We live in a strange world where things like pandemics and protests seem to be the new norm. Since March 2020, the world has radically changed and will continue to change in the coming days ahead. Andy Crouch, Kurt Keilhacker, and Dave Blanchard describe the effects of COVID-19 as an economic and cultural blizzard, winter, and the beginning of a “little ice age— a once-in-a-lifetime change that is likely to affect our lives and organizations for years.” The problem is that many leaders are still using old maps for an old world that no longer exists. We need a new GPS to navigate the realities of the world we are in.
COVID-19 is just the tip of the iceberg that today’s leaders face. In the new reality, we face issues of race, divisive politics, outrage, the rise of the religious nones, as well as global, environmental, and economic uncertainty. Some (like Rod Dreher and Alasdair MacIntyre) have even gone so far as to refer to the times we are living in the “new dark ages.” One thing is for sure: we live in a different world than we did a few months ago and things probably will never go back to the way they were.
If truth be told, many leaders find themselves at a loss in times of crisis. In the midst of these radical changes and challenges, we need courageous leaders and churches who are willing to reimagine and embrace the future possibilities of the church. As we look at the history of the church, we see that the church has survived more difficult situations than we are currently facing. Whether in persecution or pandemics, the church has not only survived but thrived in difficult and challenging times. Such are the times we are living in. Based on my study of leadership resilience, I want to offer several leadership essentials that I believe will help leaders navigate the present-future realities of the world we are living in.
1. Realistic, Yet Hopeful Leadership
Many Christians have either resorted to gloom and doom or simply pretend that nothing has changed. However, there is another way to look at the future: we need realistic hope. Megan Hyatt Miller reminds us, “Leaders require an accurate picture of the facts, but they also need to have confidence they can overcome even the worst news. That’s realistic. And hopeful.” We do not have to be pessimistic or optimistic ― we can find realistic hope that is rooted in Christ, because he is the same, yesterday, today, and forever. Being hopeful doesn’t mean that we stick our head in the sand and ignore the realities and challenges around us, or that we give up on the world, rather it means that we look in the face of our challenging circumstances with a realistic hope that comes from God.
In the Star Wars movie Rogue One, the rebellion leaders were facing overwhelming odds that were against them when the main character Jyn Erso reminded them, “We have hope. Rebellions are built on hope.” If you think about it, Christianity was a rebellion that was built on hope. In the midst of war, persecution, or pandemics, hope is what has sustained the church throughout the ages. Romans 15:13 says, “May the God of green hope fill you up with joy, fill you up with peace, so that your believing lives, filled with the life-giving energy of the Holy Spirit, will brim over with hope!” (The Message). Leaders of the future must have realistic hope.
2. Emotionally Healthy Leadership
Over the past decade, statistics reveal that many Christian leaders are burned out. Some have committed moral failure. Others have simply walked away from the ministry. One of the primary reasons for this is that too many leaders are emotionally unhealthy. In his book The Emotionally Healthy Leader, Peter Scazzero says “The emotionally unhealthy leader is someone who operates in a continuous state of emotional and spiritual deficit, lacking emotional maturity and a “being with God” sufficient to sustain their “doing for God.” In contrast, an emotionally healthy leader, is one who leads “from a deep and transformed inner life.” Emotionally healthy leadership involves attending to our inner life and knowing ourselves as well as God. As John Calvin reminds us in his Institutes, the key task of a Christian is the “knowledge of God and of ourselves” (I,i,1; see also David G. Benner, The Gift of Being Yourself: The Sacred Call to Self-Discovery).
Knowing ourselves is sometimes referred to as emotional intelligence or EQ. EQ does not refer to our cognitive intelligence but is another “kind of smart”: our emotional intelligence. This emotional intelligence reflects the capability of individuals to recognize and use their own emotional information to manage and adapt to various environments in order to achieve success. Rather than focusing on your ability to perform tasks, EQ probes the depths of identity to ensure that at your very core, you possess the character, stamina, and adaptability to succeed as a leader.
In the words of Drs. Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves, “Emotional intelligence is your ability to recognize and understand emotions in yourself and others, and your ability to use this awareness to manage your behavior and relationships” (Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves, Emotional Intelligence 2.0, 17). They believe that emotional intelligence affects how we manage behavior, navigate social complexities, and make personal decisions that achieve positive results. According to Bradberry and Greaves, emotional intelligence is made up of four core skills that pair up under two primary competencies: personal competence and social competence.
Another very important key to emotional health is what Edwin Friedman called “differentiation,” in his book, A Failure of Nerve. Differentiation is essential because it involves the ability of remaining connected to people and yet not having your reaction or behaviors determined by them. Friedman says, “a well-differentiated leaders is less likely to become lost in the anxious emotional processes swirling about” (A Failure of Nerve. Leadership in an Age of the Quick Fix, 15.
An emotionally healthy and well-differentiated leader has the ability to calmly differentiate themselves from the demands and voices around them. What more could be needed in a leader today?
3. Contemplative Leadership
Leaders are too often people of action, but rarely men and women of contemplation and prayer. The result is often burnout. In a world filled with distractions, we need a quiet place where God can speak to us. Many people spend only a few minutes each day reading and meditating on the Bible, and often this is not enough. Sitting and prayerfully meditating on God’s Word put the cares of this world in proper perspective and opens us up to allowing God to speak to us. Henri Nouwen says, “If there is any focus that the Christian leader of the future will need, it is the discipline of dwelling in the presence of the One who keeps saying, “Do you love me?”… This is the discipline of contemplative prayer” (In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership, 42).
