The Context of Leadership
Every 500 years or so, civilization goes through a massive shift. Like tectonic plates moving beneath the earth’s surface, civilization encounters seismic shifts in our understanding not only of our world, but also of our very selves. For many, the result is a state of exile that is experienced on a physical, mental, emotional and spiritual level:
- Physical born of a deep sense of displacement;
- Emotional as increasing demands upon time and person result in exhaustion and utter depletion;
- Mental as creativity is lost under the burden of attempting to maintain unsustainable structures; and
- Spiritual as core identity is challenged by the seduction of an easy fix, a quick way out of our present state of displacement.
Exile involves both pain and loss. It calls us to a place of letting go of one way of being that we might live forward into a future that is discontinuous with our past. Given this, we can understand the resistance to acknowledging, let alone entering into, exile.
Yet exile can also be a gift. It can provide a liminal space in which to forge new ways of being that becomes a means of transformation and renewal. The role and call of community in such times is to seek the flourishing of both people and planet. Seeking the flourishing of community is not immediately a responsibility that most leaders understand inherent to their work. Too often, we confuse the inputs and throughputs of our work with the outputs. We get caught up in the heresy of the urgent, failing to live the questions that lead to new forms of engagement. Yet an increasing number of visionary leaders are exploring ways to produce a triple bottom line of people, planet and profit that is indeed resulting in the flourishing of both community and individual.
Flourishing in this context can best be described as wholeness of body, mind, emotions, and spirit for not only the individual, but for the community. This is not merely an ethereal state of peace, but the economic realization of community-wide prosperity. Taken in this context, flourishing is a social, political and economic reality that seeks the welfare of the whole, not just a few. Indeed, our inter-dependence, be it on a local or global level, reflects the reality that individual flourishing is not possible apart from communal flourishing. The painful reality is that most leaders are not equipped to lead in the context of exile.
Such is the pace and demand upon leaders today that few are given opportunity to acknowledge the reality of exile, short of crisis.
The Role of Leaders
What then is the role of those who seek to lead in exile? What qualities lend themselves to the formation of an alternative worldview, not dependent upon the dominant social, cultural and political values? What roles assist the leader in the equipping of not only the individual, but the collective whole in response to the call to cross over into a new way of being? Beyond the competencies tied to a particular industry, what is needed to help a community move from a state of exile to a shared experience of flourishing?
Two competencies, in particular, lend themselves to leading in times of exile: that of Poet and Prophet. In a time, when many voices speak on a superficial level, we need the poet to help articulate the pain and questioning born of our state of alienation and dislocation. Missiologist Alan Roxburgh describes poets as:
The articulators of experience and the rememberers of tradition. They image and symbolize the unarticulated experience of the community, identifying and expressing the soul of the people. The poet is a listener and an observer, sensing the experience of the body and giving that experience a voice.
Many voices compete for our allegiance. The poet helps us to remember who we are that we might reclaim the integrity of core identity and character. Beyond the quick fix, beyond the individualization of our times, beyond the loss and pain born of deep change, the poet helps to draw people into hope for the future. Through image and story, the poet shapes meaning out of chaos that memories might be shared and new visions emerge. The poet weaves together the disparate (and often, dissonant) voices into a rich tapestry of story and meaning that neither reduces, nor eliminates creative tensions, but rather nurtures exploration of new collective possibilities.
The word of the poet is heard because the poet is not didactic. The poet neither scolds, nor sells; rather the poet invites the community to imagine together another way of being. By painting a picture of wholeness through words, the poet intuits a way forward that permits relinquishment of old ways of being. The poet thereby creates movement beyond the present crisis of identity to fresh forms of community. These possibilities allow the community to shift from a focus on deficiencies, individual interests, and entitlement to a focus on possibility, strength, and generosity of spirit. But, as Roxburgh points out, “Without the prophetic voice, poetic leadership is little more than adaptation and consolation.”
The prophetic challenge of the leader becomes the means by which the community crosses over into a new understanding of role and responsibility in seeking the flourishing of “the cities” to which we have been sent into exile. Pain has the potential to open the door to deep, kenotic change. Kenotic change, the emptying of real and perceived rights and prerogatives that we might embody flourishing, requires attentiveness to both the guilt and the yearning that stirs in our souls. The prophetic voice is the voice of truth. As both individual and collective whole come to claim the truth about their present state of being, they are thus invited into a paradoxical experience of loss and hope. Seeking f lourishing involves a delicate dance of repentance as the community acknowledges their state of brokenness and delight as they yield to the possibilities born of an alternative vision.
