The highs and lows of leadership

Leaders must assess their status in any given situation -- and sometimes improvise to change it.

During his long years in prison, Nelson Mandela treated his enemies and his jailors with respect and dignity. Even though he was a prisoner, explains John Carlin, author of “Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation,”“he was clearly in command of his surroundings.”

Mandela was practicing the leadership skills that he hoped to use later, after his release from prison. He figured that if he were to lead the country one day, he would need to learn the art of making friends and influencing people, even enemies such as his Afrikaner jailors. So he learned their language, their names, the names of their children and their birthdays. He would inquire after them as if they were his friends. By treating them as if he had a status equal to theirs or even higher, they began to treat him with the dignity he assumed.

Carlin describes a time, for instance, when Mandela went to meet his lawyer. Mandela emerged from a prison van surrounded by eight smartly dressed guards. Mandela was emaciated, dressed in short pants, and wearing shoes without socks. But he set the walking pace and, after embracing his lawyer, he said, “George, I’m sorry, I have not introduced you to my guard of honor.” He proceeded to introduce each of his guards by name. The guards were so stunned that they actually behaved like an honor guard, and each one shook the lawyer’s hand!

I was reminded of this story and of Mandela’s adept ability to alter his status several weeks ago, when a group of new Christian institutional leaders met for their second week of the program Foundations of Christian Leadership. One of the topics we discussed with Assistant Professor of the Practice of Christian Formation Jeff Conklin-Miller was the ways in which we, as leaders, need to be able to assess our status in any given interaction and improvise to change it, if need be. Such status changes can be uncomfortable, we learned, and it takes practice to change long-ingrained habits.

Our discussion was based on the book “Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics,” by Sam Wells. Although status transactions are “inherent in every relationship,” Wells writes, we are not usually assigned high or low status. Rather, we make choices in our use of language, gestures and postures about whether we will play high or low status. And contrary to what we might assume, “’high’ and ‘low’ are not moral designations, or even measurements of relative power: they are simply alternative strategies for getting one’s way.”

While we may feel uncomfortable not assigning moral designations to ‘high’ or ‘low’ status, Wells says, our discomfort is reflected in our faith. As Christian leaders in particular, we see the tensions “between Jesus as servant, slave, and crucified outcast and Jesus as Messiah, Lord, and Son of God.” Discipleship (and leadership) involve “a constant questioning, teasing, and subversion of status, both high and low.”

Dean of Duke Chapel Luke Powery, preaching on “Mountaintop Mentalities” and Matthew 5:1-12 says, “We may want to be at the top of our game or the top of Christian ministry… This is how we judge our success -- being at the mountaintop, looking over and at everyone else. But we must remember Jesus never stays on the mountain for long… Jesus always comes down the mountain.”

What status do you maintain? What changes might you need to make for your leadership role?