Even doing a good work for the Lord can be a distraction if we do not allow time to rest. After the disciples returned from a busy missionary journey, Jesus told them to, “Come aside by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while” (Mark 6:31). They had been busy and Jesus knew that they needed rest for their weary souls. Spiritual burnout occurs when we do not give ourselves time to rest from our daily routine. We also see this illustrated in the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38-42. Mary sat at the feet of Jesus and heard His word, but Martha was distracted with much serving. Jesus said that Mary had chosen the best thing because she sat at His feet and was not distracted with much serving. Resting in the Lord is the only way that we can continue to have an effective Christian life because our being must come before our doing.
(Note: I will have more to say about contemplative leadership in a future piece.)
4. Courageous Leadership
We need courage to chart a new course. As the nation of Israel was heading into the uncharted territory of the Promised Land, God encouraged Joshua four times to “be brave and very courageous” (Josh. 1:6, 7, 9, 18). Later in Joshua 3:4, God makes it clear “you have never been this way before.” Just like Joshua, we live in uncertain times, where many people are struggling to navigate the challenges of the new realities we live in. We are in uncharted territory and have never been this way before. We need courageous leaders who will take us into the Promised Land.
So, what is a courageous leader? According to Harvard Business School Professor Nancy Koehn, “A courageous leader is an individual who’s capable of making themselves better and stronger when the stakes are high and circumstances turn against that person. Courageous leaders are not cowed or intimidated. They realize that, in the midst of turbulence, there lies an extraordinary opportunity to grow and rise” (Quoted in Matt Gavin, “5 Characteristics of a Courageous Leader,” https://online.hbs.edu/blog/post/courageous-leadership; See also Nancy Koehn’s Forged in Crisis: The Making of Five Courageous Leaders). Based on her research, Brené Brown defines courageous and daring leadership as “the courage to show up when you can’t predict the future” (Dare to Lead: Brave Work, Tough Conversations, Whole Hearts, 20).
More than ever before, we need courageous leaders who are willing to lead when they can’t predict the future or outcome.
5. Adaptive Leadership
Related to courageous leadership, but substantially different is adaptive leadership. In the world we are living in, it is so important to be flexible and adaptable to changes and needs. Leaders of the future must be able to adapt toa rapidly changing environment. Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky define adaptive leadership as the ability “to adapt and thrive in challenging environments.” The concept of adaptivity is an organic concept that is drawn from biology in which living things adapt to survive.
You may be asking yourself the question, “Why organic?” The answer is in the Bible. The Old and New Testaments are based on an organic worldview. The church is the spiritual and living Body of Christ. Like all healthy organisms, it requires numerous systems and structures that work together to fulfill its intended purpose and overall health. Just as the physical body has to have an organic structure to hold it together while allowing it to grow and develop, likewise the body of Christ must have an organic structure that can do the same.
Leaders need to be able to be flexible and adaptive to the changes that are swirling around us. Leonard Sweet says, “We must develop ministries that continually adjust and change with our continually changing culture” (Aqua Church 2.0, 12). In a similar way, leaders need to able to adapt and change to adjust to the ongoing changes and challenges around us or it will hinder our growth.
6. Culturally Sensitive Leadership
We live in an increasingly diverse world where leaders will need cultural sensitivity to navigate various levels of social complexity. From issues relating to race, gender, and politics- there is a growing need for leaders to develop their cultural intelligence, which refers to a person’s capacities to understand and effectively respond to the beliefs, values, attitudes, and behaviors of others who differ from them (see David Littlemore, Cultural Intelligence: Youth, Family, and Culture).
As a leader of the future, we need to learn the skills and develop the ability to understand and appreciate diverse cultures and contexts and be able to work across national, ethnic, and political lines. Every context is different, so it is essential to be able to understand and engage the unique culture and context in the location where you live and work. This begins by listening to others and building relationships with others who do not look, act, or think like you.
7. Servant Leadership
Finally, and perhaps most importantly of all, leaders of the future need to be servants. A number of leadership thinkers have recognized the importance of servant leadership. For example, see:
- Simon Sinek, Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t;
- Ken Blanchard and Renee Broadwell, Servant Leadership in Action: How You Can Achieve Great Relationships and Results;
- Robert K. Greenleaf, Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness.
These leadership insights notwithstanding, our individualistic society has caused us to neglect the need for putting others above ourselves. For our culture, serving is revolutionary because it goes against the natural tendency toward self-preservation and elevation. The mind of a servant constantly looks around and asks, “What can I do for others” instead of “what can they do for me?” We find this mindset pervading the life of Jesus. He set the ultimate example by living out this mantra: “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Christian leaders must strive to be like Jesus, our perfect example. By engaging in faithful servanthood, we, as the Body of Christ, become Christ’s representatives to a lost world.
As a whole, the church should be an army of servants who are making a positive difference in their families, community, and the world. With a commitment to servant leadership, we are bound to witness a revolution that will transform our community and demonstrate the love of Christ for the world to see. These are but a few of the essentials that leaders will need to navigate the present-future realities in which we live.