Ken Carter: Walk far, not fast

If leaders want to travel fast, they can walk alone. If they want to travel far, they need to collaborate with others.

“If you want to travel fast, walk alone. If you want to travel far, walk together.” When I heard this proverb recently at the installation of a very promising leader, who was beginning an equally crucial and challenging role in the church, I was reminded of its significance: we ignore it at our peril, and we embrace it to our benefit.

The theory of the “great man (or woman)” as leader is rooted in our belief that the intellectual life is a solitary endeavor (and this is actually the way we are trained and evaluated), and the spiritual life is a personal experience (and this is deeply embedded in our popular piety). The result: the individual studies, prays, reflects and assimilates information toward the purpose of action, and if he or she is in a leadership role, then all of this is shared with or imposed upon a group of people.

Sure, this is efficient. It is “fast,” and, on the odd and random occasion, it may even produce a constructive outcome. But there is a shadow side to traveling fast and walking alone: it creates spectators and not fellow-travelers; it is marked by over-functioning of the leader and under-functioning of those not in leadership. It does not build community or capacity.

To travel together is to move in step with others: we may perceive ourselves to be more intelligent, more spiritual or more committed than those around us, and at times some of this may be true. And yet in walking together our eyes are opened to the gifts of others. These gifts lead us to insights that may not have been possible given our naturally limited experiences, and they can become in time, sources of hope and inspiration. The people who walk with us -- and we might even say this is the primary way that God walks with us -- help us to travel “far.” They help us to live a sustainable life, which is, in Eugene Peterson's memorable phrase, “a long obedience in the same direction.”

The walk with God and each other leads to a shared vision. The leader walks with his or her people, and, in coming to know them, senses the hopes and dreams that God has placed in their hearts. In the best of all worlds, the leader is moved by these very same hopes and dreams, which is to say, the leader comes to love the people. When this happens -- and, to be sure, it is a gift -- the journey is not tiring at all. Indeed, as the prophet promised: they mount up with wings like eagles, they run and are not weary, they walk and do not faint.

If you want to travel fast, walk alone. If you want to travel far, walk together.

Ken Carter is an ordained minister and district superintendent in the United Methodist Church.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this post appeared on Ken Carter’s blog.