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Love and the crucible of leadership

Mark Cook is the program coordinator for the Institute for Global Engagement, a partnership between Denison Forum and Dallas Baptist University. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Dallas Baptist University, and completed his Masters of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School and Truett Seminary. His ministry background is college ministry, and he has served both on a church staff as well as within campus ministries.

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Hot metal. (Credit: Vitalli42 via Fotolia)

Valentine’s Day is close to a $20 billion dollar event. It has undoubtedly turned into just another chance for marketers to hawk their wares, but behind the colossal veneer of consumerism, this time of year still affords the opportunity to bring up the actual idea behind Valentine’s Day: love. While it may be enshrouded by layers of materiality and gushy sentiment, love’s place is still the very heartbeat of our lives.

We tend to distance ourselves and become uncomfortable when love and leadership are mentioned together, yet we know intuitively from experience that you must give yourself fully to something in order to see the full benefits. It’s why we have a hard time believing leaders like Jack Dorsey (who continues to try to be the CEO of both Twitter and Square at the same time) when they tell us they can succeed at both jobs. We know the importance of love, of single-minded devotion.

But love is a muddied concept these days. We are presented with love primarily as a feeling, and that is where the trouble begins. Love only conceived of through how it makes you feel is like hoping that a donut is all the food you need to get through a day. Love in its multiple dimensions is vibrant, demanding, and powerful. Let’s explore two principles of love that serve as the foundation for how we lead.

Love is Work

Sheldon Vanauken’s novel A Severe Mercy is one of the most powerful contemporary portraits of true love. Vanauken, when asked about what held such a deep and abiding love together for so long, answered simply: “We kept our love only because we worked at it.”

Think about the power of that statement. The depth of Vanauken’s love was not kept by sentimentality, but by painstaking work. The work of sacrifice, of asking for and extending forgiveness, of showing mercy, of being there every day.

When you think about where you work and who you lead, do you truly love them? It’s easy for anyone in leadership to get excited about material success, but Christian leadership demands an attention to the well-being of those being led. Jesus’s example to us is so powerful in this regard, because he lived daily with his disciples, literally giving them his life. Part of loving as a leader is confronting the difficulties and problems of your organization and your people honestly and directly, rather than shirking the responsibility or acting aloof.

Love is Fearless

1 John 4:18 declares, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” Most of our efforts as leaders begin with a feeling of fear. Think about when you were first given responsibility. While you may have felt confident, there was probably, at least in the back of your mind, a lingering fear of failure or inadequacy. Many leaders are never able to move past their fears, and end up leading from fear rather than love.

There is so much to be fearful about: being rejected by another person, especially by someone you love; a surprise diagnosis that sends your life in a completely different direction than you had anticipated; your organization’s future viability. But here is where we will grow the most as individuals and as leaders, if we will simply confront our fears and allow God’s love to do its amazing work in our hearts.

Peter Kreeft makes the astounding observation that helps us reframe how we think about our fears and failures: “If there is no fear for love to cast out, love falls on unprepared soil.” God’s perfect love, the more we give ourselves to Him in trust and obedience, begins to refine us, casting out our fear. But me must enter into the process of refinement. Opening our hearts to God and allowing him to heal us means being honest with him about our fears. As we submit to him, he shapes our hearts to be more like his, as Carolyn Weber explains in Holy is the Day:

“A silversmith must sit patiently and hold the metal to the fire with care. High temperatures volatize impurities in the metal and allow dross to come to the surface, so that it can be removed. But if the metal becomes too hot, the luster is destroyed. A skilled silversmith knows the purification is done when he can see his own image.”

Learning to lead with love is a process of refining. The more we dive into the heart of God, the more we will love those around us. We cannot simply try to lead with love in our own strength, because our wells will always run dry. But God’s love is eternal, ever-flowing. As we learn to be led by him, he will shape us to be more loving leaders.