The Shaping of the Leader as Poet & Prophet
Last week, we reflected on two leadership competencies in times of deep, adaptive change: that of, poet and prophet. This presses the question of how do we develop such odd competencies? By what means is the leader to be equipped to lead in this hinge time in history? What habits and practices will nurture the ability to live and lead in the liminality of our time? What role do relationships play in the shaping of the leader as poet and prophet? Perhaps, the place to begin is by reflecting on what Shalom is and is not.
As is common in cultures on the downside of the lifecycle, there is a strong fear of failure. The resulting push to avoid mistakes and thereby be “perfect” not only limits creativity, but also blocks the very transformation we seek. It is important to remember that the ancients understood wholeness to include both shadow and light. As Carl Jung notes: “There is no light without shadow and no psychic wholeness without imperfection. To round itself out life… calls not for perfection but for completeness and for this the ‘thorn in the flesh’ is needed, the suffering of defects without which there is no progress and no ascent.” A mistranslation of the Greek word “telios” has led generations of Christians to seek “perfection” over “completeness” (over Shalom).
Yet, the ancients understood the importance of acknowledging the dualities within each one of us. Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz in The Power of Full Engagement reflect on the concept of anacoluthia—the mutual entailment of virtues: “By this notion, no virtue is a virtue by itself. Rather, all virtues are entailed. Honesty, without compassion, for example, becomes cruelty.” To seek the Shalom of the communities to which we have been sent in exile requires courage and a willingness to engage the whole person, not just those attributes which are perceived to be culturally acceptable. For emergent poets and prophets, this speaks to the need for wise guides who have themselves dared to confront and claim their whole selves in service to others. As Henri Nouwen, one of the great poet and prophets of the last century, reminds us “the great illusion of leadership is to think that we can be led out of the desert by someone who has never been there.”
The challenge is that many leaders have neglected relationships in the face of unrealistic demands upon time and person. America has been called “a nation of cut-offs.” In clinical terms, cut-off refers to the action of distancing in response to disruptive emotions. For leaders to emerge as poets and prophets, learning anew how to be in relationship with people and planet will be essential. Six particular relationships are worth noting here. The first is the relationship leaders have with their spiritual life. Anthropologist Angeles Arrien believes that “spiritualism is the highest form of political consciousness.” A significant body of literature is emerging that reflects the importance of the spiritual life in shaping character. It takes courage to live by our convictions. Knowing the source of our core values becomes the means by which to live with integrity in the face of challenge.
The second key relationship is our relationship with our own person. We cannot love others, if we do not love ourselves. Again, love of self will involve coming to terms with our shadow-side or we will project onto others unresolved issues. Key to our ability to accept ourselves is the gift of mentors across the span of our life’s journey. We need others to model, guide, comfort and challenge. Likewise, we need to serve as mentor and guide for others. Both in the receiving and giving, we are shaped through our relationships.
The final two relationships are tied to having a circle of friends and family with whom it is safe to bring our whole selves, and a community in which to serve. Leading, especially in times of exile, can be a lonely endeavor. We need people we trust with whom we can share our vulnerabilities and challenges. People who can both celebrate and challenge us in our assumptions. A circle with whom we can share the whole truth of ourselves. Likewise, we need to be able lead in a context that allows us to serve out of our gifts and passions in response to the needs of the community. Author Frederick Buechner describes the importance of our relationship with our communities when he names call “as the place where our deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
Our “growing up” into maturity—into completeness—cannot be attained in isolation. “As iron sharpens iron,” so we are shaped and refined in the context of relationship: spiritually, with self, with mentors and mentees, with friends and family, in and through the communities in which we live and serve. Relationships are the context in which we come to know ourselves, learn to control ourselves, and are set free to give ourselves.
Together we are poets and prophets!