Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Leading is Listening



"They were talking the loudest and not sitting around."

This was the (slightly paraphrased) response to the question I had just posed to the large group of high school students. Our missions team had just completed an experiential learning exercise involving "islands" set up in our gym, 2x6 wooden planks, and loads of frustration. We're headed to two locations in June--San Diego, CA and Sanders, AZ--yet wanted to emphasize that we are one team, two locations. The islands exercise had revealed a lot about the team dynamics but this particular statement struck me.

The question I had asked: who were the leaders, and how could you tell?

The response I heard perfectly fits the definition of a "leader" in the American church--they're sharing what they think and they're on the move. They have the vision, the ideas, and the gumption to make some of those visionary ideas happen. And this is how Jesus led, right? After all, he would teach people often, authoritatively sharing his gospel of the kingdom and moving people to repentant action. He could draw the crowds without a Twitter account or a state-of-the-art building.

To be honest, this is how I often view my own leadership. I'm called to lead and shepherd those God has place in my life, meaning I'm supposed to...well...talk. The leaders are the loudest. While this is partially true, I wonder if it misses a central part of servant leadership that we see evident in Scripture.

Leaders are listeners. Yes, leaders communicate vision, share ideas, and are proactive and engaged in their world. Yet the strongest leaders I've encountered are leaders who humbly listen to others, who seek silence and solitude, who think before they act, who are curious as to what God is doing in any given moment. Leaders are learners, and learners must be able to listen well.

One aspect of our experiential learning exercise was placing limitations on certain individuals; some couldn't talk, others were blind-folded, still others were essentially mute and paralyzed. The supposed leaders in the group were the ones jumping onto islands, moving planks around, yelling orders to other team members. Yet without choosing to stop and listen first, they were inadvertently leaving others behind. The mute couldn't speak up. The blind couldn't see. They needed someone to take a moment and be present with them before moving ahead with the plan. When a leader leaves others behind, they are essentially leaving themselves behind. They'll find themselves alone, wondering why no one is following.

In this TED talk from four-star general Stanley McChrystal, he talks about the need for leaders to be able to listen and learn, building shared purpose in a diversity of generations and demographics. In a rapidly changing post-9/11 world filled with new technology, new language, and new experiences, leaders have to be able to slow down and listen well. There are a ton of implications here for leaders in the church, and I'd encourage you to take 15 minutes to hear this military leader's wisdom:


I came to believe that a leader isn't good because they're right. They're good because they're willing to learn and to trust.
It doesn't matter if your ideas are right if you haven't built the trust and relational equity to lead others. That requires listening, not for the sake of manipulation or waiting to get your own ideas heard, but because you humbly recognize that others are valuable, that they have a story to share. Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest and gifted communicator, once wrote the following:
The Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self. That is the way Jesus came to reveal God’s love.
If you're leading in the church, whether as paid staff, an elder on a board, a key volunteer, or simply as a parent or mentor, may you begin to listen both to those you are leading and to the Spirit who is leading you.

1 comment:

  1. great post. Appreciate the "both and" realization. Too often we hear about either not teaching/speaking up enough or not listening enough. Glad you put them on equal standings. I would add that true leaders are the ones who know how to put others in the spotlight to grow and encourage them. A great leader isn't one who is doing the moving and shaking, but the one who has equipped and called others into that spotlight. Great thoughts got me thinking.

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