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.

Romans 12 – no conformity

2 Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.

This verse has been covered in relation to the Church engaging culture, so I’m not going to go there today. Instead, I want to focus on what it says to leaders — more of a personal application. I want to hit two areas of conformity that I think a lot of leaders struggle with, particularly those working in ministry.

It’s very easy for churches and non-profit ministries to embrace secular management and business philosophies. Don’t get me wrong; there’s a lot of good, helpful advice that can be applied to our settings. I remember hearing Jim Collins describe his astonishment at how many non-profit leaders were reading his books. He cautioned “social sector” leaders to discriminate, noting that non-profits shouldn’t necessarily embrace business practices. Just because businesses do it doesn’t make it worth copying, because most businesses are average at best. Instead, he noted that the same principles that make a business great can make a non-profit great. Copy the greatness principles, he urged.

Too many ministry leaders spend time reading the latest leadership techniques when greatness is found in more ancient texts. The Bible’s principles are still applicable today. I remember Dave Ramsey noting one time, “Who knew you could make so much money teaching people what the Bible says?” He’s not the only guru making money repackaging biblical concepts. Consider Collins’ Level 5 leader idea. Humility and a deep passion for the work are not new ideas.

The second thing leaders struggle with is the desire for easy success. A simple way to do that is to see what works for others in ministry — Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, Mark Driscoll, you name it — and copy that in your context. By now, you know that I think leadership is contextual. I’m sorry, but there are only so many of Hybels’ strategies that work in my church of 350. Different scale, different world. I think a desire to copy the behavior of others — be it the world or even other ministries — comes down to laziness.

Instead, Paul calls leaders to transformation built around an experience with God. God’s will for me is personal, and it involves my mind and will. God has gifted me differently than any other leader, and he has a plan for my ministry and my part in my ministry. When I’m transformed by God’s work in me, I don’t look to others as a measure of my success, but work for an audience of One. I don’t measure myself by the expectations and requirements of others. And I don’t look at what God is doing in others’ ministry, but I look at my context and my situation.

When I’m transformed, I can freely exercise my leadership gifts and do my thing where God has called me, in my context.

Part III: Young leaders live in the world of story

Third, young leaders live in the world of story. They are less concerned with numbers and statistics than in the emotional pull of a good story. They want to pick out the individual from the masses and put a face on the issues at hand. Statistics don’t motivate them; testimonials and parables speak their language.

Taking this further, these young leaders are wary of statistics. Maybe it’s that deep-seated skepticism. After all, you can find statistics to support any point you want to make. So if young leaders see phenomenal numbers coming out of a program, but a lack of good stories, they see red flags. They are far more willing — than most Boomers are comfortable with — to intuit from a handful of stories a trend and quicker to jump on that trend and ride it as early adopters. Sure, it’s risky. But it suits their style to value feeling, imagination and gut instinct.

While I’m on this point, let me get on my soapbox for a minute. I grate my teeth a little every time I hear someone say, “But that’s just anecdotal evidence!” “Anecdotal evidence”? That feels like an attempt by modernists to fit stories into a numeric, quantitative orientation. Let me suggest another name for it: “true stories.” We should be acknowledging the stories we hear as opportunities to see God moving. We need to find a way to make stories a key quality measurement. How? It’s difficult to make generalizations, but Lencioni makes the point in Three Signs of a Miserable Job that you can find ways to measure quality, such as a drivethrough guy measuring smiles and outright laughs as an indicator of a qualitative improvement. Surely there’s a way to count God sightings, or perhaps the absence of them.

What are your thoughts about using stories as a measure of success?