If I had a nickel for every time someone referred to me as “our fearless leader,” I’d be a wealthy man. I realize people are trying to honour me, and I accept that, but the label rubs me the wrong way because it suggests that I’m cut from different cloth. It suggests I must be among the fearless ones, when most people have fears, and many are debilitated by fears.

It puts a leader on a pedestal that places leadership safely out of reach for the normal person.

But leading isn’t about being fearless. It’s about overcoming fear. Think about some of these Old Testament characters. We remember that all three boldly approached a foreign king, asking for favour:

  • Esther seems to have tried to dodge the pending annihilation of her people, keeping her heritage hidden beneath the robes of a queen. But then she accepted her cousin’s charge that she was God’s woman on the scene “for such a time as this.” She asked her people in the city to fast for three days while she summoned courage to visit the king and make her request. She concluded, “If I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:12-17). After winning the king’s favour, she still took two days to make her request, easing into it by filling the king’s stomach with feasting. Was it continued nerves or a strategic approach?
  • Ezra’s burden to teach the returning exiles God’s Word led him to approach the king and ask for favour to return to Jerusalem. He had more faith than strategy, because he kicks himself for failing to ask for protection. This became an extra burden when the king was so taken with this scribe’s request that he appointed him governor and overloaded him with donations. God’s hand and love had been so clearly extended to Ezra that he “took courage” (Ezra 7:28), but he admitted a few verses later that he had been “ashamed to ask the king” for protection after boasting in God’s power (Ezra 8:22). Desperate, he proclaimed a fast “and implored our God” to come through for them.
  • Nehemiah prayed four months before slipping up and allowing the king to see the burden he carried. When asked why he was so glum, he was “very much afraid.” He gulped and offered a teaser. When the king took the bait and asked his request, this cupbearer prayed a desperate plea before illogically seeking an appointment as construction foreman for a city wall (Neh 2:1-5).

My point is that we usually remember the outcome, not the struggle. Often the perception is self-inflicted, as leaders reinforce the hero myth. If followers only see the outcome, they put leaders on the pedestal. Leaders need to be clear about the burden we couldn’t shake, the wrestling with God, the dark nights of the soul that led us to make a bold decision.

Worse yet, sometimes leaders convince themselves that they were fearless. Perhaps it’s delusion, believing the headlines. Perhaps it’s forgetfulness. Perhaps it’s poor self awareness. Both Ezra and Nehemiah refer often to “the hand of God” being on them to the point of compulsion. They never claimed credit for their own courage.

Followers can also play a role in overcoming fear. In a later scene after Ezra gets to Jerusalem and exposes a pattern of sin among the clergy, he faces a horrendous decision. The king had given Ezra incredible authority to back up his teaching with strict judgment: death, exile, bankruptcy or prison (7:26). Still, Ezra struggled with the decision until his followers—the ones caught in sin—told him he must follow-through. “Arise, for it is your task, and we are with you; be strong and do it” (10:4). What an amazing verse of followership! Clearly God’s hand was on Ezra to have followers ready to face their punishment.

So how do you overcome fear? As I was putting this blog together, a friend referred me to the blog of Jeff Iorg, President of Golden Gate Seminary. In July 2012, he wrote three powerful and practical blogs on the subject of overcoming fear. They’re a worthy follow-up to this blog post.

Since we first heard the stories about Jonah in Sunday School, we have learned that God is omnipresent; there is no place we can flee from his presence and no believer in whom he does not dwell. He’s everywhere. But if that’s true, then why do we see phrases such as these throughout Scripture?

The Lord was with…

My presence will go with you…

Lo, I am with you always…

Of course God is with us and goes with us. Right?

If the incredible frequency of these phrases in the Bible weren’t enough to catch my attention, the passion with which certain characters desire that presence certainly did. Consider Moses. He experienced enough of God’s physical presence in the burning bush, column of fire and smoke and face to face encounters that he wasn’t about to go anywhere without God’s presence. He argued, “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?” (Exodus 33:15-16)

David is another leader who knew clearly that his success came from God’s presence. “The Lord was with him but had departed from Saul…. And David had success in all his undertakings, for the Lord was with him. And when Saul saw that he had great success, he stood in fearful awe of him.” (1 Samuel 18:12-16) No wonder, then, that after sinning with Bathsheba, David feared God would cast him out of his presence or take the Holy Spirit from him (Psalm 51:11). He was nothing without God’s presence.

I have a couple of foundational questions. If God is everywhere, why do we need to assure he’s present in our venture? And how can an omnipresent God remove his presence? These are critical questions for leaders, because if we don’t understand why Moses and David refused to lead without God’s presence, we lead at our own peril. Let’s look at a couple of things leaders need to understand.

