By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.
Director, Yeshua Institute
Last month I had the opportunity to speak to key selected leaders in a large Catholic healthcare network. I felt blessed to have the opportunity. But I knew it would last only two hours, so I had to hone in quickly on what mattered most about The Catholic Vision for Leading Like Jesus.
I decided to develop a list of “core principles” that are absolutely inherent in the notion of Leading Like Jesus. After a good bit of prayer and thought, I came up with nine principles that you might want to take with you on your leadership journeys in 2018.
1. Leadership begins on the inside – For all the talk in popular culture about “personal charisma,” projecting an “aurora of leadership” and all the externals that allegedly embody good leadership, the fact is that truly effective Jesus-like Leadership begins on the inside – in the heart. To be an effective leader, you have to develop the heart of a servant. Jesus makes that clear, but so does all sorts of empirical evidence that has nothing to do with religious faith. If you do not cultivate the heart of a servant, you will never achieve your potential as a leader in any context at any scale, from a simple friendship to leading a multinational corporation.
2. All of us are leaders some of the time – Leadership is an influence process. Anytime we try to influence another, we are trying to lead. A toddler using the remote to bring Mickey Mouse up on the TV is trying to be a leader. Many times we influence others – for good or bad -- even when we are not aware of it. Thus, leadership is not a choice; it’s inevitable. Our only choice is what kind of leader we will be – a good, effective one or a poor one. Will we help people grow and develop or will we stifle or intimidate them? Will we bring them closer to Jesus ... or drive them away? Choose to be a good, effective leader who draws people to Jesus and the fullness of their God-given gifts.
3. Leadership is about relationships, not structure – Yes, it’s true that some people have leadership positions in organizations and others do not. But empirical evidence confirms that positional leadership by itself is not very influential in achieving lasting, valuable outcomes in any organization. When it comes to influencing others, what matters much more – and is essential to effective leadership – are the relationships that develop in human interaction, from a family to a megacorporation. The trust that develops in healthy, mutually beneficial relationships is both the glue that holds organizations together and the grease that permits rapid, healthy interactions among a group’s members. When relational and positional leadership factors are aligned, organizations can achieve incredible outcomes.
4. Jesus is the best leadership teacher and role model of all time – We all look for good examples, good models, to help us grow and navigate the world. That’s especially true in college business courses, where “case studies” are frequently used to illustrate important principles of effective – and ineffective – organizational behavior. Fortunately, the world is full of good, effective leaders to serve as models for us. Unfortunately, none of them are perfect. And some of them who look brilliant in one moment can turn out to be goats in the next. As a result, it’s easy to become disillusioned. But Jesus is like no other role model. He is perfect, as one would expect from the Son of God. If we want to learn how to become the very best leader we can possibly be, we should learn from the Master.
5. S1: Servant Leadership means it’s not about me – With the gift of self-awareness comes awareness of our own vulnerability. Who is going to look out for me? It doesn’t take a lot of hurt or disappointment to make that our central concern in life – even if we’re not fully aware of it. It’s hard to ignore the question: What’s in it for me? But the very best leaders are able to put a common mission ahead of self-interest. Jesus made it clear that his primary mission was serving his Father. He wanted that to be our primary mission too. That’s not easy. But once we become sufficiently aware of how much God loves us, we can trust our welfare to Him and focus on leading like Jesus did – putting God first and loving our neighbor as ourselves.
6. S2: Steward Leadership means it’s not mine -- One of the very first words many children say is “Mine!” Even as we barely begin to grow in self-awareness, we are staking out the world around us and deciding what it is that belongs to us and us alone. Sharing is not something that comes naturally to us. No doubt we find security in being able to claim parts of the material world and exercise our control over them without regard for anyone else. There’s an ironic and important lesson in a toddler’s first claim of “Mine.” Everything they claim as their own came to them as a gift. So it is with us all through our lives. Everything we have is a gift. Even if we bought it ourselves with money we earned, at a deeper level it is always a gift. We couldn’t buy it if someone else didn’t make it. We couldn’t earn the money if someone hadn’t given us an opportunity. We couldn’t earn or buy anything if God hadn’t given us life and sufficient health. Ultimately, everything is a gift from God – on loan for us to use for the common good.
7. S3: Shepherd Leadership means people are precious -- Jesus said we should love our neighbors as ourselves. That’s a tall order because the natural urge is to look out for ourselves. But parents, for example, know what it means to love a child so much that you would gladly give your life to spare theirs. It’s not likely most of us are willing or able to do that for anyone and everyone. But we are challenged to keep trying. And, in any event, when we interact with others we are actually interacting with their Creator. As Jesus said, “whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Mat. 25:40). We can’t always be indulging people – indeed, we shouldn’t try. But no matter what the circumstances, we can – and should -- treat them with respect and accord them their God-given dignity.
8. Organizations are organisms (open, living systems), not mechanisms – Jesus compared his relationship to himself and his followers as one of vine to its branches. St. Paul described the Christian community as “the body of Christ.” There are two key dimensions of living organisms that are true of any organization: they require diversity to have life and they require feedback to sustain life. For a helpful primer on this, read 1 Cor. 12:4 to 13:13. In trying to understand the dynamics of any organization, from a simple friendship to a multinational corporation, look to biological processes and metaphors, not mechanical ones.
9. The human individual is a social phenomenon – In the Western World, we are radically individualistic. We tend to reflect the thinking of René Descartes: “I think, therefore I am.” René needed a lesson in sex education. His thinking had nothing to do with his being here. Under normal biological circumstances, it takes two to make one. René was the biological product of his parents. He also owes them – and others – much, much more when it came to his identity and personality. One irony of American life today is that as we learn more and more about how the human individual is a social phenomenon, we assume more and more that we each virtually create ourselves. When I hear someone brag that they’re a “self-made man,” I step back – because I know something as basic as control over our bladder and bowel is a socially learned behavior. If someone doesn’t teach us, we will never learn it. A truly “self-made man” would not be trustworthy when it comes to controlling either his bowel or his bladder. True, we are individuals and we are learning more and more about our unique genomes – and it’s fascinating! But even our ability to learn by reading and asking questions are socially-derived skills. If it weren’t for others, we could not be who we become. Thus, we should be grateful ... and we should express that gratitude in generosity.
I hope these principles prove helpful in marking your way in your 2018 leadership journeys. Here’s to more growth and development – all grace -- for you in the year ahead. May God continue to bless you in the year ahead ... and for as long as you draw breath.