Courage: a necessity of leadership!

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Courage is revealed in spontaneous, momentary decisions.

I taught my first PhD course last week, Character and Ethics.  As part of the course, we traveled to Washington D.C.  We visited the Holocaust Museum.  My hope was that this tactile experience would emotionally form the students regarding the topic we were studying.  I was deeply moved.  It was a powerful experience to chronicle the results of misguided character and distorted ethics.  In addition to the political regime, we walked through an exhibit on complicity which detailed the intentional accommodation and proactive involvement by the German people to the atrocities of World War II.  This side of history was somewhat known to me; however, not to the extent that unfolded during that hour walking past photo after photo.  In such moments, I deeply wish we did not have to learn from history – humankind would have been better without the Holocaust.

In the midst of these horrific pictures, there were profound flares of goodness and courage.  A large photo highlighted a Catholic priest who advocated in behalf of a sizable group of Jews gathered against a wall facing a firing squad.  Risking his own life, he spoke up to the SS Officers asking that they spare their lives as they did nothing wrong.  Dozens of individuals were rescued.  Protestant pastors, facing certain imprisonment, spoke out against the atrocities unfolding in Germany.  They took a stand against evil regardless of the potential consequences.  Ordinary citizens hid Jews while others smuggled them to safety.

Courage shined in those spontaneous, momentary decisions in the face of real and fatal consequences.

As leaders, courage is essential.  In some respects, it can be prepared for.  Character is formed throughout one’s life.  Deep convictions regarding truth and justice are cultivated through reflection, prayer, and Scripture.  Embracing the imago deo allows us to see others as fellow human beings in need of advocacy.  Sacrifice involves standing on eternal principals, knowing that speaking up or challenging sin is the right thing to do.  However, courage is also not something one can fully prepare for.  In those moments when emotions are swirling, convictions are tested, self-preservation or complacency dominate, a person needs to take stock of what is required in that moment.  I observed stories of such courage at the Holocaust Museum.

Granted, most of us have not faced the type of courage required by those facing the Holocaust.  Yet, we do face situations on a regular basis where it is required.  A disenfranchised person is mistreated thus requiring an advocate – a voice for the voiceless.  Sin needs to be confronted.  Whereas it is easier to stay on the sidelines, courage necessitates leaders stand up for holiness.  An employee or employer becomes reckless eroding the institutional climate.  In these moments, it is essential that someone speaks up.

Courage is a defining quality of leaders.  More so, it is a defining quality of believers as we know the eternal standards which frame acts of courage.  Truth, justice, and holiness are determined by God.  Thus, believers being the incarnational embodiment of Christ should reflect and promote these qualities, and even more for leaders.

Don’t miss out on the adventure

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Lesson learned:  the trailblazer misses out on a great deal of adventure.

The hike was rigorous, taxing us beyond what we had anticipated.  It was supposed to be one of the easier hikes while on vacation.  Yet, we found the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail to be conquering us rather than vice versa.  Yet, as the dad, it was “my responsibility” to be the trail blazer.  I encouraged us to keep pressing on.  I scanned ahead for obstacles on the trail.  At times, I motivated our kids by turning the hike into a game.  All the while, I simply looked at the dusty trail rather than glancing around at the breathtaking views.  In contrast, my family oftentimes marveled at Yosemite Valley below or the granite cliffs rising above us.  Sadly, as the trailblazer, I became preoccupied by the task thus missing out on the adventure.

Such is the case for many leaders.  We are preoccupied with the task.  Deadlines dominate our agenda.  Leadership development becomes a constant concern.  Expectations by the institution or organization apply pressure to our daily schedule.  In general, leaders are responsible for charting a course, blazing a trail, encourage the troops.  To be fair, leadership involves responsibility.  It comes with the territory.  It is the reason many people do not want to be leaders; the expectations are too heavy.  Yet, it is also the reason leaders oftentimes miss out on the adventure.

It does not have to be the case.

Leaders need to create space to enjoy the adventure rather than simply drive it.  It might involve taking time to reflect on the big picture – to take joy in the opportunity to cast a vision.  For some, it is important to reflect on the influence of leadership, the God-given position to leverage good in our ministry or workplace.  For the relational type, it is reflective moments to celebrate the possibilities of mentoring – to nurture the next generation of leaders, possibly someone to take your position.  These perspectives are missed when the task consumes the adventure.