Who gets the credit

There’s clearly some specific manifestation of God’s presence that gives a leader success. In addition to Moses and David, the Old Testament credits God’s presence as the secret to the success of Joseph (Gen 39:3,21), Joshua (Josh 6:27), Samuel (1 Sam 3:19), Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:7), Phinehas (1 Chron 9:20), John the Baptist (Luke 1:66) and Stephen (Acts 11:24). When I look back, I can see that, just as God was with Joseph in slavery, in prison and in the highest political office, he has given me success throughout my career, from the lows to the highs. I’ve seen problems solved through ideas that came to me in the middle of the night, I’ve seen doors open at just the right time and I’ve seen God give me favour in relationships that have advanced my career. I dare not claim any credit for those situations; the Lord was with me.

The key to effectiveness

The New Testament provides warnings and promises linking his presence to mission and leadership effectiveness. When Jesus commissions his disciples to be his witnesses, he promises his presence. As you go to baptize and make disciples, he says, “be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20) A short time later, as he prepares to leave them, Jesus warns them not to try to be witnesses until he sends the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4-5). It’s only when the baptism of the Spirit falls on them that their mission begins.

In John 15, Jesus offered the image of a grapevine to talk about proximity to him, promising fruitfulness when we “abide in him” and he in us. While this idea of dwelling or remaining suggests sitting still, that’s not the point. God is always at work, and it’s far more effective to join him in that work than to stray from his life-giving power. Remember, he promised in Matthew 28 to be with us as we go on his mission. But Jesus doesn’t stop with just a promise. He also warns that there will be no fruit ”apart from him.” As I mentioned in a previous blog post, “the verse doesn’t say that we will only produce some fruit. It doesn’t say we won’t be able to do much. It says we can do nothing.” Going further, he says branches that are not attached to the vine wither, are thrown away and are gathered to be burned. There are consequences for a leader who strays from his presence.

For the leader, these Scriptures suggest some course corrections. You might need to stop your forward progress and wait until you have assurance of God’s presence before you move forward. It might mean you need to discern his movement so you can join him. Stay close to him, steep yourself in his Word, know his character and learn his ways so that your direction aligns with his. Moses did this so well that his personal overall objective changed. In Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Ruth Haley Barton concludes that through Moses’ journey in the wilderness, he eventually came to think of God himself as his promised land rather than getting to the land of “milk and honey.” It all comes down to the value we place on his presence.

In her previous book, Sacred Rhythms, Barton talks about the value of breath prayers. Breath prayers are cries from deep down in your soul that you condense into a simple phrase that can be repeated easily and almost subconsciously throughout the day. Often I find that the frequent cry of my soul is this:

Omnipresent Lord, I need your presence.

I’m obsessed with keeping God’s presence. I want to know where the Holy Spirit is moving so I can join in, as a sailboat looks for wind. I want assurance of God’s presence before I head down a road. And I want to abide in Christ and him in me, so that my actions are infused with power.

After all, the secret to my success has very little to do with me.

[republished from Wycliffe Canada’s Prayer Alive publication]

You can never go wrong asking God to give leaders courage. Leadership and courage go hand-in-hand.

Why?

First, because leadership is about taking people from one place to another, and very rarely does that journey come with a clear roadmap. Leaders may have seen some glimpse of the “promised land” or experienced some part of it for themselves, but they are blazing a new trail. When I think of a journey like that, Moses comes to mind. The only way he kept his vision and faith in the wilderness was by spending copious amounts of time face-to-face in God’s presence.

And second, because leadership is a personal practice lived out on a public stage. Each leader has to figure out how much of his personal struggles to reveal to his followers. Frankly, many of our models have come from a generation that kept a “stiff upper lip,” giving a false impression that they didn’t struggle internally. I’m grateful for the young generations who are dropping that pretense. Some of them gain incredible power from admitting their failures and lack of courage. Joshua was that kind of leader. Why would he need four reminders to be “strong and courageous” in Joshua 1 if he wasn’t having doubts? Gideon was this kind of leader as well. I love the insights we get into his almost-daily need for assurance of God’s presence. (Judges 6:12, 16, 34, 36-40, 7:10)

During a recent trip to Southeast Asia where I had a chance to interact with a large number of the leaders of Wycliffe and SIL, I noticed a lot of tired leaders. I suspect some were discouraged, some tired from pushing themselves too hard, and some burning out from working in areas of weakness for too long. So I appreciated an early exhortation from Wycliffe Global Alliance Director Kirk Franklin. He unpacked the lessons God had taught him during his just-completed sabbatical. He specifically noted the lesson learned from Jethro’s counsel to Moses in Exodus 18: God doesn’t want exhausted leaders.

Kirk went on to list a few applications for leaders in the Ten Commandments. For instance, “Do your Sundays look any different from any other day of the week?” He then set the tone for the meetings by confessing six areas of sin that he struggled with as a leader. Kirk’s personal disclosure was a powerful challenge for all of us.

