Cynthia Harvey, Texas Annual Conference
When God called Nehemiah, God did not call him to simply manage a project; God called Nehemiah to lead and do so boldly. I believe that is the same kind of bold leadership God calls us to today. God calls us to lead from within with vision and with purpose. God calls us to leadership that requires risk, that takes us to places and decisions that stretch us—and takes us beyond our comfort zone. I believe that today’s leaders in the United Methodist Church must be willing to embrace their call boldly.
In Leadership without Easy Answers (Harvard Univ. Press, 1998), Dr. Ronald A. Heifetz begins chapter 1 with one simple three-word sentence: “Leadership arouses passion” (p. 13). Leadership arouses passion! While in total agreement, I also wonder if the reverse is also true—passion arouses leadership? It is passion that often drives our hopes and dreams for a new future. Our desire for change serves as fuel for leadership.
I have spent most of my life studying and researching the practice of leadership. My parents instilled in me as a young girl the confidence to lead. They, perhaps unknowingly, gave me the confidence to be a change agent in my community and in my world. Leadership among my peers was not always seen as acceptable. In a traditional Hispanic community in the ’60s, it was not common for Latinos to lead; instead we were to follow. My parents always said I could be anything and do anything I set my mind to. Not being one to follow the status quo, I assumed the role of leader. What I quickly learned is that the role of leader also came with expectations. I learned that leadership has to be earned. In both my secular and my church careers I have been entrusted with great responsibility, as I have been called to assume the role of leader. Bosses and mentors saw in me the potential to lead, to make a difference, but it was my responsibility to prove to the organization and to the church that I could lead each to a new place. I had to lead boldly. This required integrity, authenticity, and the ability to create a series of values that supported not just the organization but who I am. After all, leadership is influenced by our identity. Our leadership has to be true to who we are. Personally, I believe authenticity is a key characteristic of excellent leadership.
Kevin Cashman, founder and CEO of the coaching firm LeaderSource, stated in Leadership from the Inside Out (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2008) that while evaluating their work, he found three patterns in his most effective clients:
They determined that “Leadership is authentic influence that creates value” (ibid.). My experience supports this statement. It is when we lead deep from within, authentically expressing who we are, that we influence and fill ourselves, our teams and organizations, and our community with passion and aspiration.
I cannot help but lead from the perspective of a clergyperson, female, Latina. The values instilled in me as a child, a young woman, and now a wife, mother, and pastor, are what ignite my passion for leading. Leading from the center of our very being and our call is what produces servant-leaders. Being Spirit-led is critical to our leadership in the church. Returning to Heifetz, I would add that this is the kind of leadership that arouses passion.
A clear sense of purpose, passion, and identity is what allows leaders to mobilize large and diverse groups to a new vision, to new possibilities. It is also important that leaders themselves know when to lead and when to follow. Knowing when to follow could be the most important skill of an effective leader. Following is often seen as a weakness, but one can follow and still be the leader. In my experience as the leader of the United Methodist Committee on Relief, my ability to lead is recognizing the expertise of those around me and allowing them to assume the role of leader. Leadership requires us to put our egos aside and instead allow the passion for our work to lead us. Leadership does not equal authority. An assistant to the assistant can lead in an organization. This kind of leadership does not negate the authority or leadership of the “boss.” A confident leader will allow her or his organization to lead at every level, therefore creating a healthy and strong workplace where all contribute to the greater whole. In fact, allowing others in the organization to lead could likely ignite the passion of future leaders. A large dose of humility will also go a long way when leading through chaotic waters.
The responsibility of a leader is to effect meaningful change. Excellent leaders are needed in times of crisis, change, transition, and when stagnation has set in, in an organization. During these times a strong leader must step in and serve as an unanxious presence and at the same time be willing to make the hard decisions. This calls for a tremendous balancing act. Leaders in times of transition must be willing to assess the situation and decide what from the past needs to be preserved and brought into the present in order to create a new future. This requires wisdom and patience and is not often a popular time for a good leader. The organization or institution may have too many ties to the past, too much they believe to be sacred. This time of pruning and grafting is hard work and unpopular work. Leaders must lead out of a sense of call, integrity, and authenticity and cannot take this season of leadership personally.
With leadership comes great responsibility. Leaders have to gain the credibility and trust of the communities they serve. The key to gaining credibility and trust is listening. Listening in the purest sense will make all the difference in the world, especially in times of tension and crisis. Can one listen to the dissonance? Can we live in the tension? I believe that much of our beloved United Methodist Church is living in this time of dissonance and tension.
I sang in choirs most of my life before entering full-time ministry. While not a trained musician, I did learn a great deal by singing in a choir about what it means to be in concert with one another. It was often in great works with dissonance that we made beautiful music. Being willing to sing two opposing notes in the same measure produced harmony. It was difficult and often did not sound or feel good to the singers, but it was music to listeners’ ears. The composer’s addition of a rest, a breath, or a speeding up or slowing down of the music was brilliant. Adding a repeat or connecting notes together to create a melisma or a run of notes that if separate would not fit into the beat of the measure was genius. Leadership is like a great piece of music, with the leader serving as the conductor. How does one listen to opposing sides to create harmony? How does one fit a series of ideas into a single measure to create one sound? This is the kind of impassioned leadership needed in our church today.
Another important trait of a good leader is the ability to know the difference between leadership and management. The reality for most of us in the church is that we not only have to lead; we have to manage, but the way we manage must convey leadership. The leader must maintain the “balcony view” and be able to direct the dancers on the dance floor, not from the floor, but from the balcony. It is only then that we can have a clearer vision and make sound decisions by assessing the whole floor of dancers rather than one at a time. Leaders often find themselves “in the weeds” and cannot properly lead change. A recent survey I took with Cambridge Leadership Associates stated, “We all face two competing challenges: to execute on important business practices efficiently (which is the domain of authority and management) and to change to adapt those same business practices (leadership).” Knowing which to use at the appropriate time is an essential tool in the leader’s tool kit.
Leaders must also be willing to be held accountable. Often accountability is seen as a threat, but to an excellent leader it is the measure of evaluation for work done well or pointing to that which needs improvement. Who holds church leaders accountable? The congregation? Staff-parish relations committees? In an agency is it the boards that hold leaders accountable? General Conference? The answer is yes, but perhaps the greatest measure of accountability is set by the leader themselves. My experience is that the measure of accountability I set for myself far exceeds the measure set for me. An important part of accountability is having a support system, a group that holds us accountable not just for our own productivity as leaders but for being who we say we are as leaders. Better said, the greatest measure of accountability is set by a sense of “call” discerning who God has called us to be.
From the Wesley Study Bible:
Leadership: Humble, daring discerning, empowering and protecting: these are the characteristics of leadership. With humility, Nehemiah weeps to align himself with God’s purpose; he daringly risks his privileged life to do what is right. He discerns sad truths and hidden possibilities; motivates and equips the people for good work. Finally, he guards the boundaries of faith against all enemies within and without. Nehemiah is no mere program manager or property administrator. He grows leaders. He takes initiative, but shares authority. He counts himself among servants. Leaders are just cupbearers. The art is in knowing the cup is to be filled, and to whom it should be carried. (Joel B. Green and William H. Willimon, eds., Abingdon Press, 2009)
Leadership is the art of accomplishing more than the science of management says is possible.