From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.
“The important thing to remember about the phenomenon of sabotage is that it is a systemic part of leadership— part and parcel of the leadership process. Another way of putting this is that a leader can never assume success because he or she has brought about a change. It is only after having first brought about a change and then subsequently enduring the resultant sabotage that the leader can feel truly successful.”
– Edwin Friedman, author of Failure of Nerve
Did you see that word? Sabotage.
That’s not a word you expected to see in a post on Christian leadership, did you? But, it’s very real. Even for Christians (maybe, especially for Christians)
Go ahead and read the quote above one more time. Sabotage is normal, natural — “part and parcel” — of leadership. Even for Jesus. What Rabbi Friedman points out about our human organizations was true even for Rabbi Jesus. He had declared the coming of the Kingdom of God, his own followers had finally recognized that he was the Messiah come to make the world just and right again (Matthew 16:16) and then… sabotage. Good intended and well meaning? Yes. (“Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”) But sabotage nonetheless.
His most earnest and eager disciple was now thwarting the very mission that Jesus had come to accomplish. Why?
Listen to Rabbi Friedman again: “A major difficulty in sustaining one’s mission is that others who start out with the same enthusiasm will come to lose their nerve. Mutiny and sabotage come not from enemies who opposed the initial idea, but rather from colleagues whose will was sapped by unexpected hardships along the way.”
Did you see that? Sabotage comes from our friends who get discouraged when the mission is more difficult or takes an unanticipated and demoralizing turn. Again, this was true for Jesus with his followers.
But…Jesus responds bluntly.
“Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.
Leading change is a process not accomplished quickly, and the moments of sabotage are the most crucial times in the change process. Sabotage is not only a test of the leader’s resolve but also a test of the system’s resilience. If you as a leader can stay calm and connected, you get the opportunity to help others in the system work through their own sabotaging instincts so the system can begin to change, and possibly the saboteurs will become change leaders themselves. Friedman noted that when a leader offers healthy, consistent, clear, convicted presence (what Friedman calls “taking a stand”), the organizational system begins to adapt toward health: “I began to see that the same emotional processes that produced dysfunction in an institution when the leader was anxiously reactive or absent could work in reverse.”
Reading the story of Peter makes Ed Friedman’s searing observation about sabotage so clear: Humans instinctively oppose the very change they desire. In my own leadership I continually come back to Ronald Heifetz’s definition: “Leadership is disappointing your own people at a rate they can absorb.” The perceptive and caring leader will invariably wince at the three words in the center of the quote: your own people. That is the rub, isn’t it?
And that is what Jesus faced when he rebuked Peter and reminded all of them that the mission would cost their lives. Trying to avoid that reality would be a failure of nerve that would result in the failure of the very mission Jesus came to fulfill.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
Reflect a bit on your own life. When have you been most tempted to sabotage the very work that you have committed to lead? What are the kinds of challenges that tempt you to a “failure of nerve”? What do you need from Jesus in those moments?
What difference does it make to think of sabotage as an expected, normal “part and parcel” of leadership? How does it make you think differently about the people in your life, organization, or congregation who are opposing you?
Ed Friedman writes, “It is only after having first brought about a change and then subsequently endured the resultant sabotage that the leader can feel truly successful. “ What is one place in your life where you need to be poised to “endure the resultant sabotage”?
Re-read the words of Jesus to his disciples. What does it mean for you, in your capacity as a leader to be prepared to “lose your life” for the sake of Jesus and his mission?
Oh Lord, I am so often like Peter. I find myself rebuking you because I want to accomplish your will in my ways. I often try to tell you the way you should run the world and order your Kingdom. I can hear your stern, kind voice. I can almost see the gaze of your eyes as you call me out on self-centered discipleship.
Lord, forgive me.
And Lord, for those whom you have given me to lead, for the moments when they falter and fall back, give me the conviction and clarity to carry on. Grant me the courage to disappoint them wisely and well. Grant me the grace to be more like you and live — like you — for God’s mission first and always. Amen.
This devotional was adapted from Tod Bolsinger, Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory. InterVarsity Press. 2015.