Nathan Kirkpatrick: A character called "the leader"

Bigstock / Jakub Jirsak

There is a distinction between the role you occupy and the person you are, writes a managing director at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

“One of the things you realize fairly quickly in this job is that there is a character people see out there called Barack Obama. That’s not you. Whether it is good or bad, it is not you.” So observed the then president in a 2012 interview with Michael Lewis in Vanity Fair.

This can be one of the hardest leadership lessons to learn when you are not the president of the United States. Yet whether you serve as the president of a college or the chair of a board, the dean of a seminary or the director of a department, the bishop of a diocese or the senior pastor of a congregation, it’s still true.

In these roles, fewer trappings remind you that your role is more than you. In every instance, though, there is a character out there called “the president,” “the chair,” “the dean,” “the director,” “the bishop,” “the senior pastor”; there is a character out there called “the leader” that both resembles you and is not you.

It’s a tricky distinction that can be a disorienting reality of leadership.

Leaders, in many ways, are the screens upon which their followers and constituents project their own dreams, anxieties, uncertainties, realities, expectations and disappointments. Even the most transparent and forthcoming leaders will still be defined by the fair and unfair projections of their people. For the constituent, the leader as a person recedes from view and becomes simply his or her role.

If this is an inevitable part of leadership, how do you navigate it?

First, it is helpful to name this reality for yourself in the way that Obama named it. There is a distinction between the role you occupy and the person you are.

On occasion, this distinction is worth celebrating. It can be a blessed gift. It allows you some breathing space between the responsibilities of your work and the other parts of your life so that you can do what needs to be done and still maintain your soul. You can trim a budget or cut programs or terminate a staff member. You can hold a grantee accountable or withstand an ill-informed tirade. You can cast a vision that leans toward the audacious or speak a prophetic word that moves people to gospel-shaped action. You can do all these things yet not be consumed by them.

In these situations, the leader resembles you and yet is not completely you. People are exhilarated or exasperated by “the bishop” or “the dean,” who just happens to be you in this particular season. It can be a helpful, humbling and grounding reminder that the work of your role is larger than you.

Second, you can navigate this reality by keeping sacred your values and priorities.

“The leader” has to be careful. Taken too far, this differentiation between role and person can lead to counterproductive and unethical behaviors. It can lead to an abdication of responsibility to relationship in favor of a perceived responsibility to role. “It’s not personal; it’s the job” is the first rationalization of many problematic workplace behaviors. Corporate, church and university tyrants are born of such logic. Christian leaders must employ a both-and logic -- stewardship of relationship and stewardship of role.

Articulating for yourself the values you bring into leadership and holding yourself accountable to those values in both public and private ways can ensure that, even though to your people you may be the character of “the leader,” you do not transgress what you personally hold sacred. The old advice is still true -- every Christian leader needs the gifts of both a spiritual director and a therapist to keep his or her hands clean in and through the demands of the work.

Third, find places where and people with whom you are not the role.

Several years ago, a participant in a Leadership Education at Duke Divinity program introduced himself and then said, “I miss hearing my first name. Can I just be John this week? Everywhere I go, it’s ‘Bishop, this’ and ‘Bishop, that.’ My mother named me John. I like that name. I miss that name. Can I just be John here?” The group assured him that, yes, he could be John with them. Over four days, John was a bit lighter.

As you serve in leadership positions, you have to keep close to the people in your life who remember you before you were “the bishop.” You need the people who invite you, in the language of the poet William Stafford, to “be a person here.” In the midst of the disorienting swirl of leadership, those places and people become grounding. They become life-sustaining.

No matter how much you hear about the importance of authenticity in leadership, it is also helpful to remember that there is a character out there called “the leader.” It’s you, and it’s not.

That’s not all bad news. It depends on how you play the part.