Leading in Weakness: The Greatest Poverty of All
A time when I experienced two extremes — gratitude and entitlement — through money.
From Expectation to Gratitude (Part 4)
I’ve never known the helplessness of poverty. I’ve always known that in the worst case scenario, I could always live at home with my parents, crash with a friend, or bank on my education to get a job.
However, during my post-college years, I went through a period of time when I had less than $20 in my pocket. I remember the sinking feeling of not knowing how I would pay for my next month’s rent, and not wanting to have to ask my parents for a loan. I remember walking around town looking for a $2 dinner, and even skipping meals when I had to. It was a humbling time of weakness in my life. (I write about this in What Really Matters in Leadership? but here is a more detailed version of my story)
“The Best Burrito I Ever Ate” : )
Over the months, this experience began to transform me. I remember distinctly a time when a good friend asked if I wanted to go eat lunch with him, and I didn’t know how to answer. Should I just say no? If I told him that I couldn’t afford it, he might feel obligated to pay for me, and I didn’t necessarily want that.
As it turns out, I agreed to go with him and resolved to just get something more inexpensive or small (it was Taco Bell, anyway). To my shame, when I pulled out my wallet at the register, I realized too late that I didn’t even have enough cash to buy what I had ordered. I was so embarrassed, and started to revise my order: “Actually, take the burrito off the ticket…” In the middle of my sentence, my friend interrupted and said, “Hey Adrian, I’ll cover it. No problem.”
I hesitated, “No, you don’t have to…” But he insisted, “Let me serve you. It’d be my pleasure.”
It was just a friend paying for my meal — a simple gesture that’s happened hundreds of times before and after this one incident in my life. But given my life circumstance at the time, I couldn’t have felt more grateful. It was also one of the best-tasting meals of my life. During the poorest time in my life, I felt very rich.
When I reflect on what made the difference in my attitude, it was my weakness and lack of ability to buy food for myself, that cultivated gratitude when someone provided for me.
“We Weren’t Worth His Time”
Years later when I had a more stable income, I went to a fancy restaurant to celebrate a special occasion with my wife. As we sat down to our table, our waiter came by and asked us what we wanted to drink. Fairly soon, he realized that our check wouldn’t be very expensive — we weren’t ordering wine or even appetizers for our meal. After that, his service to our table was slow and somewhat dismissive when we called for help. It almost seemed like we weren’t worth his time.
When we got our car, I offered what I thought was a decent tip to the valet attendant. He looked at the tip, gave a small, scornful laugh, and walked off.
I walked away from this restaurant feeling deflated and devalued. And it struck me how this kind of attitude and experience is not uncommon among the wealthiest people and places of the world. That’s not because money in itself is evil, but because money is a source of strength and power. Power can intoxicate people who are used to getting what they want, and strength can make them feel they deserve or are entitled to it.
In the hands of my friend who paid for my meal at Taco Bell, money was a gift that caused incredible gratitude in my heart. In the hands of servers at the fancy restaurant, money was an expectation.
“When We Are Weak, We Are Strong”
Now I see things differently: some of the wealthiest and strongest people of the world are actually poor, in that they fail to grasp the value of the bounty they have. Perhaps this is the greatest poverty of all.
In contrast, some of the weakest people in the world are rich in their appreciation of the little they have. Weakness cultivates gratitude, rather than expectation or entitlement.
James 2:5 says: “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?” Weakness can grow and strengthen our faith.
As I learn what it means to lead in weakness, I now find even greater value in my emptiness — whether it’s during times when I feel exhausted and powerless, or when I intentionally give up power in my relationships and leadership (as described in the last post). I know these are the experiences that deepen my appreciation for people, God and life. I know these are the experiences that will help me notice even the smallest gestures of kindness, rather than overlooking them like the servers at the fancy restaurant. These are the experiences that can make us into better leaders.
Mother Teresa once said, “the poor give us much more than we give them. They’re such strong people, living day to day with no food. And they never curse, never complain. We don’t have to give them pity or sympathy. We have so much to learn from them.”
What can we learn from our times of greatest weakness? And what can we learn from the “weakest” people in our lives?
Here are all parts of this series on “Leading in Weakness”: