Leadership for Dark Days

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Leadership for Dark Days

July 20, 2016 -

Ronald Heifetz’s best-known book on leadership is titled Leadership without Easy Answers. He wrote it in 1994, but twenty-two years later its title couldn’t be a more accurate description of the problems confronting our society. We are facing massive leadership challenges that have no simple answer, no quick fix. We have a “fractured republic,” as Yuval Levin describes in his new book.

Heifetz argues that leaders need to confront the adaptive challenge of dealing with problems head-on, and one of the first priorities is to accurately understand what the problems are. Here are just a smattering of some of our greatest leadership challenges: racism, poverty, terrorism, purposelessness. Each one of these is full of complex causes and effects, and to address each, along with the host of others I didn’t mention, requires leadership that, frankly, many of us do not see in our present leaders.

We could consider some of the skills that leaders need to have in order to tackle these problems, but I’d rather discuss a component of leadership that does not receive enough attention. If it is discussed, it usually gets relegated to religious concerns or gets co-opted by political hucksters. I’m talking about hope.

My favorite passage in Isaiah is from chapter 43: “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” (43:18–19) It is the Old Testament version of what is echoed in Hebrews 10:23: “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.”

How do you lead with hope in dark days?

It begins with Max DePree’s famous statement that the “first task of a leader is to define reality.” We need leaders who can define the reality of our hope in Christ. For that, we need leaders of deep faith in all sectors of society who live by hope, who believe that, yes, God is in fact “making all things new” (Revelation 21:5). Hope changes the way we lead in three significant ways.

First, it anchors our vision beyond what we can presently see. God is always at work even when we cannot see it. Second, it points beyond ourselves to Jesus as the true remedy for the poison that infects our society, our organizations, and our relationships. None of the leadership challenges we face will ever be solved solely through better laws or better behavior; they require a heart change, so we need leaders who can be like doctors in accurately diagnosing our problems and showing us where our cure lies—in Jesus. Third, hope changes the way we lead by providing us a wellspring of energy to continue the work we are called to even in the worst of conditions. It does that because we remember that we were designed to live and lead by the principle of the vine and branches in John 15.

Harkening back to Heifetz, we need to confront the greatest problems we see around us, but here’s where hope really takes root in our various roles of leadership: it remembers that small things make a massive difference. Hope calls us to view our lives as a living sacrifice to God, an opportunity to be poured out in love to those we live and serve with.

Kathleen Norris wrote an introduction to a recent edition of C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, describing his motivations in writing the manuscript: “He told friends that he had accepted the task because he believed that England, which had come to consider itself part of a “post-Christian” world, had never in fact been told in basic terms what the religion is about. Like Søren Kierkegaard before him and his contemporary Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Lewis seeks in Mere Christianity to help us see the religion with fresh eyes, as a radical faith whose adherents might be likened to an underground group gathering in a war zone, a place where evil seems to have the upper hand, to hear messages of hope from the other side.”

A few chapters before the Isaiah passage I referenced above are the following words: “But those who hope in the Lord shall renew their strength.” (40:31) Renew your hope in Christ, and your leadership will change for the better. So will our world.

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