I desire meaning and depth in my life and in my leadership. I’ve always been told that I have a lot of raw talent: personality, energy, etc. As I’ve grown older, the caution of mentors and advisors through the years that I can’t sustain on ability alone has been ringing true. Substance must be the foundation – and there’s only one Foundation. This book was recommended to me as a leader who wants more than just the trappings of what the world would term as success. I’d recommend it for the same reasons.
Nouwen outlines three basic truths in the book [Amazon Link]:
Jesus promises a life in which we increasingly have to stretch out our hands and be led to places where we would rather not go. He asks us move from a concern for relevance to a life of prayer, from worries about popularity to communal ministry, and from leadership built on power to a leadership in which we critically discern where God is leading us and our people.
He lays out a foundation that’s rooted in knowing the Father and being known by the Father. Nouwen writes, “Christian leaders cannot be persons who have well-informed opinions about the burning issues of our time. Their leadership must be rooted in the permanent, intimate relationship with the incarnate Word, Jesus, and they need to find there the source for their words, advice, and guidance.” He grounds this concept in trying less and being more. The path to true Biblical leadership is down, not up. It’s in a contemplative prayer life. He says, “When we are securely rooted in personal intimacy with the source of life, it will be possible to remain flexible without being relativistic, convinced without being rigid, willing to confront without being offensive, gentle and forgiving without being soft, and true witnesses without begin manipulative.”
From Popularity to Ministry
Nouwen outlines the temptation as leaders to desire popularity over ministry and ways to prevent and overcome this great temptation. Chances are as leaders, we’ve got some raw talent we bring to the table. However, at some point, our talent can go only so far. When our weaknesses are exposed with no foundation, we’re left in a pretty vulnerable state. Nouwen suggests as we build our foundation in prayer and deep connection to the Father, we are comfortable to have our weaknesses exposed and allow His power to be manifest. He suggests this being a much messier type of leadership because it’s done in the context of community. He says, “The leadership about which Jesus speaks of is of a radically different kind from the leadership offered by the world. It’s is a servant leadership.” Servant leadership is the kind “in which the leader is a vulnerable servant who needs the people as much as the people need their leader.”
From Leading to Being Led
I’ve read many books on leadership where CEOs make power plays for the health of the company. I’ve had leaders who tried to control me and leaders who empowered me. Nouwen provides us a stern warning as leaders when he writes: “One thing is clear to me: The temptation of power is greatest when intimacy is a threat. Much Christian leadership is exercised by people who do not know how to develop healthy, intimate relationships and have opted for power and control instead.” He hits us with, “It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.”
What does this mean for me? As I read Nouwen’s words, admonishments, and affirmations, I’m constantly evaluating where I am in my leadership. Am I loving? Am I empowering? Am I controlling? Do I have a desire for power or popularity? The essence of my questions are questions of the heart. As I’m doing this self-evaluation, I’m feeling like I need to take a season off from reading the noisy messages about how to refine, get better, and lead more effectively and efficiently. For now, I simply need to rest in the Father’s love. Pray more. Look for ways to continue to serve and sacrifice. The foundation is intimacy. It’s the foundation for everything. Out of this foundation are great ideas to refine and grow. It’s cart-and-horse stuff here. Start with the Father.
Nouwen paints the picture of the leader I hope to become someday:
I leave you with the image of the leader with outstretched hands, who chooses a life of downward mobility. It is the image of the praying leader, the vulnerable leader, and the trusting leader. May that image fill your hearts with hope and courage, and confidence as you anticipate the new century.
Questions for You
What kind of leader are you? What kind of father, mother, wife, husband, son, daughter, are you? Where are you in this story? What’s one place you feel you could press into and allow refinement to take place? Let’s share our stories and suggestions below.