[Samuel] sent and brought [David] in…. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this the one.”
I Samuel 16:12
As a kid, I always had a particular fondness for the story of David’s anointing as the once and future king. Perhaps this was at least partly because, since I was the one who was almost always picked last for the sandlot ball games, the story gave me hope.
More importantly it is a story that points us toward the wonder and mystery of the quality we call “leadership.” Judging from the volumes of books on the shelves of our bookstores and our libraries, it is obviously a subject we are interested in and an attribute that we value. Many of us may even call ourselves leaders, or at least aspire to that title. But what is it, really?
Some leaders lead with their minds, while others clearly lead from their hearts. But some leaders lead by example, with the work of their hands. Some leaders lead from pure intuition, while others lead in the pattern of carefully acquired and practiced skills or principles. Some lead with fear, others with kindness. Some leadership styles bias toward the freedom of the gospel, others toward “therapeutic” applications of the law.
When we are anxious and afraid about the uncertainty of life we almost always cry out, “What we have here is a failure of leadership!” … by which we mean that our leaders are not doing what we tell them to do—a curious understanding of leadership at best. But when our leaders do lead, if we do not like the direction they are leading, we plant our feet firmly in place, fold our arms across our chests, and indignantly demand, “Surely, you don’t expect me to follow you there, do you?”
All of which brings me to the point that the only really certain measure of whether or not someone is a leader is whether or not anyone is following; that is, whether or not the leader has any disciples. Because if you think you are a leader and you turn around and no one is following … well, that’s called, “taking a walk.”
Christian leadership, whether practiced inside or outside the organizational life of the Church, is, to be sure, a vocation; a sacred calling that is defined by its ability to CALL, to PREPARE and to RELEASE others for their sacred vocation. And this compels us to look a bit more closely at the twofold nature of Christian vocation.
In part, the word “vocation” applies to the general vocation of all baptized Christians, a calling which is expressed in the practices of evangelism and stewardship. In calling, preparing and releasing others for this general vocation, leaders must lead primarily by personal example.
Christian leaders must lead evangelism by cultivating, within themselves, the art of sharing their own faith stories publicly and confidently without slipping into using dramatic stories to emotionally manipulate, or to create a class structure based on “whoever has the coolest story must be the best Christian,” or to convert the pulpit into a self-referential public confessional booth. It takes practice, good judgment, and humility to do this well. But it is the only way to invite others into the sharing of their faith stories.
Similarly, leaders can only lead a culture or a community of faithful stewards by the example of living their own lives with open hands: joyfully grateful in receiving God’s abundance; joyfully generous in releasing that abundance back into the world for the work of reconciling the world to God through the love of Jesus by the power of the cross. Exemplary stewardship, like exemplary evangelism, stems from increasing ease in sharing the personal struggles, disciplines, triumphs, and blessings that surround growth in “open handed” living. And then, leadership also calls others into imitating the same witness to others.
But vocation also includes one’s distinctive or particular calling grounded in individual gifts, skills, or passions. To lead the particular vocation of growing disciples is to lead with curiosity, encouragement, challenge, and honest feedback, so that the vocation of the other is itself called out rather than being poured in by the leader. Leading the particular vocation of the baptized cannot be reduced to recruiting people to do what the leader needs them to do to populate a program. This kind of leadership is experimental, exploratory, inquisitive and intensely relational. And in order to stay honest, this kind of leadership must include a celebration of each person’s vocation in the world beyond the Church as well as their vocation within the Church. The Church scattered is every bit as much a Church of public engagement with the world as is the Church gathered as an institution.
But it may be that the most profound secret to leadership is for the leader to remain transparent to the one the leader is following, so that those who follow are looking not so much at the leader as they are watching the light within, beyond, and before the leader. Because leaders who stay transparent to the light they themselves follow are the leaders who create disciples who become the transparent leaders … of transparent leaders … of transparent leaders … until slowly the light before us leads us all just a little bit further than any of us ever wanted to go.