Jason Byassee: How should a leader walk around?

How should one carry oneself as a leader? I don't mean in terms of character. But physically.

How should a leader carry herself? I don’t mean in terms of virtues. I would likely draw consent on this page that a leader should display humility, courage, and charity above all.

I mean physically. What posture should a leader take when walking around doing whatever they do to lead?

I got to thinking about this while reading about prison ministry. Chuck Colson, who has done so much in that area, described his admiration for a fraternity brother he admired deeply and wanted to be like (in his great memoir Born Again). The older man told of his love for the Marine Corps with such feeling he made Colson want to sign up. So he soon stood before a “tall, arch-backed first lieutenant” and asked to join. It is military people who speak of one’s “carriage,” and take such care to be sure it is appropriate, bold, inspiring. Political leaders care about such things too. Sam Wells describes how future British politicians are taught already in their boarding schools how to hold their heads very erect, as though they could carry a plant on top without letting it so much as quiver.

The academy, by contrast, does not emphasize such things. Or at least we don’t train our recruits in how to stand, salute, and walk around. But perhaps we who work in leadership should think more about it. Nelson Mandela, for example, was always described as majestic in bearing, with Muhammed Ali’s athletic grace (befitting a former boxer) combined with a benevolent leader’s smile and open face. He was “both regal and intimidating,” one recent account has it, with a handshake in which he “never stooped, [and] did not incline his head” (John Carlin’s Playing the Enemy). It would be terrifying, except for the “warm gaze and big, easy smile.”

Mandela was not only a master at carrying himself. He was also a master and noticing how others carried themselves. The biographer I cite above describes him as a genius in reading other people. “He knew when to flatter and soothe . . . he knew also when he could go on the offensive, without causing offense.” And one way of knowing how to read people was to notice their carriage.

In one instance Mandela met with twin brothers amidst a South Africa that could have exploded. One, Constand Viljoen, was a retired general so opposed to Mandela he was willing to lead a military uprising of the far-right against him. His brother Braam was his mirror opposite: a church leader, theologian, and advocate for peaceful reconciliation. Mandela invited them both to meet and discuss a peaceful future for South Africa. And as he met the twins he noticed they were identical: “middle-height, middle-sized men with identically bulbous noses, jutting chins, boyishly lush white heads of hair, and solemn, sea-blue eyes.” It was only when they moved he could tell them apart. Then he “perceived a difference between the stiff, straight-backed step of the military man and the more shambling gait of his theologian brother.” The rest of the story, and Mandela’s leadership into a peaceful transition, is history.

The biographer describes us theologians perfectly: “a shambling gait.” Maybe we theologians are taught this in graduate school, by indirect methods, which are no less powerful than the Marines teaching their recruits. Don’t dress up too much. Be slightly underdressed for any occasion: class, conferences, meetings. That way you can accentuate your brilliance. Those who have to dress up must be hiding something. Can I get a witness, scholars? Can somebody say amen?

I think of two leaders of mine around here during my student days at Duke. One, Will Willimon, now a bishop in northern Alabama, was always on the move. Almost at a quick step he moved from meeting to meeting, challenging people 1/3 his age to keep up. It fits his theology: a God on the move, not holing up with the flock, but out pursuing the 99. You can come along—if you can keep up.

Another is Bill Turner, great professor of preaching and pastor of Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church here in Durham. His gait is the opposite: slow, deliberate, as if to say if there’s somewhere worth going it must be worth time to take the trip. Our fellow hair-cutter at the Duke barber shop describes the way Bill slowly takes his coat off, maneuvers into the chair, gets settled for his cut. “It’s like he has all the time in the world,” the barber says. And he does: for those he’s about to listen to as an ambassador for Christ.

So our gait matters, and not just if we’re military or civic leaders, but for what it tells others about God. But perhaps there is no one right way to carry ourselves, and quite conflicting postures can tell equal truths.

Jason Byassee is an executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.