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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.
Keeping your head down at work — while perhaps unavoidable on occasion — is not a good, long-term posture. Instead, Psalm 111 reminds me that thankfulness—an upward orientation — is the key to a truly human life, to truly human work.
So what has been forgotten and lost? What can we learn from an older, biblical vision of human work? In today’s text, Paul picks up the original creation story imagery of human work as gardening. While Paul didn’t work in an actual garden, he saw his gospel work imaginatively within that framework.
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