See, the Sovereign LORD comes with power,
and he rules with a mighty arm.
See, his reward is with him,
and his recompense accompanies him.
He tends his flock like a shepherd:
He gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
he gently leads those that have young.
In yesterday’s Life for Leaders devotion, we glimpsed a vision of God’s power and tender care. Yes, God has a mighty arm, which he sometimes uses to judge the guilty. But, in Isaiah 40:10-11, God’s mighty arm is used as “he gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart.” Yes, God is strong, stronger than anything we can imagine. Yet God is also tender, tender in ways for which our hearts yearn.
As I reflect on this picture of God’s power and tenderness, I wonder if I am faithfully imitating God’s example in my leadership. Of course, my power pales in comparison to the Lord’s. But, still, I have been given a modest measure of power and authority. I have a small budget to manage. I supervise my staff. I have considerable freedom to shape the work of the De Pree Center, in partnership with my colleagues, my board, and the leaders of Fuller Seminary.
So, yes, I have some power and am expected to steward this power wisely and well. But, I ask myself, am I also tender? Do I show appropriate compassion to those I supervise, to “the people entrusted to my care,” to use a phrase of my colleague, Scott Cormode? Are there times when I get so engaged in my work that I fail to show compassion for my colleagues and subordinates?
It isn’t easy to combine power with tenderness, especially in difficult situations. I think of times in my professional life when I have had an employee consistently underperform. As a faithful steward of the authority given to me, there is a time when I need to let such an employee go, assuming that efforts for improvement have regularly failed. I need to use my power to fire somebody, to put it bluntly. Yet, is that merciful? Gracious? Is it possible to fire somebody with tenderness? Or does tenderness mean that I should keep on my staff somebody who is not able to do the necessary work?
Years ago, I was a teaching fellow in an undergraduate course at Harvard, where I was doing my doctoral work. A student of mine was notorious for his absences, his tardiness, and the poor quality of his work. I knew I had to exercise my power to admonish him and try to get him to do better work. I arranged a meeting with him and prepared to lower the boom. Before I did, I asked a tough but appropriate question: “Jake, is there some reason your work in this course is sub-standard?”
As I prepared to hear some shallow excuse, I looked into Jake’s eyes and saw tears. I wondered if he was trying to play on my emotions. He said, in a shaky voice, “Yes, Mr. Roberts, there is a reason. My mom is dying of cancer and I go home as often as I can. I’m falling behind in all of my classes and I don’t know what to do.”
I could sense that Jake was telling me the truth. I felt a powerful wave of compassion because my own father had been struggling with serious cancer. I was able to cast away my planned rebuke and care for this student with tenderness. (Indeed, his mother did die during that semester. Jake had to withdraw from a couple of his classes, but I was able to help him complete mine.)
I have thought back to that incident many times in my life. I thank God that I didn’t just blast away at poor Jake before hearing his story. I’ve wondered how many times I have exercised power without compassion. I’ve asked, and I continue to ask the Lord for his guidance in my professional relationships, for wisdom to see what’s true and for a heart open to others.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
As you think about your leadership, how do you combine strength with tenderness?
In what situations do you find it difficult to balance the two, or to decide which is needed most at the moment?
Can you think of people you have known who are both strong and tender?
Gracious God, we praise you today for your unique strength. And we praise you as well for your unique tenderness. Thank you, dear Lord, for picking us up in your strong arms, for embracing us close to your heart.
Lord, please help me to learn from you, to imitate your example in my work. May I be a leader who stewards well the power entrusted to me. And, may I also treat with tenderness those who have been given to my care. Amen.
Explore more at the Theology of Work Project online commentary: Servant at Work (Isaiah 40ff.)
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