maintaining focus on a God who is not obviously visible. We don’t have the same overt symbols. But God still gives us experiences where his presence is undeniable. These moments of provision and protection serve to build our faith, affirm our calling as leaders and establish our leadership credentials with others. I know some leaders who collect and display in their offices “rocks of remembrance” from various situations and experiences so that they don’t forget.

In the Old Testament, God used physical reminders for both leader and follower alike. The most powerful example is that pillar of cloud and fire. Through 40 years in the wilderness, God built a habit for Israel of actively following his leadership. Consider the implications for leadership and followership in this remarkable passage from Numbers 9:16-23:

This was the regular pattern—at night the cloud that covered the Tabernacle had the appearance of fire. Whenever the cloud lifted from over the sacred tent, the people of Israel would break camp and follow it. And wherever the cloud settled, the people of Israel would set up camp. In this way, they traveled and camped at the Lord’s command wherever he told them to go. Then they remained in their camp as long as the cloud stayed over the Tabernacle. If the cloud remained over the Tabernacle for a long time, the Israelites stayed and performed their duty to the Lord. Sometimes the cloud would stay over the Tabernacle for only a few days, so the people would stay for only a few days, as the Lord commanded. Then at the Lord’s command they would break camp and move on. Sometimes the cloud stayed only overnight and lifted the next morning. But day or night, when the cloud lifted, the people broke camp and moved on. Whether the cloud stayed above the Tabernacle for two days, a month, or a year, the people of Israel stayed in camp and did not move on. But as soon as it lifted, they broke camp and moved on. So they camped or traveled at the Lord’s command, and they did whatever the Lord told them through Moses.

Can you imagine living that way? Day after day, you have no idea when God is going to move and when he’s going to stay put. Each morning, you check to see if God’s Spirit is moving on. You’d surely develop a feeling of never quite being settled. Life would be unpredictable, right?

Let me challenge that. Perhaps the lesson is that you shift your definitions of “settled” and “predictable.” “Settled” no longer means you make it your goal to put down roots on this earth. Instead, you make it your goal to find your security in God’s presence alone. “Predictable” no longer means making plans that start from and centre around you. Instead, your primary plan is to find out what God is doing and join him.

The Israelites were asked to do no less than their patriarch, Abraham, whom God called to leave his land and his father and go where God would lead (Genesis 12). Where was that? Abraham was not told. Hebrews 11:8-10 makes several points about Abraham’s faith:

  • He lived like a foreigner, not considering where he lived at the time to be his real home.
  • He looked forward to his long-term home. He was a citizen of heaven.
  • He lived in tents, ready and mobile when God called him to move on.
  • Even when he arrived at his “promised land,” he continued to live in the pattern he developed on the journey. It was a habit.
  • His kids followed his example. Hebrews says Isaac and Jacob inherited the same promise and likewise lived as nomads in Canaan. Children are keen observers and imitators of the beliefs of their parents when they see it authentically lived out.

So, what can we learn? We, who don’t have such obvious signs of the presence of God, can still live in the same way. That’s where I find Abraham’s example helpful. After all, Abraham’s God wasn’t obvious and visible. I love watching renditions of Bible stories as told through fresh eyes. As I watched an episode on Abraham in the recent The Bible Series on the History channel, it hit me that the people around Abraham, including his wife, likely thought him crazy. Think about it: each time he told them God had spoken to him, they had to have faith as well. His ideas to leave his family and hometown were counter-cultural and made no sense. His idea that God was telling him to sacrifice his son was beyond radical. How did he know so clearly what God was saying, when no one around him could see it or hear it? We’re not told. But I’m absolutely convinced that it only happened because Abraham knew intimately the God who spoke to him and because he walked by faith. He demonstrated complete obedience to what little he knew. And so God continued to lead him.

Just as Moses came to see God as his “promised land,” seeking the presence of God even more than the land promised to him, we can seek to know God and to abide in him as a greater goal than what he provides or promises.

Just as Abraham longed for his eternal home, we can live simply, showing our faith by our priorities and the way we live in this world.

Just as the Israelites built a habit of looking each day for God’s presence, we can grow our ability to recognise God’s fingerprints and the wind of his Spirit in the circumstances around us. When we’re quick to action about the things we know to do, our hearts will be more and more attuned to seeing God moving.

Maybe one day we’ll be able to say with the nomadic Moses,

Lord, through all the generations
you have been our home! (Psalm 90:1)

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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.

Romans 12 – self awareness

3 Because of the privilege and authority God has given me, I give each of you this warning: Don’t think you are better than you really are. Be honest in your evaluation of yourselves, measuring yourselves by the faith God has given us.

It happens every year. A young lady shows up on American Idol, sings her heart out… and the judges cringe. When someone informs her that she’s bad, she appears genuinely shocked.* Why? Because her entire life, she’s been told that she can sing. She has never received honest feedback until Simon Cowell.

* Go with me here. I know it’s all rigged.

Do you have a Simon Cowell in your life? Okay, bad example. Do you have someone in your life who has the privilege and authority in your life to tell you the truth? Paul had the ability to say this to the Roman church because of his role as spiritual father and apostle. Perhaps for you it’s a pastor or mentor or Proverbs-worthy friend, but you need people to give you an honest assessment, particularly as you move up in leadership.

What if you’re not really as good a leader as you think you are? This is a tough question, so take a minute to think about it.

I’ve read many times that when a superstar executive is plucked from a team by headhunters to fill a new leadership position in another company, they can’t reach the same success in the new setting. Why? It’s the drumbeat I’ve been saying for some time now: leadership is contextual. You are likely only as good as the team you’re surrounded by and the ideal match of your abilities to the challenges and opportunities you’re facing. Before you take credit for things that God has given you, read Daniel 4 as a warning from King Nebuchadnezzar.

I believe self-management is the first requirement of leadership. The Bible is clear that if you can’t lead yourself, you can’t lead others. The first step, then, is to know yourself. Know what you’re good at and what you’re not. Leaders have as few blindspots as possible and know their weaknesses well so they can lead to their strengths and staff to their weaknesses. But it’s true that the higher you move up in leadership, the more difficult it is to keep from living in a coccoon. There’s no one to tell you the truth, and it’s difficult to stop believing your own press.

The sticking point in these verses to me is that line, “measuring yourself by the faith God has given us.” What does that mean? For starters, if faith is the assurance of things unseen, then our plum line is not anything readily apparent to us. It’s not the media or our kiss-up friends. Our plum line is how God sees us. He’s the one who can see our insecurities and our coping mechanisms. He’s the one who sees past our false bravado. He’s the one who sees how our “courageous decision” was really just a guess, and this time it worked. He knows all that… and more.

Yet he also knows our full operating potential, because he’s the manufacturer. I think God believes in us. When we consider others better than ourselves and are quick to give credit to others for the success we enjoy, I think we’ll uncover a lot of the potential he built in.

Matthew Henry has a great admonition to sum up my last two posts (and this is a nice counterpoint to my recent posts on ambition):

We must not say, I am nothing, therefore I will sit still, and do nothing; but, I am nothing in myself, and therefore I will lay out myself to the utmost, in the strength of the grace of Christ.