Fearless leader

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.

Advertisements

Courage and Leadership

[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.

Willow Creek – lonely at the top?

David Gergen said something interesting that resonated with a number of other speakers from Day 1 of The Leadership Summit:

Leadership doesn’t have to be lonely. The day of the Lone Ranger is over.

He said when leadership is more of a team thing, when you lead other leaders, when you see your job as bringing other people along, when you partner, collaborate and build things together, how could leadership be lonely? The only time leadership would get lonely would be in a choice to keep people at a distance, as Reagan apparently did.

In my experience, there are two sides to it. Yes, leadership is certainly very relational. I’m not sure it’s called leadership if people aren’t involved somewhere in the process. Don’t you need followers, for instance? But at the same time, there are things you carry that you can never share. For some, it’s personal baggage from their past, as Wess Stafford shared with us at the Summit. For others, it’s new struggles they can never share with others. I heard recently about a leader in Wycliffe whose wife had a lot of health issues and who got mugged in Africa during his tenure, and very few people ever knew about it at the time. For others, it’s confidential staff issues. I can’t imagine the burdens some of our HR leaders carry over time. With all those secrets, it feels very lonely.

So how can we develop methods to carry each others’ burdens at top levels of leadership? How can those who work with CEOs get beyond surface-level friendships? As busy as they are, CEOs need deep relationships, but they have to find a way to open up and give back in return. I’m convinced as relational a thing as leadership shouldn’t have to be lonely.

Still more Willow Creek – failure

One more thread I heard from a couple of speakers: some challenging comments on failure. I’m not sure any leader enjoys failure. But it’s not only a necessary step on the way to success, it’s the best way to learn. So, what is the relationship between success and failure? Here are two theories.

Pastor Dave Gibbons: “Failure is success to God.”

Authors Chip and Dan Heath: “Failure is an early sign of success.”

Chip and Dan again: “In times of change, failure is a necessity.”

When I read back over my notes on Dave Gibbons’ talk, a lot of the things he said that resonated at the time simply don’t make apparent sense to me today. Either I didn’t take detailed-enough notes, or his session gave all the highlights, and you have to pick up his book for them to make sense. But let me try to unpack them here.

Dave followed his quote above by saying that failure is the way the world resonates with us. It’s seems like Christians market themselves to the world as moralists who always do the right thing. I think that’s the reason the world laughs hardest when they see self-righteous-ism fall into the traps of sin. It’s when we admit our struggles, sins and failures that the world finds common ground with us. Painful though it might be to detail our failures, we can now talk on the same level with those who tend to be more open about their struggles. When that happens, God can move in and do amazing things.

We already know that God’s power is strongest when we are weak. I’m looking forward to reading the book, Leading with a Limp, because it’s built around the idea that you can lead out of brokenness and weakness. Think of the incredible power Wess Stafford has had available to him as CEO of Compassion International because of the horrific abuse he suffered before age 10. The thing is that we’re all woefully inadequate and desperately insecure, and we need God to redeem our failures and turn them into success.

I think what the Heaths are getting at is that we are too quick to give up. When we get hit with failure after failure, we too quickly assume that failure is on the horizon as well. Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Edison are two frequently-cited examples of great men who could have given up but tried one more time. I think the Heaths would say that failure is part of the process that leads to success, and often, it can be the mark that you’re getting close. My problem with that statement is that it sounds like something you say when you’re failing to keep up your courage. How do you know which failure is going to be your last failure before you break through?

Dave, Chip and Dan didn’t explain their comments. Maybe I just need to buy their books.

The winner in this set of quotes is the last one. In times of discontinuous change, leaders should take courage. This is the time to innovate. This is the time to try new things and see what works. After all, in times of change, there are no templates. So, try and fail, but keep trying, because your breakthrough might become the new template on the other side.