Hi there readers of SC Letters. These days we hear and read a great abundance of material on the subject of "Leadership." Well, here’s a different aspect of leadership that we need to give attention to even when our leadership is temporary an appears very insignificant.
You can read it in four minutes, but it can bless you for 40 years!
Four lessons from a reluctant leader
Shirley A. Mullen
I came to leadership reluctantly. In fact, I have never thought of myself as a "leader." Yet for the past 10 years, I have found myself in various positions of leadership, first as provost and now as a college president. I've had to learn about leadership as I go. My thoughts on the topic, then, are very much lessons of the road.
I've observed that the call to leadership is often closely linked to particular communities and particular tasks. It does not just come to people who think of themselves as leaders, or to those who have taken classes in "leadership training." Each of us should be prepared for moments when the needs of our communities invite us to consider stepping into leadership roles for certain seasons.
Leadership is never about us, or at least it is never only about us. It is about being willing to step up and serve when our communities' needs intersect with our own abilities and gifts. God may call some people to be leaders and to think of themselves as such. But Scripture reminds us that the call to leadership is just as often a surprise to those who are called. I think of Moses, of Jeremiah, and of Gideon. In short, when God calls us to lead—directly, or through our communities—we need to be listening and willing to obey.
The call to leadership is always a call to stewardship. It is a call to care for a treasure that has been placed in our trust—but a treasure that belongs to someone else. We must be clear on the range of stakeholders involved in any situation in which we are called to lead as well as the history, the memories, and the hopes that swirl around that situation. Leaders come and go. Our call is to care for our institutions or communities for the sake of those who will need them to be effective long after we are gone.
Leadership is always a call to increasing vulnerability. Part of that vulnerability comes from opening ourselves to a wide range of expectations—often conflicting ones—about how we ought to exercise our leadership. We are also made vulnerable by realities outside our control, by things that will affect the outcome and impact of our decisions. We are subject to the judgments of those outside the situation and people who will even judge us after we leave, as if we had full control and full knowledge of all variables while in the situation. Occasionally, based on this same principle, we will get more credit than we deserve for positive outcomes. But this high degree of vulnerability means leadership is a call to submission and humility. It is a call to give of ourselves, faithfully, to the very best of our ability, and then, as the Swedish statesman Dag Hammarskjöld put it, to "give others the right to judge."
The call to leadership is ultimately a call to make our entire selves available for God's use. Both our strengths and our weaknesses are in his hands, and he gets to choose on any given day which is most useful for his purposes. We tend to think that God is more interested in using our strengths. But it is in our weakness that he is most able to remind us that leadership is not something that we do alone. It is always a team effort. Furthermore, it is in our weakness that we are most aware of our need for the Holy Spirit to give us wisdom, clear vision, and the courage to act out of conviction rather than expedience.
"Leadership" is a heady word these days. There are reams of books on how to do it successfully. Colleges and universities offer programs in "leadership." I have seen first-year students in tears because they did not make it into the "leadership track," thinking that somehow they would then be forever deprived of opportunities to lead. But I've noted that the word leadership does not appear in my concordance. I tend to think that the Lord calls us not to "leadership" as a lifetime call, but to faithfulness in particular moments as part of the larger work of Divine Artisanship in which he works on us, even as he calls us to good works. As Paul put this in Ephesians 2, "We are his workmanship created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God has prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them." Leadership is one of those arenas through which he works on us, bringing us into conformity to the image of his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, even as we seek to carry out the particular good works of leadership to which he calls us.
Shirley A. Mullen (PhD) is president of Houghton College in Houghton, New York. A speaker, professor, and author, Mullen is the first woman president in Houghton's history.
This article first appeared in the Winter 2011 issue of Focus, a publication of Fuller Theological Seminary.
Copyright © 2012 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.