C. Kavin Rowe: Becoming a Christ-shaped leader
Christ-shaped leadership is about developing a fundamentally Christian background in your institution or organization, so that Christian thought and practice are second nature.
September 13, 2011 | The phrase “Christ-shaped leadership” should appeal to any Christian leader. What else are we supposed to be doing as Christians if not leading in the pattern of Christ?
The trouble is that Christ-shaped leadership has been used too many times to name various techniques or spiritual attitudes -- a discrete set of things to do or to feel that will enable the leader to lead Christianly. It is true, of course, that certain practices help develop Christ-shaped leaders.
But at its deepest level, becoming a Christ-shaped leader is about cultivating the right kind of background.
Psychologist William James famously described the world around us as a “blooming, buzzing confusion.” A second’s thought about the virtually inexhaustible and overwhelming movement of life around us at any given moment will show the aptness of James’ description, at least as this vast complexity appears to the human mind.
We cannot even begin to comprehend all that goes on around us in even a five-minute span -- the movement of molecules, the circulation of the blood, the bugs crawling, the wind currents shifting, the traffic noises, the sounds of animals or of conversation, and so forth.
Surprisingly, however, we don’t regularly experience the blooming and buzzing as blooming and buzzing. Indeed, apart from conscious reflection upon the teeming mob of stuff around us, we almost never notice it. Why?
The simple answer is that we have developed strategies that help to organize our lives by means of focused patterns.
These patterns are “sense makers”: they reduce the appearance of complexity by screening out certain things and highlighting others, and they make the world appear to us in specific and manageable ways -- ways that make sense of the buzzing. Most often, these patterns are not “seeable” in the foreground of our lives. Instead, they form the background.
The background is what enables us simply to take for granted that we need to do X rather than Y -- in this country, vote in elections, for example, to decide on the head of state rather than stage a military coup.
The reason voting makes sense is that we are shaped by a rich background of democratic concepts and practices that allow us to take for granted that voting is what we do to transfer power at the highest level. Switch the background against which voting makes sense, and the practice of voting every four years might look rather crazy.
As Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe point out in their book “Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing,” when we see a stop sign we don’t consciously think, “Hmm, what color? ... I know! I know! That’s red! What shape? Ah, octagon! Oh, yes, yes indeed, that’s the thing called a stop sign.” We just know it’s a stop sign.
How do we know? Not, for those who remember the Platonists, because there’s an eternal form of a stop sign in which this particular sign participates or to which it corresponds; nor, for those who remember the Cartesians, because “stop sign” is somehow an innate idea that comes with all human minds at birth.
To the contrary, we know it’s a stop sign because of the background that makes the red octagon “make sense” to us as a stop sign. In this case, the background is formed by the way the conviction about the importance of human life gets articulated through the dense network we call basic traffic safety: the road rules, symbols, habits of driving and educational practices that make possible the virtually instantaneous recognition of a stop sign as a stop sign.
As these two examples show, the importance of the background is quite remarkable: it structures how the world will appear to us and therefore how we will act in it. Our perceptions and practices make sense to us because they occur against a background that provides the sense they make.
Christ-shaped leadership is about developing a fundamentally Christian background in your institution or organization.
The point is to extend, deepen or, in some cases, begin to provide the sort of structure -- both interpretive and concrete -- so that Christian thought and practice are done by habit, as second nature. They are what “make sense” to do in your institution.
What “makes sense,” however, is not always easy or straightforward.
Indeed, on any account, the most arresting fact about developing Christ-shaped leadership is realizing that Jesus himself was actually killed. By all normal appearances, that is, his life’s work did not end in the triumphant establishment of God’s reign but in a shameful death and a scattering of his most committed workers.
In short, from the point of view of his death, Jesus’ whole ministry was a failure. Of course, Christians know the rest of the story -- how God raised Jesus from the dead and reversed the verdict upon his life. The resurrection validated Jesus’ ministry and drew together those who had deserted him in a new mission.
But the resurrection did not erase Jesus’ death, as if it could be removed from memory. Instead, the resurrection incorporated Jesus’ death into what became the distinctively Christian logic: Jesus was dead, but he is risen. This logic then formed the initial background of the new world the disciples learned to inhabit.
But the early Christians quickly learned that they had to say more than just the truth about Jesus’ resurrection; they needed to fill in the background that would form the conceptual and practical structure of the new movement.