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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Invictus: a study in leadership

Invictus movie posterI really enjoyed watching Invictus this week. If you haven’t seen the film, it chronicles the first days and months of Nelson Mandela’s rise to leadership in South Africa. Rest assured it is not a sports movie as much as a leadership movie. It portrays several forms of leadership and one leader’s attempts to influence another leader to bring about a desired result.

I was fascinated first by Mandela’s use of symbols. He seemed to bet his presidency on a decision — against the advice of his chief of staff — to focus on rugby as a symbol that would accomplish his desire to bring a divided nation together. It’s true that sports are one of the few things that can create unlikely alliances. Sports success not only unites; it inspires and ignites dreams.

The biggest challenge Mandela takes on in his use of symbols was one of prejudice. Rugby was seen as a white sport, and the Springboks a symbol of everything black South Africans fought against. If the whites cheered for it, the blacks cheered against it. Mandela took a major risk in attempting to reclaim a national symbol. Most leadership gurus would fall on the side of his chief of staff; the associations of most symbols are too powerful to redefine.

Let me try to suggest a parallel. I don’t think we appreciate how crazy it is that the cross has become a piece of jewelry. In the first century, the cross symbolized everything that was hated about the Romans. How many redefinitions has that symbol gone through in the two millennia since Christ stole it from his captors? Of course, that’s 2,000 years. Mandela redefines the rugby team in less than a year. Can you think of another symbol that changed meaning so quickly?

Symbols are a powerful tool for leaders to use to advance their cause. That’s a topic worth another post down the road.

The second thing that struck me was that Mandela staked his influence over the rugby team on someone other than the coach. In fact, I can’t recall the coach appearing in the film. Instead, Mandela challenges the captain of the team. As a player, François Pienaar has the greater influence over the resolve of the team.

Mandela’s conversations with Pienaar are alone worth seeing the movie again. The bi-generational leadership model they employ is celebrated at the end, when each thanks the other for service to the nation. I think what struck me was their two very different styles and roles. Mandela has to lead a nation. His influence comes from incredible personal authority burnished from 27 years in prison. His job is to inspire, make tough choices and sacrifice for the good of the country. He does that in several cases by challenging his people — black South Africans — in essence to do to whites what they wish the whites would have done to them.

On the other hand, Pienaar begins with very little personal authority, seemingly barely surviving a purge of team leadership. In some ways, he is a symbol of the Springboks’ losing ways and racist heritage. Inspired by Mandela, he determines to bring change. He prods and challenges the team to break their self-made molds. He puts in the effort, comes up with the strategy and forces the team to dig as deep as he himself does. He also uses symbol. There’s a great moment when he hands out cans of beer that nobody likes and forcefully associates the taste with losing. At times, like Mandela, he looks very lonely in his leadership. By sheer determination, he carries his team to victory, but then shares the credit 43 million ways.

By the end of the movie, Pienaar shares the stage as equals with Mandela. I’m intrigued by his journey — how a young leader can build a reputation and gain the personal authority needed to influence a nation. The movie’s worth watching, and probably watching again. Give me your thoughts. What stood out for you?