To maintain this space, it is necessary to push back the emotional triggers.  When something goes wrong, it almost always (and it should) lands in the lap of the principal leader of the institution or organization.  In these moments, margin gets squeezed out by the crisis.  For me, the stress of the hike (the heat, potential dehydration, realizing that there was still a return leg) nearly engulfed me.  I could have easily have said, “I am done.”  If that would have occurred, it would have deflated all of us.  It is the task of the leader to elevate morale.  Fortunately, there were moments that I had the awareness to say, “The view will be amazing at the summit.  It will be worth it.”  Emotional triggers need to be kept at bay so that we can see the big picture and then encourage others to see it as well – to remind others of the goal of the adventure.

Lastly, it is essential that the leader engage in self-care.  Truthfully, I have appeared healthy at numerous times over the years while internally dying from demands and pressures.  I rationalized that external competency would get me through the moments when my soul was dry.  In the end, it almost always failed.  We lead from our interior life not exterior.  It is only a matter of time before the condition of our soul surfaces whether good or bad.  When leaders do not care for themselves, their leadership becomes inept.  On the hike, it was essential that I continue to drink water, eat food, and take breaks.  Sacrificing self-care would have impacted my decision-making, perspective, and ultimately my leadership.

Christ modeled this self-care by pulling back from the crowds to pray.  He oftentimes slowed down to reflect on his mission, commune with God, and reside in the moment.  Christ never became so task-oriented that he forgot the mission.  Emergencies never consumed him.  He was the quintessential trailblazer primarily because he paved the way for redemption which serves to instill in us true leadership purpose.  But, he also modeled how to lead with mission while also taking time to enjoy the mission as it repeatedly states, “For the joy set before him he endured the cross…” (Hebrews 12:2)

Leader: Take Off Your Mask

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An impostor is someone who pretends to be someone they are not.  Impostor syndrome then is someone who intentionally and consistently presents an image to other people that does not reflect who they are or what they think.  It can take many forms.

  • In classrooms, it is a person who does not want to appear incompetent or incorrect. Therefore, that person presents an image of intelligence or competency by answering every question even though internally he/she feels like a failure, believing that at any moment this façade will be exposed.
  • In churches, it is a person who proclaims spiritual maturity even though his/her marriage is falling apart; or someone in leadership who is consumed with a habitual sin. In other cases, the person is overcommitted to ministry even though he/she is apathetic towards God.  The desire to appear spiritual and “have it together” drives his/her need to be an impostor.
  • In leadership, it is not uncommon for someone to “fake it until they make it.” Faced with leadership expectations and organizational pressures, a manager struts with confidence and power despite internally crumbling from the weight of responsibility.  To validate and preserve his/her position, the person conceals insecurities or rationalizes if not blames failures on others.

Being an impostor is hard work with very little reward.  You spend a ton of effort to keep up a front while inside your soul grows drier, darker, and more empty.  You exude happiness and joy while you stare in the mirror with self-hate and glare at a neighbor with jealousy and judgment.  You display vibrancy and charisma while your soul is surviving the day, longing for the evening when you can take off the mask.

It is no wonder that many people implode under the pressure of maintaining an image.  Leaders descend into moral failure as a means of escaping their own propped up expectations.  Christians walk away from the church because the “spiritual game” is simply too hard to keep playing.  And, when this happens, everyone is in shock as to how it happened.

I have found myself fostering an impostor syndrome on numerous occasions.  I don’t want someone to think less of me so I present an image.  I like the notion of having it all together so I craft my words and responses to encourage it.  I play the game because in some ways the game feels good, at least temporarily.

Yet, in the end the disconnect is not worth it.  Nor is it what God desires for us.

Christ came to give us the abundant life.  An abundant life made possible because we are redeemed through the cross.  In that moment, we became children of God – not perfect but forgiven.  God calls us to live out of our identity as sons and daughters of the King.  We are broken yet with grace.  We are stumbling yet with the offer of second and third chances.  We are “in process” of transformation yet not having arrived.  There is no shame in who we are in Christ.  Should we strive for holiness?  Absolutely.  But we should not pretend to be holy when we are not.  Therefore, we should put to death the desire to pretend otherwise.  God doesn’t demand it of us; why should we.