There was a time when I would have been jealous for leadership; today, I find it sobering. I have passed the point of aspiring to leadership. It is a privilege to be a leader, but the price is great.
A leader has to watch every word he or she says and quickly learns that you can’t go through life without a few critics, some well deserved. Occasionally, leaders have a rough time knowing who’s a genuine friend, and there are some serious time limitations on pursuing healthy relationships. There’s pressure on friends and family, and at times most leaders, I suspect, ask, “Who needs all this?”
On the other hand, everything I’ve been privileged to be a part of has been the result of a choice to respond to God’s call to leadership. So, I’m not whining about the pressure.
It comes back to God’s anointing. My wife, Gail, and I are constantly aware that God has called us to do something. Every morning, we take time to ask God, “What is the purpose of this in our lives?” I no longer entertain the notion of whatever I’m supposed to do has to be great, but I do feel strongly a sense of call and obligation. Besides the Lord’s anointing, what other traits must the Christian leader possess?
Four Traits of a Christian Leader
The first trait of a leader is the ability to communicate vision. The leader is the custodian of a vision. Some of us communicate the vision through our gift of speaking, but others have done it differently. D.E. Hoste, for example, Hudson Taylor’s successor at China Inland Mission, was an administrator, and his leadership was accomplished in the office and at the committee table. His wisdom and ability to persuade convinced people that he was filled with the Holy Spirit and worthy to be followed.
The second trait of a Christian leader is sensitivity to people. First and foremost, a leader must hear what people are saying. Peter Drucker says communication doesn’t happen with the speaker but with the hearers. As a speaker, I’ve got to understand the way you think. How do you perceive information? Churchill knew the English people, so he was sensitive to the right word forms that would capture their attention—he knew what would inspire them and make them mad enough at the enemy to keep persevering despite incredible hardship.
A third trait a leader must possess is the ability to assess situations. Being sensitive also means developing the ability to look at situations and decode what’s going on. I think God has given me a gift in this area. It’s instinctive for me to walk into a room and quickly sense who is in charge, or for that matter, to quickly realize that no one is in charge. That’s an important skill in church situations.
The fourth trait is keen self-knowledge. Sensitive leaders need to know themselves. If we don’t know ourselves and what has shaped us, what neutralizes us, and what our limits are, we invite disaster. Many men and women in leadership positions are insecure. Some struggle with large unresolved areas from the past. Unless the past can be resolved, it often becomes an Achilles’ heel in leadership.
Let me give an example. I came into the ministry as an insecure person, specifically needing affirmation. I needed for people to like me, and I equated applause with affirmation. I’ve had to transition from being a driven person to a called person.
The resolution to know oneself begins through daily self-examination against God’s righteousness and the discovery of sinful motives. Second, it’s going back in your past to ask, “What has formed me? What am I looking for in life? What didn’t I get that I needed?”
The Value of a Mentor
A valuable resource to help with this is a mentor. A mentor provides affirmation, so you don’t have to look for it in artificial ways. Second, a mentor provides correction. In seminary, I sat under the teaching of Ray Buker. For another course, I was to present a position paper in a Christian education debate, so I cut two classes I had with Dr. Buker that day to work on it. That night, after I read the paper and everyone had left, Buker came up and said, “Gordon, that was a good paper you read. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a great one. Would you like to know why it wasn’t a great one?
I said, “I’m not sure, but … ”
“It was not great because you sacrificed the routine to write it.”
That was one of those open-window moments where I recognized a real life principle. Sacrificing the routine is not what makes one effective. Dr. Buker was trying to point out that most of us go through life for the peaks, rather than realizing that life is often in the valleys and on the hillsides. I never forgot that lesson.
When I was an athlete, I lost a very important race because I didn’t listen to my coach. Afterward he said to me, “You have all of the promise of being a man who’s going to go through life learning things the hard way.”
I walked off the field that day thinking, “That’s the last lesson I’m going to learn the hard way. I’m going to learn by other people’s hard ways.” That principle has stuck with me. I began to observe others’ failures and humiliation, and then I would ask myself, “Where would I be apt to make that same error?”
Many leaders operate at a level where they can go for a long time without anybody calling them to account, and as a result, they get so busy helping other people that their perceptions drift. A mentor comes along, asks the hard questions, makes the stiff confrontation, and the leader suddenly realizes, 'How could I have not seen this?'
Your Spiritual Center
We isolate both the positive and that which we must discard. We could all use our backgrounds as an excuse to say, “This is why I am like this, so take me the way I am.” But as leaders, we can’t afford that kind of self-pity. This is hard work, and it’s a lifelong process. I could go back to being a driven man pretty quickly if I didn’t maintain a spiritual center.
I’m convinced from my reading of the mystics that our perception of reality revolves around a spiritual center. That center quickly becomes almost inoperative if it’s not maintained through constant spiritual discipline. Almost all Christian leaders believe that doctrinally, but few believe it experientially enough to carve out one or two hours a day to maintain their spiritual center.
What results is an accumulation of knowledge without wisdom. You get leaders who operate on charisma instead of spiritual power. And it takes spiritual power to make the clear break with the world’s values, as a spiritual leader must. I don’t mean to sound pious, but as I get older I realize this truth more and more. We can’t maintain the peace unless we pray, study scripture and read heavy doses of classical spiritual literature.
On the other hand, when we lead from within, our own resources are channeled and multiplied from that very powerful spiritual center where transformation happens.
Note: The preceding is an excerpt from Gordon MacDonald’s book, Building Below the Waterline. MacDonald is the author of more than a dozen books, including Ordering Your Private World, A Resilient Life, and The Life God Blesses. He is the editor-at-large for Leadership Journal, after serving for 20 years as senior minister at Grace Chapel in Lexington, Mass.