It is important to note that the truth, which the prophetic voice speaks into the life of the community, is not an ephemeral ideal or abstract concept, but rather an embodied reality. This reality is tested and refined in the context of relationship. Truth is made real as the community comes to experience wholeness of body, mind, spirit, and emotion. The leader as prophet names dehumanizing policies and structures, as well as introducing new practices that nurture community. These practices help the community to surrender old ways of being, thereby allowing the new to emerge.
The prophetic voice of the leader thereby empowers the community to reside in the liminality of this time. Instead of avoiding or minimizing differences, the leader as prophet helps the community to claim the gift of conflict. Deep, adaptive change will not come apart from challenge: of our structures, of our processes, of our very understanding of community. Beyond the individualism which seeks to care for “self” apart from the “whole” of the community, flourishing calls us to realize our inter- dependence upon one another. The leader as prophet refocuses the conversation from that which is unsustainable to finding new solutions to the environmental, social and economic challenges we face.
Taken together, the leader as poet and prophet transforms pain into hope, thus inviting previously unimaginable levels of engagement in shaping a new reality. The leader as poet and prophet invites the community into a place where deep change can take place, not for the sake of change, but that the freedom, energy, and courage of an alternative identity might be formed for “the f lourishing of the city.”
The Shaping of Leader as Prophet and Poet
If indeed, the demands of exile call for the leader to serve as poet and prophet, how then 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 flourishing 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 many to seek “perfection” over “completeness.”
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 flourishing 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 Importance of Relationship
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 f riends and family, in and through the communities in which we live and serve. Relationships are the context in which we come to know ourselves,learntocontrol ourselves,andaresetfreetogiveourselves.
The Fourfold Journey: Know, Control, Give, Live
The metaphor of journey is especially helpful in times of exile. Attentiveness to four paths, in particular, help to nurture and nourish the leader as poet and prophet:
- The Inward Journey in the formation of Core Identity;
- The Upward Journey in the shaping of Character;
- The Outward Journey in the discernment of Call; and
- The Forward Journey in the development of Competencies.
Wisdom from the ancients informs the first three paths as we seek to know, control and give of ourselves, while the development of functional competencies becomes the focus of the forward path.
Socrates said: Know yourself. Cicero said: Control yourself. Jesus said: Give yourself. Taken together, these three aspects of development become the means by which leaders are shaped to live and serve as poet and prophet in the context of exile. Indeed, they are inter-dependent, for one cannot give of oneself without first knowing and thereby controlling oneself. See the box below for the path, task, and focus, as well as an invitation to journey, and means by which to go deeper. The task of the inward path is to know ourselves. Through the upward journey, we learn to control ourselves. With the outward journey we are set free to give ourselves. With the forward journey, we come to live not just for ourselves, but also for the flourishing of the communities.
The Inward Journey: Know
Dag Hammarskjöld once said that, “The longest journey is the journey inward.” Perhaps that is why so few make the journey. All too often, the development of leaders is focused on the acquisition of functional competences, rather than the shaping of the person. The heresy of the urgent would have us believe that we don’t have time for the inward journey, for knowing ourselves. Yet we will not be able to endure the pain of exile, let alone lead, apart from knowing ourselves.
Knowing ourselves involves looking at our lives from a developmental (mental), systemic (emotional), and socio-religious (spiritual) perspective. Imagine a pair of trifocals in which one is able to view (and thereby understand) one’s life from three different horizons: distant, intermediate, and near. On the near horizon, we attend to our development through the intentional living of key questions: Who am I? What relationships have shaped my understanding of self? What are my gifts? What is my legacy? Moving to the intermediate horizon, we come to understand ourselves through the lens of our relationships. The distant horizon of the socio-religious lens allows meaning to emerge as Meta narratives inform our understanding of self and help to shape meaning out of our existence. The vehicle by which to understand these three horizons of the inward journey is that of story.
Jim Loehr speaks to the importance of leaders knowing their stories, especially in times of exile: “Stories impose meaning on the chaos; they organize and give context to our sensory experiences, which otherwise might seem like no more than a fairly colorless sequence of fact. Facts
are meaningless until you create a story around them.” Narrative knowing is different from analytic knowing. Narrative knowing helps us to deal with the complexities of human experience that cannot be understood by the rational mind alone. Stories provide the means by which to live with contradiction, compromise, conflict and even crisis. Leaders cannot help others to make sense of the present chaos, unless they have done so themselves. We are what we remember. But our remembering requires a willingness to engage the whole of our stories. In a society that shuns weakness and rejects failure, this is risky work. Yet it is essential work for those called to lead others through the wilderness.
The challenge, of course, is that all of us carry within ourselves false stories. Unless we take the time to name our false narratives, we will likely impose our biases, blindness, and fears upon others. Jim Loehr underscores this: “Unhealthy storytelling is characterized by a diet of faulty thinking and, ultimately, long-term negative consequences… hardening of categories, narrowing of the possibilities, calcification of perception.” False stories literally reconfigure our neural pathways. One cannot serve as poet and prophet when one’s beliefs are rooted in a flawed understanding of self and world. Intimacy, generatively, and integrity are all born of claiming the whole self.
