If you are like me, you struggle with living and leading in a public world where meaning and community are often hard to come by. We are surrounded by senseless human evil, natural disasters, physical illness, and institutional dysfunction. Most of our world seems to be in darkness. But as the prophet Isaiah prophesied millennia ago, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light!”
Jesus startles with his vision of human leadership. It’s hard to imagine leadership more radically different from what people have envisioned or practiced throughout human history. In a world where “the greatest among you will be the greatest among you,” Jesus teaches that “the greatest among you will be your servant.”
Whether we like it or not, being a leader brings recognition. Like success itself, recognition isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Still, it’s easy to fall in love with both. It’s difficult to hold leadership, particularly its successes and rewards, lightly.
Leadership that focuses on merely external results leads to personal and institutional self-absorption. Progressively, we become less interested in the people and communities we are called to serve… We become less concerned about whether what we are doing is good, and more concerned about whether what we are doing is great.
In my experience, good leaders have high expectations. That’s true not only in entrepreneurial settings or established for-profit businesses, but also in thriving non-profits and churches. Still, a high commitment leadership culture can come at a price… So what underlies the turn from good leadership to bad in the area of high expectations? Where do we cross over from legitimately expecting much of ourselves and others to placing “heavy, cumbersome loads” on them?
What causes good leaders to go bad? How do people who take God seriously, sometimes with the best of intentions (sometimes not), cause damage to the organizations they lead? What might Jesus’s teachings in his day have to say to us in our day about the critical ways in which we as leaders come to “behave badly”? And, perhaps most importantly, what is Jesus’s remedy?
As with our physical bodies, our interior life has a core set of “spiritual muscles” that are shaped by personal disciplines and practices. How we develop or neglect them profoundly affects our life and leadership… Today’s text from the Psalms is a great encouragement for us to give renewed attention to strengthening the interior core of our leadership. How might we go about that?
As I noted in a prior reflection, Psalm 3 is a prayer of David from one of the darkest days of his reign as King of Israel. I find it remarkable that in the heart of his prayer, David says, “I lie down and sleep.” Frankly, that seems a bit odd to me. Why would David sleep in a crisis? And, even if he needed to sleep, why would that be important enough for him to work into his prayer? Isn’t sleep a mere necessity that gets in the way of our important work of leadership?
Evidently, it wasn’t for David.
I’ve always been a bit suspicious of those who paint too rosy a picture of the life of faith. Early in my Christian journey one of the popular evangelical sayings was that God has a “wonderful plan for your life.” Turns out, “wonderful” must have meant something entirely different than what I thought the word meant!
Each of us has a history – personal, familial, organizational. Psalm 78 tells Israel’s history with stark honesty. No attempt is made to “spin” its story to make God’s people look good. The bulk of the psalm is a long litany of Israel’s failures despite God’s mercy and continued faithfulness. If for no other reason, I like this psalm because it reminds me that all my history can be faced. In a contemporary leadership culture that tends to hide its failures and weaknesses, this is refreshingly good news.