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The Attributes of Strong Leadership & Tilling the Soil

Jim Collins writes that it’s not just good leadership that moves organizations or communities toward excellence, but “Level Five leadership creates the shift.” According to Collins, the two primary attributes “Level Five” leaders possess are professional will, and personal humility.

By professional will, Collins is referring to both the vision a leader has of where the organization is going, and the passion to make that vision come to life. Level Five leaders hold an outward view, always considering what, creatively, is possible. In Christian terms, I see this as reflective of all the times Jesus provides yet another parable or yet another story or saying that sparks yet another way of thinking, living, being—while holding the Kingdom vision steady. The vision Jesus gave us was far beyond what a conflict-bound community could imagine: the call to greatness was articulated when he asked us to love each other. For the sake of extending the metaphor here, his so-called “professional will” could be seen in his relentless call to this loving vision, his speaking it, and his living it. As for “personal humility”, this kind of integration of see-walk-talk is one way of understanding humility. Something greater than us is at play, and we are its servants. Of this Jesus is the Master. It feels a little strange to place a secular paradigm such as “professional will” and “personal humility” on the ministry of Jesus, but I press on because I propose that it shouldn’t. Our world is not two worlds. Vision together with a will devoted to following where that vision might lead is an unstoppable combination.

People were drawn to Jesus—to the vision he held out for those who could see and hear, to what he said and how he said it, and to how he moved in the world. One of the primary ways he did all this was to seek to meet people where they were at, engage them, which he often did through inspired questions—he poses about 135 questions in the gospels. Asking sincere questions can be another way to define “humility”—make it a kind of freedom. For one, asking questions takes us out of the “having answers” mode. For another, it invites us to consider things from perspectives other than our own. And, for another, if we’re interested in finding the right questions, then we let go of our agendas if even for a moment, and learn something. I feel Jesus posed his questions in order to discover, dream, imagine, better understand those around him, as much as to help those around him discover for themselves the spiritual life individually, together, and with God. In this way, charismatic leadership and humility need not be mutually exclusive.

All of which is to say the first step to strong leadership is asking questions and listening for, and to, the answers. Change comes into focus when we find and pose the right questions, and we can learn to do this. It is, for me, a spiritual practice. As one small support of this practice, I receive a leadership newsletter from consultant Corey Olynik that always includes a leadership “question” to work with. Here are five (random) examples:

  • What words do you use when you describe your organization?

  • Do you live your stories out loud?

  • What is “so bad” in your organization, that you can laugh about?

  • How has your mind changed in the last decade or two?

  • Is your strategic vision a noun or a verb? Is it static or active?

Of course, there are endless questions, and not all questions are created equal. Even if Corey’s questions aren’t relevant to my own circumstance, at the very least this weekly email reminds me of the power of questioning and listening. A wonderful proposition to explore is how questions and answers exist in light of each other. The Einstein quote cited earlier which says that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results suggests this relationship also. This means that we should not only be consciously asking questions, but aware of the nature, tone and content of the questions we’re asking!

As many of the leadership experts suggest, questions, not answers, are the cornerstone leadership skill, and learning to ask the right question at the right time is an art. The power of asking questions causes the creative process to kick into gear. It gives people the opportunity to make a wholehearted investment, and if change is afoot, to take ownership. As we’ll discuss later, this latter engagement with the process is, at root, what leadership most wants to inspire.

But answers DO have their place. Is a great church possible? Is it possible to make church something that matters, something that people love? With these and other questions held firmly in mind, the first year at Hillhurst was dedicated to doing a lot of listening. This is another primary leadership teaching. As much as we need to ask the right questions, equally important—and sometimes more difficult—we need to listen to the answers that come as well. Collins tells the story of when, as a first-year faculty member at Stanford, he sought out Professor John Gardner’s guidance on how he might be a better teacher. Collins writes:

Gardner, former Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, founder of Common Cause, and author of the classic text Self-Renewal, stung me with a comment that changed my life. He said, ‘It occurs to me, Jim, that you spend too much time trying to be interesting. Why don't you invest more time being interested.

And I was genuinely interested. I was interested in discovering who was in this congregation. That first year was spent questioning my way into the community, and listening toward where this group of people might want to go. There was a lot of watching and observing too—all of which was intended as a way to see what really mattered to folks in the pews. I was looking at what stirred people, moved them, and made their eyes glaze over. I wondered what they were curious about. I wanted to know what inspired them—what ideas, what social justice work, what spiritual questions. I was also interested in discovering who had leadership skills and aspirations, who was willing to take risks, who were the pillars, who was willing to leave the past behind, who was full of creative ideas. Listening—being genuinely interested—like questioning is a way to embody humility.

And so is learning to wait, to be patient, not to rush things as the process unfolds. Attending to the timing of things and being sensitive to when the moment is ripe is another. Inviting possibility and accepting that it might be a false lead is another. Taking the time to be self-aware is yet another—and a very important—way to practice humility. Just like there’s no room for complacency in the pews, there’s absolutely no room for complacency here either.

I think of all this questioning and listening and waiting and watching as “tilling the soil”. I have learned from personal experience and observation that leaders often get in trouble when they propose something without this kind of adequate tilling. The listening/observing/waiting time is key to being prepared. It should be noted that this tilling time wasn’t a time of criticism for Hillhurst, but a time of optimism and increasing energy. And while I was not pushing a particular change agenda, I was actively seeking the people who wanted to help make the leap from here-to-there, whatever that change might turn out to be. I actively sought ways to allow people to step forward, have their voices heard, clarify their ideas, and be validated. I often used sermons as a means to report back to the community what people had expressed, telling a story of someone who yearned for more, or a person who actively responded to what was newly being offered. This too is a kind of tilling the soil, preparing the creative field. Lifting up people around us, making the case for change by promoting new ways of thinking and being, inviting new voices to be heard—this is part of the work of a leadership aiming to facilitate positive shift—not force the change to happen. In this way, too, change is rightfully experienced as more organic, more responsive to what is needed, more integral—as indeed it is. All this is another way of looking at the quality of “humility.”

Part of Hillhurst’s mandate for me was “to connect with the wider community,” so I took the questioning “out there” as well. Jesus was always inviting people to be inclusive. So we raised questions about who was already among us, and who was not there? What did we need to do to make people in the community feel comfortable about coming into our sanctuary? We worked to expand our understanding about street people and how they are as much the “Christ Amongst Us” as anyone. We undertook a lengthy conversation about LGBT folks and what it might be like for them to find a truly safe place to believe, to worship and to feel at home. We asked ourselves questions about how we might expand the compassionate ethic of Jesus to folks down the street at the coffee shops and stores. So much listening, so much observing, so many questions. This amounts to tilling the soil. It is seeking our vision and faithful spirit—the vision that will constitute our “professional will”.

Again: leadership is the church’s biggest challenge and greatest opportunity. As Collins points out, the business model isn’t entirely suitable for church organization, but foundational leadership principles are—like listening, observing, validating, and being open to what comes, without imposing. On closer inspection, these principles are not really so far from our pastoral directives and traditional spiritual values.

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