To lead differently requires courage, both in the public and the personal aspects of leadership. To trust your vision and follow God’s direction in the face of doubts, obstacles and sabotage takes incredible fortitude. To admit that you are “not able to carry all these people alone” (Numbers 11:14), and ask for help, takes boldness. To risk your position by admitting your weaknesses requires inner strength. Even taking time for rest reflects a deep faith in God’s ability to carry your load.

So we need to pray for our leaders to be “courageous in the ways of the Lord” (2 Chronicles 17:6). More and more I return to the argument Moses had with God in Exodus 33, where he begged for assurance of God’s presence. We to whom God has given this sacred trust need a daily reminder of that presence. The only way we can be successful is if, like Moses, the Lord is with us.

I was listening to a webinar last week that misrepresented itself and turned out far less useful than advertised. Not an atypical experience; webinars too often devolve into infomercials for the presenter rather than designed for the audience. I recall the words of an old boss. Joe Ledlie used to insist that you have to add value to any piece used to sell your company. If you add value for the recipient, they will listen to your message.

What saved the entire webinar for me was one question raised five minutes from the end. “What do I do with a young person who has an insatiable hunger for a leadership position and incredible impatience with taking the steps to develop?” Given the way my ears perked up at that question, I should have caught more of the presenter’s response. The one phrase that derailed my mind was his characterization of “an over-inflated sense of readiness.”

Have you ever encountered this phenomenon? I’m all for young people stepping into leadership, but too many want to reach the goal without putting in the hard work. Reality TV probably feeds this desire for instance gratification. Young people today would rather be Kelly Clarkson than the Beatles, who Malcolm Gladwell claims put in an estimated 10,000 hours of hard work in Germany before ever making it big.

So, let’s unpack this issue a little bit. First, why do we need young people in leadership? I’ll address that here. In my next post, I’ll argue the other side.

I think organizations are served well by a variety of viewpoints. Ethnicity and gender are two principle means of achieving that diversity, but recognizing that it’s not the skin that’s important, but the unique vantage points their unique experience brings. However, there are a few more elusive forms of diversity, such as age and a fresh set of eyes – someone who comes from outside the organization and lifts the organization out of its rut. Both have expiration dates.

Age diversity incorporates several desirable characteristics:

  • generational viewpoints
  • ability to understand the culture
  • technical savvy
  • coachability
  • open mindedness
  • willingness to risk
  • energy
  • curiosity

I think ability to understand culture and technology has parallels with ability to understand and speak languages. Social media is not my first language; I’m probably a 1.5 generation. But computers are my first language. In contrast, my parents use computers like it’s their second language and find social media completely unintelligible.

The goal isn’t to ditch one generation in favor of another, but to have all working together to create a rich tapestry of perspectives. You therefore need both on your leadership team. If you have a couple of older sages, you can afford to take a risk on a couple of young, energetic change agents. I’ll go ahead and say it: most organizations and businesses take too risk-averse a line when it comes to inviting young people to the leadership table.

Cameron TownsendWhen I look at Wycliffe and wonder how we could ever turn the keys over to a young leader, it’s helpful for me to remember this picture. Our founder was in his twenties when he had the audacity to think he could start an organization that would take on translation for the remaining language groups.

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.

Warning: at first glance, this post is about sports. Or maybe it’s not about sports. You might have to read past the first paragraph and gauge for yourself.

A couple of weeks ago, Georgia Tech concluded its search for a new basketball coach, selecting Brian Gregory from Dayton. For most Tech fans, that choice was underwhelming, as it appears Gregory is more steak than sizzle. Yes, he’s good. But his team isn’t in the NCAA tournament, and he didn’t come from a major conference. Tech fans have a high-enough view of their program that they think they could have hired a great coach away from another big-name school. So Gregory is bound to crush expectations.

Tech’s athletic director had a choice to make, and it just so happens that it’s the kind of choice any leader makes when it comes to succession planning and search committees. I think sport serves as a fishbowl, bringing certain choices into the open that often happen behind the scenes. The choices Tech faced, stated in general leadership terms for greater application:

1. Covet a shiny object. There are a number of “Cinderella teams” who crashed the NCAA tournament this year. Every time Butler or VCU won, the dollars projected for a bigger school to steal their hot coach rose significantly. Yet who’s to say their recent success in a smaller organization would translate to a regular winning program? Most organizations can point to people who, by their movement in an organization, are bound to be noticed. Yet there are concerns. For someone who has been successful at every level, what happens when they face adversity? What happens if their inertia collides with the Peter principle and they exceed the limits of their competence? Have they been adequately tested? Can they handle the increase in complexity and profile? How much risk is there in promoting the latest trend? One area to watch for is managing expectations. This leader better win, and soon. With all sizzle, he’s likely to win spectacularly or fail spectacularly.

