Jason Byassee: The ironies of leadership
The one we all follow, as some of us lead, was crowned with thorns, and the “government on his shoulders” was the tool for his execution.
August 16, 2011 | On theological grounds, it is no accident that institutions failed Jesus. They’re among the principalities and powers that rebelled against their creator (Ephesians 6:12). Yet it is striking what Jesus did when he returned from the dead and met those who had abandoned him. Precisely where we might have expected vengeance, we got patience, tenderness, restoration of sinners and repair of all that was torn.
Those called to lead Christian institutions can find wisdom here. We should not be surprised that Christian institutions have often crushed those they are called to protect. Institutions are concentrated forms of all that is human, for good or ill; that is why they get things done (after all, we got something done when we put Jesus to death). And then Jesus calls precisely such institutions, as he calls all created things, to repentance and obedience and peace. Christ is already Lord of the powers, even of those still in rebellion. Will he not then sometimes call his people to guide them?
There is deep irony involved when anyone claims to be a Christian leader. All Christians are followers first. Anyone tempted to wear the mantle of leader takes on grave peril (“better for a millstone to be tied around his neck ...” Luke 17:2). And yet what was the first thing the disciples did after Jesus’ ascension? They chose someone to take Judas’ place (Acts 1:21-22). What is the prophets’ clearest sign of Israel’s devastation? There are no leaders (Judges 21:25; Isaiah 3:1-7). Christian leadership is no necessary evil -- it is a positive good, one God calls us to enter with fear and trembling, but calls us to enter nonetheless (1 Timothy 3:1). How do we enter with faithfulness?
Remembering the ironies of Christian leadership offers us a tool to remember the activities in which we ought to engage -- those activities that, when practiced over time, shape the mindsets and character traits that equip people to advance the church’s mission. Those activities are at the heart of what transformative leadership looks like for today’s Christian institutions.
IRONIES -- integrate, remember, observe, network, inquire, experiment, strategize -- remind us that Jesus himself was a servant with a towel around his waist, not a potentate with a sword. IRONIES remind us that the one we all follow, as some of us lead, was crowned with thorns, and the “government on his shoulders” (Isaiah 9:6) was the tool for his execution. We tread, then, with both caution and courage, and with an eye open for surprise.
How would you name the key activities of your organization?
- Interpretive charity
The critical mindsets? The essential character traits? Leadership Education at Duke Divinity suggests these lists as a starting place.
Transformative leaders work to integrate ideas that seem, at first blush, irreconcilable. Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, speaks of integrative thinking in his book “The Opposable Mind.” He tells the story of the founding of the Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts. Isadore Sharp loved the small, roadside motel he first founded outside Toronto. But he couldn’t generate enough revenue there to add the amenities that business travelers wanted. Sharp also loved the large convention center he later founded in downtown Toronto. It had all the amenities with room to spare, but lacked the intimacy of his original roadside motel.
This genuine love of both business models was important. The resulting new thing was not a compromise between the two, a hybrid or Frankenstein. It was, rather, the result of what Martin now calls “design thinking.” With design thinking, one stares into a genuine mystery: Why are both models of hotel beautiful? When one stares long enough, something new appears. The result, for Sharp, was Four Seasons, with its intimate scale and business-friendly conveniences.
In another example, from his book “The Design of Business,” Martin describes Target’s success in discount retail. Bob Ulrich was genuinely taken with the success of Wal-Mart, but he believed a retailer did not have to be single-mindedly dedicated to low cost at the expense of gorgeous design and pleasant shopping. The result, for Ulrich, was Target -- a company committed to competitively low prices but also to customer service and elegance in layout, logo and design.
Christian theology knows something of this habit of integrating. Before Jesus, the biblical world was divided into Jews and Gentiles -- essentially, God’s people and everyone else. But then a new thing came into being: a body of Jews who trusted Jesus as Messiah and obeyed Torah, in community with Gentiles who did not convert to Judaism but held this same trust. What was this new thing? Church.
Or long before that integrative triumph, Jews knew two things: God had promised to be faithful to his promises to Israel, and lots of faithful Jews died without God having made good on his promises. Staring into this mystery, what did Israel come to believe? God must be planning to resurrect Israel bodily. How else could God make good on his promises? This (genuinely unbelievable) revolution in biblical thought, first visible in Daniel and then in the New Testament, soon became common in Judaism.
Or Christians, thinking with our Jewish forebears, came to believe that Jesus of Nazareth must be the Son of God and God himself. How could this be if God is one? Staring into this mystery, we integrated: God is both one and three. How’s that possible? We don’t know, and yet we hold it to be an integral part of all genuine Christian faith.
Transformative leaders help orchestrate communal memory. Not memory for its own sake, as in the stereotype of a museum with its treasures behind glass, but memory for the sake of innovation in the present day.