In his classic book, Leadership is an Art, Max DePree, made the oft-quoted statement, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.” And as simple as that might sound, “reality” in a highly pluralistic society is not as easy to define as one may think. Interpretation of the past, identification of current state, and aspiration for future flourishing must all be articulated in a common language and incarnated through shared experience. It’s the leader’s task to unflinchingly interpret and define today’s reality in order to build a future that is mission- worthy for a team or an organization.
This process to define and interpret reality draws from all quarters—longitudinal data, qualitative research, probing conversations, articulated values—all permeated by an attitude of humility that equally ponders criticism and scrutinizes praise. It takes courage to candidly assess reality, take responsibility and listen thoughtfully to collective wisdom on how to navigate together toward an inspired future.
The task of leadership becomes counter-cultural when we endeavor to lead apart from the polarized societal narratives of either power/distance or vulnerability/proximity. Ultimately, it raises the question: How do we lead with both authority and vulnerability? How do I shoulder responsibility, while giving life to those around me?
Andy Crouch in his book, Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk and True Flourishing, eloquently posits an alternative to the either/or straightjacket that restricts creative thinking and derails effectiveness. “The world is littered with false choices,” writes Crouch, “. . . are we supposed to be conservative or radical, contemplative or active, set apart from the world or engaged in the world? Then you will be ready for the ultimate question: Was Jesus of Nazareth human or divine? Was he Son of Man or Son of God?” As our Creeds boldly affirm, Jesus of Nazareth was both human and divine—that “and” opens up depths of possibilities, complexities, and meanings that will not be fully revealed until eternity.
This perspective frees me to grapple with both authority and vulnerability as I lead in the workplace, at home, and in my church community. I am taken by Crouch’s definition of authority as “the capacity for meaningful action.” Preparedness, authenticity, and integrity fuel authority, rather than position, control, and fear. And this authenticity invites continued growth and capacity. Authority expands as professional and spiritual capacity expands. Crouch also gives a riff on vulnerability that is, I believe, transformative for servant leaders. He defines vulnerability as “exposure to meaningful risk,” and writes, “true vulnerability involves risking something of real and even irreplaceable value.”
It strikes me that leaders model vulnerability when they carry the knowledge of risk and potential loss, but choose not to over-burden those they lead with the challenges and threats inherent in the pursuit of transformational vision. Not only is Jesus the supreme example of this type of vulnerability (Philippians 2), he also empowers us to lead through the risk to expanded territory, even if the path leads through delay and failure.
By balancing meaningful action and risk, servant leaders have opportunity to bear pain and not inflict pain as they lead by way of the Cross.
Janet Stump is the Executive Director at ACSI Education Foundation. The mission of the ACSI Education Foundation is to advance the strategic growth, influence and the effectiveness of Christian schooling worldwide through innovation, research, advocacy, and the stewardship of resources.
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