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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Spiritual authority

A quick follow-up to my last post on positional and personal authority, lest you think I fell off the earth.

Personal authority includes spiritual authority. Let me give you an example from the biography I’ve just finished, Hudson Taylor and Maria, about the missionary pioneers to China. Author J.C. Pollock tries to parse the incredible influence of this frail, slight, poor and often-sick man so dedicated to his vision. Here’s how one of Taylor’s early recruits with the China Inland Mission puts it: “His strong yet quiet faith in the promises of Scripture, his implicit confidence in God, this it was which compelled submission on my part to whatever he proposed for me.”

Taylor had no social standing, positional power or imposing stature. Instead, it was his simple faith, total dependence on God and intimate prayer life, followed by unwavering dedication to his vision, that allowed him to achieve greatness.

Isaiah says the same thing about the Christ in Isaiah 53:2:

There was nothing beautiful or majestic about his appearance,
nothing to attract us to him.

Jesus didn’t attract followers because of his looks. (Aside: It’s an interesting thought to me that God didn’t bestow his ultimate creation with the looks of Brad Pitt.) He didn’t attract them for his stature or his magnanimous personality. He attracted them for completely different reasons. Some of the greatest men who ever lived follow in his footsteps: you wouldn’t notice them except for their incredible following.

Leadership requires followership

In October 2009, my shortest blog post (appropriately) asked how I could have 23 devoted Twitter followers if I’d never tweeted. The point being that you can’t follow a stationary object. Just for the record, I’ve decided to start tweeting, but I’m still working out my strategy. I don’t want to be a random tweeter. But that’s not the point I want to make here.

Over the last two years, I’ve tried to come up with working definitions of leadership and management. I’ve struggled with understanding where the murky swampland between the two firms up on either bank. And I’ve rejected numerous definitions as being too simplistic. Or too biased.

It hit me that the main requirement for leadership is that you have followers. That suggests two parts to a working definition:

  • First, it’s not about position, but about influence. Position or no position, whether you feel like a leader or not, it’s clear: if you have followers, you’re a leader. The opposite implication is just as true.
  • Second, you can’t have followers if you’re not moving. Therefore, leadership implies change.

Therefore, let me give the definitions a stab. Feel free to add your thoughts.

Leadership: the stewardship of one’s personal authority over others to set their pace and direction.

Management: the stewardship of one’s positional authority to maximize the use of resources toward the previously-set pace and direction.

A few clarifications. I don’t think it’s fair to say, as some do, that managers protect the status quo. Managers encourage movement toward the ends, but they don’t try to change the pace or define the direction as much as rearticulate the vision.

I also think it’s worth defining what I mean by personal authority and positional authority. These terms are attempts to specify the source of a leader’s influence, borrowed from Dr. Paul Hersey. Positional authority or power is the capacity to influence others by one’s dominant organizational position. In contrast, personal power is the capacity to influence others by one’s own being.

So, there you are. Give me your reaction to these definitions. With your help, maybe we can craft something worthwhile.

Don’t blame them for being misled

My sister made an interesting comment this week that triggered a new post that’s perfect for a Friday. She said for many years when she read a description of someone as “misled,” she thought it was pronounced [mizzled], a word which to me falls in the company of such descriptors as grouchy, frumpy and crotchety. I asked my sister what she thought [mizzled] meant, and her response draws from the verb form, misle: “I just thought it was a very mean thing to do to someone.”

What hit me later is the actual meaning of the word “misled.” Dictionary.com defines it as being led astray or guided wrongly. The implication is that the fault lies with the leader. That’s what Chip and Dan Heath point out in Switch. In a blog post a year ago, I quoted their reference to the Fundamental Attribution Error, which states that leaders have a deeply-seated tendency “to attribute others’ behavior to the way they are rather than to the situation they are in” (while generously doing the opposite with our own behavior).

What I’m suggesting is that if you, as a leader, have problems with your followers, you should look in the mirror. Grumpy, complaining, “misled” followers reflect the face of their leader.

Theology: spiritual gifts are for followers, too

What about the theological belief that the Holy Spirit empowers believers and gives spiritual gifts to all who know him? In John 16, Jesus unpacks the Holy Spirit for the disciples he leaves behind, promising that they’ll be even better off with God-as-Spirit than with God-in-human-form.

Certainly, the idea that the Holy Spirit works in and flows through a leader has implications on a leader’s role. Many have written on this subject. In fact, our leadership book discussion group at Wycliffe is getting ready to read Bill Hybels’ The Power of a Whisper. I may have more to say about the leader’s need for discernment and his role in “drafting the Holy Spirit” after I’ve read that book. Instead, I want to focus for a minute on another question.

What does it mean for a leader that every believer has spiritual gifts? It means all followers are empowered. First, leaders must listen to their followers, because the Holy Spirit might speak through a prophetic gift or someone with a gift that complements the leader’s blind spot. Second, leadership is just one part of the body. Just because there are fewer heads than fingers doesn’t mean the head is more important or any less needed. That’s hard for most leaders to believe. Leadership seems a more important gifting.

