When I was younger in my career, I can clearly remember wanting my supervisors to be different than they were. I wanted them to be attuned to the nuances of fundraising, to be on time to meetings, and to give me clear direction.
I didn’t expect that when I got to the director’s seat, I would be so conscious of the ways my team may want me to be different than I am, too. I am sometimes aware that they want different things from me than I am able to give—whether it be a daily knowledge of their work or a clear, top-down directive for which choice to make this week. It’s a humbling recognition.
It strikes me that Jesus lived this particular aspect of leadership, too. He couldn’t always give his followers what they wanted, whether it was literally smooth sailing across a lake (Mark 4:35-41), feeding thousands with five loaves and two fish (Matthew 14:13-21), or even just a manageable amount of fish in their nets (Luke 5:4). He gave to them based on who he was instead: the gifts were lavish, filled with love, and unexpected.
He wasn’t a king like they’d ever known, demonstrating power or wealth in any of the ways normally shown by a king. At times, this frustrated the apostles – they wanted, just once, to operate within the world they knew. To operate within the ways the world made sense to them; perhaps, even the ways they themselves might lead.
Jesus led authentically based on his own identity, and knew that his closest followers might not always get exactly what they thought they wanted. In following him, we as leaders seek a reflection of that identity in our own abilities and skills. Not to become identical leaders following a prescribed set of rules, but to become followers of Jesus first, layered with our own sets of skills and abilities.
In his book, Following Jesus: Finding Our Way Home in an Age of Anxiety, theologian Henri J.M. Nouwen shares that “One of the most exciting aspects of the Christian life is that it does not put people in a mold, but creates a rich variety of people in whom the love of God becomes incarnate in very different ways.” My ways of leading and following God will not be the same ways as other leaders I have worked alongside or under.
This love of God comes to us in so many ways, and as leaders, we have the distinct privilege to share it with our communities. But we must also fill it up in ourselves. As author and psychologist Dr. Irene Kraegel writes in her blog on The Good Life, “What if it’s okay for us each to be who we are, and what if this is actually the point of life? To be ourselves, to settle into that, to assume that our good creator takes delight in us as a good creation.”
When I am disappointed in my own leadership, when I am aware again of the ways I have not given my team the exact things they want, the Gospel reminds me that I am not alone. Somehow, it helps to know that this is what is expected; that the tension between our identities as individuals and leaders falls away in the overwhelming fact of God’s love for us.
Again, from Nouwen: “Following Jesus is moving away from fear and toward love. Always toward the Lord.” If we can follow Jesus in our work, if we can let love guide our decisions, we can lead authentically from who we are in our truest identities: children of and followers of God.
And then, perhaps, we can better reflect and spread that love with our communities, in the ways that we have uniquely been made to lead.
Nouwen, H.J.M., ed. Earnshaw, G. (2019). Following Jesus: Finding Our Way Home in an Age of Anxiety. Convergent Books.