The Most Important Quality of Christian Leadership
Recently, I’ve been reflecting on Henri Nouwen’s leadership book In the Name of Jesus, and specifically about this thought on power and leadership:
“The world says, ‘When you were young you were dependent and could not go where you wanted, but when you grow old you will be able to make your own decisions, go your own way, and control your own destiny.’ But Jesus has a different vision of maturity: It is the ability and willingness to be led where you would rather not go.
“The way of the Christian leader is not the way of upward mobility in which our world has invested so much, but the way of downward mobility ending on the cross… Here we touch the most important quality of Christian leadership in the future. It is not a leadership of power and control, but a leadership of powerlessness and humility in which the suffering servant of God, Jesus Christ, is made manifest. I, obviously, am not speaking about a psychologically weak leadership in which the Christian leader is simply the passive victim… no, I am speaking of a leadership in which power is constantly abandoned in favor of love.” (62)
This captures my heart, as I think about the landscape of leadership development and how it’s so tempting to seek or follow the “path of upward mobility.” Maybe it’s hard to not think this way, as so many of us have grown up in a culture that emphasizes hard work and the American Dream. The underlying ethos is: if you work hard and pursue your dreams, you can achieve anything you want and be happy. I share about my personal journey related to this in a chapter on “Purpose and Meaning” in What Really Matters in Leadership? It all came down to this for me: did I believe I could determine and control my life’s purpose on my own wisdom alone? Or did I need a Source of direction and vision who was wiser than me?
If it’s all up to us, we can attempt to shape our lives according to what we think will make us most happy and fulfilled. However, Nouwen writes about how Jesus confronts Peter in John 21:18 with the hard truth that the servant-leader is one who makes a choice to be led to unknown, undesirable, and painful places. And this makes me think about the challenges of the past few years of my life. In our adult years, many of us wrestle with finding career and financial stability, and caring for young children as well as aging parents. There is so much of the unknown, and so much that’s painful and undesirable. At one point last year, I remember telling some friends that it was hard to remember the last time I had felt truly “happy.” Whenever I’ve shared this, people often gasp. It’s such a dominant expectation of our culture that we should be happy, isn’t it?
It is true that my life today is not what I would have wanted or imagined years ago. At the same time, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. My life is not what I would call the “happy life” — but it’s filled with meaning, richness, and the love of people I cherish. What’s more, I’ve made the choice to be led wherever God calls… because I know I cannot control my own life or destiny, nor do I want to. I’ve made this choice because I love and trust Him, to lead me where I would rather not go — for my own good.