A key practice by which leaders come to make the inward journey is Journaling. William Faulkner once wrote: “I never know what I think about something until I read what I’ve written on it.” Journaling is a way of paying attention to our lives. It can help us claim the truth of our feelings, name our struggles, and live our dreams.
The Upward Journey: Control
Cicero said: Control yourself. As daunting as the inward journey can seem, the upward journey is perhaps the most challenging and yet most liberating. As the White Queen said to Alice in Wonderland: “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.” While knowing one’s story is a start, the leader must also attend to the formation of character born of learning to control one’s emotions. The upward journey challenges the leader to address the reality of shadows and name wounds in need of healing. Without compassion born of knowing our story, it is not likely that we will bear compassion into the lives of others. Unless we take responsibility for failures and choose to be healed, we will inflict our own unresolved issues upon others. Rather than create the means by which to live in the midst of doubt, we will seek certainly. Rather than engaging the pain that results in true transformation, we will choose instead the temporal relief of quick resolution.
The development of our character calls us to be attentive to our yearning for wholeness in the face of our own brokenness. It prepares us to confront the gaps between the ideal and the real within ourselves. Through the upward journey, we learn how to hold anxiety and live in the midst of ambiguity. When we claim the whole of our story, when we dare to name the shadows within us, we are able to control ourselves, even in the midst of exile. It is then we are set free to give of ourselves in a profound way. In the words of Florida Scott Maxwell: “You need only claim the events of your life to make yourself yours. When you truly possess all you have been and done. you are fierce with reality.”
A practice that supports the upward journey and develop our ability to control our emotions is Silence and Solitude. In our noise-polluted world, it can be difficult to hear oneself think. The practice of silence and solitude often results in a heightened sense of awareness. Sometimes the silence confronts us with pockets of sadness or loneliness, anger or impatience that are in need of our attention. Other times, the silence helps to bear calm into our otherwise tattered lives. Be still and breathe in life!
The Outward Journey: Give
Jesus said: Give yourself. As we are intentional about the inward
and upward journeys, we are set free to give of ourselves through the outward journey. The problems facing our communities are acute and real. The governance and structures we have built are not sustainable, nor do they bear life. Economic, environmental, and social ills demand a response. Yet, we must remember that there is no quick fix. There are no technical solutions that can be learned from an instruction manual. There is no map or GPS technology to route our way.
Instead, we must embrace the liminality of our time. In times of exile, we need poets and prophets who move us beyond the false belief that our world is unchangeable to claiming our responsibility to seek the Flourishingofthecommunitiestowhichwehavebeensentinexile. The learnings of the first two movements of the fourfold journey can never be fully realized apart from the second two movements: our flourishing is dependent upon the flourishing of our communities.
Ultimately, for our gifts to be fully realized, they must be used in service to people and planet. We are created to give. Each one of us has a need to contribute to the common good. Yet, we cannot fully give of ourselves, apart from knowing our strengths and passions. When reflecting on call born of the outward journey, I am reminded of a profound insight shared by Peter Drucker: “Most people think they know their gifts; they are wrong.” Such an. insight underscores the need and importance of both assessment and formational coaching in the discernment of call.
Yet, even as specific assessments are helpful in coming to understand temperament, gifts and passions, and preferences with regard to change, call takes shape and form in the context of community. For this reason, we need seasoned guides to help in the discernment of call. Committing to an intentional process, such as the formational journey provides the means by which to attend to the journey—inward, upward, outward, and forward—thereby crossing over from dream to the reality of flourishing. Ultimately, it is then that we come to know our call as an invitation to wholeness, for ourselves and others.
A practice for the outward journey is to claim being Fully Alive! Mystic Howard Thurman once challenged: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is you… alive!”
- Reflect and ponder on a moment when you have felt fully alive.
- From that experience and others, what would you name as your passions and gifts.
- When have you have been called upon to use those gifts and passions. What was your experience?
We are most FULLY ALIVE when we serve out of our strengths and passions as they intersect with the needs of the community. Often we find a call pushed upon our hearts that cannot be accomplished alone, but only in the context of community. When we heed that call, our communities are transformed.
Know. Control. Give. Live. It is as simple and difficult as that. When we dare to make the fourfold journey, we find ourselves secure in our core identity, our character grounded in integrity, and our call born out of the intersection of our strengths and gifts with the world’s needs. It is then we are able to guide others to seek the flourishing of the cities to which we having been sent in exile, because we know in the very fiber of our being that in its flourishing will be our flourishing. It is then we are able to live for the sake of people, planet and the prosperity of all.