Fire, for all its power, starts out fragile. When the kindling is gathered and the embers start to appear, they curl around the edges of the twigs, teasing their way into some small purchase on life. A single flame crawls along a sturdy branch, waving like a flag. A bit of thin smoke rises. Then, a change of the wind, and the flag is gone. It’s down on hands and knees again to resuscitate the pitiful embers with a steady breath. And so it goes, minute by minute, until something finally catches.
Leadership is like that, too. For me, at least, stepping into leadership has often felt fragile. The work I’m given, whether by my own desire or out of necessity, can feel like so much damp wood. Leadership means working with people. I cannot retreat to the predictable comfort of my personal productivity, where I have some hint of control. No, I must face the reality of other people’s limits, foibles, and failures. Even with delightful teammates, the task of aligning others’ energies in some united fashion can take a toll. When we pull together and feel success, what a joy! The bitterness of abject failure is there on occasion, too, but more often it is somewhere in between: the grind. The fire always needs more attention than I think it should take. Wasn’t that twig burning just a minute ago? As I lean down to investigate, another branch goes out. I look anxiously up at the dark clouds gathering and then down at my little embers and think, “I hope something catches in time.”
Fragility is normal for leadership. Management theorist Marty Linsky once wisely said that “Leadership can be understood, in part, as about disappointing your own people at a rate they can absorb.” In order to accomplish anything of substance, leaders have to make tough calls about what to prioritize. Trying to please everyone is a recipe for meaninglessness. But that means the outcome of wise leadership, more often than not, will feel like pleasing no one at all. Leaders will be misunderstood, unfairly judged, and tugged in conflicting directions regularly. This is perhaps especially true of good leaders who hold the line, helping the team accomplish the mission even when it’s hard.
How, then, should Christian leaders approach the slog? Leadership has its joys, its moments and even seasons of glory. For leaders who find themselves fitted to the task, it can be immensely energizing. But no leadership position is without a daily grind. What resources do we have, as followers of Jesus, to take on this fragile work? What kindling can we gather as we pray for the fire to catch?
I can think of three key resources in the “riches of Christ” (Ephesians 3:8) for this work:
- The Posture of Prayer
It is perhaps apt that we have to get down on our knees to blow on the embers. When I’m kindling a literal fire, I find myself talking to it: “Come on, now, light up!” I would do better talking with Jesus, master of the elements. Prayer is relevant to all our leadership tasks. Use your anxiety as a barometer: If it’s significant to start worrying about, it’s significant enough to intercede about.
- The Motivation of Love
Paul exhorts the Corinthian believers, “Let all that you do be done in love” (1 Corinthians 16:14 NRSV). That’s a tall order. Am I sending this email, writing these meeting notes, or teaching this class in love, or from some other motive? Recently, I’ve found myself willing to impress my boss at others’ expense. When I reflect on such moments, I see my motive to “get ahead” outpacing my goodwill toward my teammates. There are other motivations that can displace love; take a moment to review your workday and ask the Lord to show you what is happening in your heart.
- The Freedom of the Easy Yoke
The feeling that “it’s on us” to make the fire catch is hard to avoid. But ultimately, whatever our work, if we are walking in obedience, we can share our load with Jesus. The difficulty we have with fire is that it’s beyond us; we can’t just put our hands on it and make it do what we want. We have to wait for the elements to come together. That’s true in our leadership, too. Jesus is the one who can transform embers into roaring flames. And even when the fire stays small, he makes the slog endurable, because he’s right there in it with us.