Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson
Blog, Leadership

The Part About Leadership They Leave Off

Before leading, every leader needs to ask a number of questions including—

 -do I have any idea what I am doing?

 -what evidence suggests I have what it takes?

 -do I realize that leadership is about serving?

 -am I ready to suffer?

All of these require honest reflection. Especially the last one. Leadership conferences usually leave out the talk, “S—- happens.” They gin up their talks, selling the advantages of becoming a leader. Would be leaders buy into the idea that leadership is the path to money and power, as well as a medium for achievement.

But soon enough the smooth sail encounters stiff winds. The very people who voted you in have joined efforts to vote you off the island. The cruel sport of presidential politics is how quickly the inauguration shifts to speculation over who will be the next frontrunner. It was just yesterday they were attending your rallies, but time and familiarity have a way of taking their toll. Today’s champion is tomorrow’s material for SNL.

Of course it is all a set up. We begin to believe a leader can do what, in reality, only God can do. Politics cannot offer radical change. Only the gospel can do that. Politics will not usher in the kingdom. Only God, in his time, and in his way, will do this. He alone will get us through the night. But we buy into the fact men can do more than they really can, and they begin to believe this themselves. We set them up, and we fail each other.

Pastors are not immune to this capricious behavior. The one cheerleading your candidacy will sometimes turn on you. That smiling congregant may be thinking, “You should take a bath with a toaster.” It is the nature of humanity. Leadership, as Garry Wills puts it, is a feud. It is a serious meddling in people’s lives. So we fight. No wonder Churchill once remarked, “The story of the human race is war.”

After assessing wartime leaders, Andrew Roberts writes, “However generous the sprites and fairies are when they gather around the leader’s cradle with their gifts, there always seems to be a malicious one present to snatch back one gift from the cornucopia.”

Sometimes leaders bring on their own suffering. Worn out and overworked, a leader will do something whacked-out. Often, difficulties are material God is using to build character. Sometimes hardship has a way of pushing us into the wilderness where life is stripped of distractions. Tough times, as David Brooks puts it, can smash through the floor of what we thought was the basement of our souls and reveal a cavity below, and then they smash through the floor and reveal a cavity below that. 

Leaders who are summoned to serve God must become able, and ableness comes through forging. An impression of one’s self-importance is pruned. Divine purgation clears the decks for action. Hopefully, we come out, as Rhor puts it, less concerned with differentiating ourselves from other leaders and more concerned with looking for what we have in common; less assertive and more participative; less affected by the power people might want to use to control and influence us and more impacted by what God wants to do through us. We have fallen upward and onward into a broader, deeper world where the soul finds it fullness.

And hopefully, the people have found their leader.

(this and future posts are working excerpts from my upcoming book, Reframing Leadership: A Theological Evaluation of Contemporary Leadership Models)

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