But leadership is just one of the spiritual gifts mentioned in Romans 12 and I Corinthians 12. It is not given special prominence in the Bible; in fact, leadership falls under the principle that “the last shall be first, and the first shall be last.” Certainly, Jesus said that leaders shouldn’t “lord it over people” but should be “servant of all.” So where do we get the idea that leaders should be rewarded disproportionately to other gift-holders?

Let me offer a biblical perspective on leadership from Fast Company magazine. Yes, you read that right. Fast Company. Author Nancy Lubin offers this zinger in the midst of her article, “Do Something: Let’s Hear it for the Little Guys”:

The working world would be a happier place if more of us aspired to roles that were just right — if we valued job fit and performance at every level and stopped overemphasizing the very top.

Lubin says we should honor chief operating officers, midlevel managers and staffers. She would probably add career placement people, whose job it is to get staff into the right positions. So, let’s hear it for the followers!

I think Lubin has a little prophet in her:

The underappreciation of followers has a major bottom-line consequence: crazy redundancy. You can see it in the not-for-profit sector, which has a gazillion little organizations replicating one another. We all want to run our own thing, so not-for-profits never die. As a result, we have huge inefficiency and ridiculous amounts of overlap in the sector. This is wasteful, and this is fundamentally bad business.

When you consider Christian non-profits, it also reflects a lack of unity. Considering that Christ said the world would know we are Christians if we’re unified, Lubin’s statement is a complete indictment of Christian leadership. So, a failure to understand that the Holy Spirit has empowered all believers leads to a misunderstanding of the importance of followers. Bad theology leads to misprioritized values, pride, redundancy and waste, not to mention derailing our witness.

Restoration

Because the LORD is my Shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside the ‘waters of rest,’ he restores my soul.

In While Shepherds Watch Their Flocks, Timothy Laniak says the idea of “restoration” in Psalm 23:1 is about returning. David uses the same verb as Jeremiah used to predict Israel’s return from exile. Sure, restoration is about satisfaction, that feeling when your deepest needs are met. It’s about rest, solitude and regeneration. But it’s the idea of returning that sticks with me.

First, returning to a former state. It’s helpful when you’re in the midst of a crazy-busy period to have a marker you can refer to when life was manageable, your days filled with joy and you had a deep satisfaction. For me, the ultimate answer is a place I can never go back to. It’s a world of naive innocence in the first year of my marriage, before the pain of our first miscarriage, when all our relatives seemed healthy, when our friends’ marriages seemed solid and before the economy turned upside down. Life was simpler and the pace more comfortable. Optimism and hope were the prevalent words to describe the year I’m thinking of. I can remember having more time to celebrate, think and enjoy life.

You know how you’re going through life at a frenetic pace and suddenly a smell or a sound takes you back to a moment years in your past? Restoration for me is about catching “throwback” moments when I’m spending time with God in the morning, when I get a chance to jump in on a pickup game of soccer or volleyball or when I participate in the joy of my kids. Those moments are rare, but incredibly rejuvenating. Laniak takes it one step further. He says those moments are about worship.

Worship rises freely from the satisfied hearts of those whose needs are tended to.

Restoration might also be a “return” to something you’ve never experienced — to God’s ideal. As eternal beings, we will one day go to a place that finally satisfies that vague hunger that has plagued us our entire lives. That’s where we’ll finally feel at home… the place we were created for. We may not have ever experienced a great marriage, parents, family life or workplace. But one day we will return home.

So, what does this post have to do with leadership? As followers, we need to remember that our Shepherd is very much concerned about our anxiety, restlessness and frenzied activity. Those things may be part of life for a time, but those aren’t his intention for us. He desires to give us rest and satisfaction, tending to our deepest needs — physical, psychological, intellectual, relational and spiritual. Are we seeking to meet those needs in Christ? Dan Allender says that leaders are more prone to addictions than the average person. Before I lead others, I need to recognize my own neediness and find times to get back to that state where I felt rested and fulfilled.

Find rest, O my soul, in God alone; my hope comes from him. (Psalm 62:5)

Second, as leaders and shepherds, we have a responsibility to mirror the Great Shepherd. How do we lead our staff to rest? Here are some questions from Laniak:

  • How do we assess needs in our places of ministry?
  • Do we really want to know the extent of the needs?
  • What kinds of needs do we seek to meet? Do we only limit ourselves to tangible needs? Or only spiritual needs?

Here’s the question he floored me with: “Do you give your people a chance to rest?” If I’m so busy myself, what kind of inference am I making for my staff? Instead, how do I promote a rhythm of restoration and rejuvenation for myself and those I lead?

Good questions as we head towards the weekend. I hope yours includes a few moments of restoration and rejuvenation.