This week, I read the story of David and Goliath again. David’s qualifications for taking on Goliath were that he had defeated lions and bears. King Saul had a decision to make: promote or protect this young, eager leader.

2. Stay safe with experience. In contrast, the safe choice looks attractive. He’s slow and steady. He’s never stood out as a rising star, but he’s also had few down years. Mr. Consistency has been successful at just about every level and is solid in the fundamentals. He’s likely a workaholic, accomplishing success through hard work and effort. He might be boring, but he’s put in the years and earned the right to be considered for the position.

My biggest concerns here are whether the person has the passion and energy to motivate followers and the courage necessary to lead change. If the organization has systemic challenges, it needs a leader, not a manager. Sometimes the safe choice is the biggest risk. In Saul’s case, the safe choices were hiding. The organization needed a fool who would “rush in where angels fear to tread.”

3. Stay close to home. In Georgia Tech’s case, a duo of former players indicated an interest and built a strong enough argument to at least get interviewed. Willing to work for less money and put their heart and soul into the job, home grown leaders have the opportunity to tap the culture and win over the fan base. In this case, both lacked head coaching experience but had been successful at lower levels. There’s risk, because they’re unproven, but patience among the fan base, who is willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

This is the kind of leader Jim Collins calls a Level 5 Leader: someone from within who is passionate about the organization and stubbornly wills it to success. In a sense, David tapped into that passion. His drive came from the fact that Goliath mocked his God. Nobody should get away with that!

4. Go with reluctance. In the person who never sought the job, you find humility and a low salary. While similar to the passionate leader in being homegrown, there’s a distinct difference: this person showed no initiative, nor did he dream that he would be considered. My concern is that someone who never thinks himself a leader and doesn’t take personal development seriously. He might do a competent job, but he’s not interested in growing as a leader so may never take the organization any further. When adversity comes, he may buck responsibility and wither. On the other hand, expectations are low, and followers are pulling for his success, so he may be given a long honeymoon period.

We absolutely love the Rags to Riches story, and we have a strange desire for a leader who stands up and says he never wanted the position. But the risk is that he’ll burn out because it’s a bad fit or quit because of the stress. Or perhaps he’ll turn down your offer in the first place.

There are lots of examples in the Bible of reluctant leaders who begged God not to send them, but David wasn’t one of them. I love the way he verifies the reward before taking the risk with Goliath: “What will a man get for killing this Philistine?” While they weren’t his primary motivation, David didn’t refuse the attractive salary package (the king’s hot daughter and a tax exemption for life).

So, which is the right strategy? It depends. The fact is that every organization is different, and every organization is at a different stage when looking for a coach or president. In Georgia Tech’s case, they needed fundamentals, consistency and a low salary. That led them to replace a coach who looked uninspired with an experienced coach who has hardly excited the fan base. In another setting, they may well have made a different choice.

In The Age of the Unthinkable, Ramo tells the story of Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso walking down a street one evening in Paris when a military convoy rumbled by. What caught their attention was that it looked different: the first time either of them had seen camouflage. Picasso cried out, amazed. “Yes, it is we who made it, that is Cubism!” Sure, camouflage was the direct application of Cubism by a lesser artist than Picasso, who thought he could apply art to transform warfare. But at the same time, that moment summarized in a moment the completely different way of seeing the world that was Cubism. It took artists to start the transformation, and it took artists to note the cultural shift.

Today’s prophets are found among artists. They’re the ones who have the pulse of what’s next. For instance, they’re the ones who first debated postmodernism… in the 1970s. The rest of the world took notice thirty years later. And the Church began to debate it within the last ten years, as if they could make a difference entering the debate that late in the day.

I was first exposed to Postmodern thought at a conference in 1999. It was eye-opening for me. I still remember one of the organizers lamenting about the state of artistic expression in most churches as well as the exodus of young people — particularly the artistic class — from the Church. Her conclusion: “The Church kicked out all the artists and then decided it wanted art.” She’s right on so many points. Without artists, worship becomes formulaic and stagnant. Without artists, the Church is so late in attempts to contextualize the Gospel as to be irrelevant. Without artists, the Church is left out of public debate on culture shifts.

So, while the Church engages with yesterday’s cultural shift, the artists long ago moved on to other shifts. What were they discussing at the turn of the century? What are they discussing today? The reason artists can express or portray an idea in fresh ways is that they see in fresh ways. The key to thinking differently is seeing differently.

Remember the old Apple ad series? The only one I clipped was the one featuring Ansel Adams. I wish I had the one featuring Paul Rand. Recall the narration: “Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers.”

Leaders would do well to maintain relationships with the arts community. Artists can make you uncomfortable. They are not always appreciated in their hometown. They love to note hypocrisy. But don’t try to forecast without your best “seers.” When it comes to anticipating the future, keep your artists close by.