Few of us consider ourselves to be leaders. But I think each of us is called to lead someone. That can be an intimidating notion. But it doesn’t have to be. You have all the tools you need for leadership. In your heart…
Summer is dwindling in Chicago, and the shadows are long in the early-gathering dusk. My five-year-old son is in the back yard, bouncing a large balloon above his head. I look on as the red orb drifts toward a rosebush and I can see it coming—the loud pop of balloon on thorns and the even louder little boy, mourning his shredded prize.
As the tears flow I walk casually to his side. I pat him on the back. I reassure him there are other balloons—it’s not the end of the world, and we should be grateful for what we do have. But all my soothing only enrages him and now I’m angry he won’t accept my wisdom and guidance.
But why should he?
Why should he listen to this calloused adult? This big-indifferent creature who is apparently clueless about the grief in this moment? Why should he listen to anyone who can’t relate to the pain he is in?
And he’s right. Because if Daddy cannot touch this place of grief in his own heart, how can Daddy know the means of deliverance?
Leadership is Always Deliverance
People don’t follow leaders because they are hip or fun or friendly. People follow leaders because they want to be delivered out of bondage into the freedom of the Promised Land. From loneliness into companionship, from poverty into affluence, from sorrow into joy, from obscurity into influence, from dependency and submission into empowerment.
Henri Nouwen wrote, “The great illusion of leadership is to think that man can be led out of the desert by someone who has never been there.” As leaders, our only real authority is our intimate knowledge of the bondage itself and the ways we were delivered into freedom. When we lead, our authority is our experience of the freedom-journey.
Maybe this is why the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years? Perhaps it wasn’t all about their opposition and rebellion. Maybe it was a failure of leadership. Maybe Moses couldn’t lead because he had experienced a life of privilege and then of exile but never of slavery. How could a man who has never experienced the slavery of his own heart efficiently lead a bunch of slaves to the Promised Land?
A Daddy Leads His Little Boy
As my son weeps anguished tears, mourning over the sudden loss of his prized possession, I try to find his place of bondage in my own heart. I try to find the place of loss. I know this beautiful boy is my prized possession and an image flashes through my mind—a sudden darting of boy into street, cars racing past, and my prized possession broken and shredded. Lost.
His grief wells up in me, and suddenly my eyes are wet like his. And I know that leadership in this moment is not a lesson in letting go or gratitude. Leadership is an embrace—a steadfast reassurance of I-am-with-you.
Deliverance Always Begins in the Leader’s Heart
As a leader, you must first walk the lonely journey into the substance of your own soul. You must find the place of bondage in your own heart—the loneliness, restlessness, frustration, emptiness, loss, helpless dependency, or whatever.
And you must trust that your most personal experience is also most universal.
Because the people you love and lead do have the same conflict in their hearts, and they are starving for a leader who knows the experience and is prepared to lead them out of it.
The preparation is simple, but it may be painful:
You must feel the place of bondage in your own heart, rather than running away from it. This is your preparation for leadership: you must become intimately familiar with the place you want to leave. It is the only way to truly understand those you are called to lead. And they won’t respect your authority if you don’t understand them.
Having experienced the slavery, you will then learn how to walk out of it and into the freedom of the Promised Land. Having walked the walk, those who look to you for leadership will trust the authenticity of your calling. And they will feel real hope.
Finally, your calling as a leader is to clearly communicate the nature of the freedom-journey. You are called to spread the message of hope and point the way toward the Promised Land. In vulnerability with your spouse, a late-night cuddle-talk with your child, a cup of coffee with a friend, as referee in the neighborhood soccer game, or in an encounter with the aching eyes of a stranger.
It’s that simple. And it’s that hard. But I think if you’re willing, you and the people you love and lead won’t have to wait 40 years to glimpse the Promised Land.
Questions: What do you think about this view of leadership? What do you think are the keys to leadership? Leave your thoughts in the comments section.
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