Reflections on Leadership: Stay True To The Calling

Recently I had the great pleasure of speaking at two leadership conferences that got me to thinking about my own leadership as a calling.  As many of you know, I have been writing on the topic of women’s leadership since my first book, Leading Ladies, was published in 2000. My most recent book, Influence Starts with “I” focuses on developing the skill (or art) of influence –the power to effect change in people teams or organizations for the good of all.

These conferences were quite different. The first was a corporate women’s conference of about 150 women in the live audience and another 250 or so in the live-streamed audience. I led a half-day session on developing influence skills and then moderated a panel of executive women. The executive women were real, funny and insightful!

The second conference was a Christian leadership conference of a few hundred daytime attendees. This time I got to serve on the panel to share my experiences as a Christian leader who leads both in the church and in the marketplace. The title of this panel discussion was “Kingdom Champions.”

At the end of the corporate conference, a woman came to me and commented, “I really admire how you integrate your faith into your corporate work. I seem to struggle with doing that. How do you do it?” I never really thought I was doing anything extraordinary. I don’t preach to my corporate audiences and I don’t think I’ve ever used biblical language per se in my consulting or training. But I do know that the work I do on developing leaders, especially women and men color, is part of my calling.

Consequently, what I believe about leadership and teach are informed by my faith and I try to lead from those beliefs. And that’s where the Christian leadership conference came in. Clearly I never would have labelled myself a “Kingdom Champion.” But as I thought about the title and questions of that second conference, it occurred to me that if a champion is one who advances and advocates for a cause, then a kingdom champion is one who advocates and advances the cause of the kingdom of Christ. Christian leadership should transcend the four walls of the church and serve kingdom purposes in the marketplace, in schools, in community agencies, or in our homes.

And that’s where it might get sticky. The kingdom of Christ is not the church. The church is the community of faith guided by Christ, connected by the Holy Spirit gathered together for worship, discipleship, service and acts of justice. Yet, many of us are called to go beyond the church walls and out into the marketplace, school system, community agency, hospitals, and homes to literally be salt and light (Matthew 5:13- 14). Our professional careers have become the vehicles through which we live out our calling. Though I am also clergy, callings are not reserved just for pastors, preachers and bible teachers.

The kingdom, on the other hand, is this invisible or spiritual realm of God’s sovereign power that transcends the church and enables us to respond to the call of God broadly and passionately. The work and operation of the kingdom is not limited to functioning only in the church. In fact, people of faith who are truly “kingdom-minded” often operate best outside of the four walls of the church. They are comfortable interacting with a diverse set of people who may not share their beliefs and practices, and they are committed to operating from a set or principles and values that reflect their faith.

I understand that the language of “kingdom” sounds strange to the ears of some people reared in democratic systems. Or that kingdom, for some, speaks of kingly (male) hierarchy and therefore they prefer “kindom” to represent a more interconnected sphere guided by God’s love love.

For me, whether you call it kingdom or kindom, it’s a realm where people of faith are guided by the Love of God and our leadership reflects certain core tenets of our faith, wherever we find our selves leading and interacting with others. Love is the key.

I believe leadership should emanate from who we are–the deepest places of our character. That doesn’t mean we are perfect leaders, but we should be authentic leaders. What we do as leaders should flow from who we are as leaders. Too often leaders are asked to conform to this cookie cutter mold, and leadership becomes a game of pretending or putting on a facade in order to fit in. Or leaders are so busy doing that they lose touch of their being. Being clear on one’s identity does allow one to lead with integrity in a variety of diverse contexts.

I gravitated toward the notion of influence as a leadership competency some fifteen years ago. It stuck with me because it’s a type of leadership for me that garners building “power-with” others in order to gain “power to” accomplish something greater. Too often traditional forms of leadership are about leaders holding sway over followers, sometimes explicitly, sometimes in more subtle ways. I truly believe influence is a means of getting things done without overpowering others.

In one of my workshops in the UK, a senior leader summed it up best as saying “influence is really a type of servant leadership.” That’s right! Influence is not a manipulative leadership to persuade people to my way of thinking, but a way of serving the greater good of the organizations and institutions that we all are a part of. And do you know why I say Influence starts with “I”? Because until you have a sense of your God-given self-hood, your core identity including your purpose and passions, you will never be able to truly effect change and influence with authenticity. You’ll be a copy of someone else’s image of leader not your own unique design, created in the image of God.

At the Christian leadership conference I described above, during my time on the panel, I argued for seeing kingdom work as part of God’s will for humanity. For me I get a glimpse of this diverse humanity in the biblical book of Revelation where people of every tribe, tongue and culture worship God. I shared a personal revelation that I received about the work that I do. I shared that I serve on the Board for a global Christian women’s organization dedicated to tearing down patriarchy–the systemic structures aimed at subjugating women. I emphatically proclaimed, “any time I am working to tear down patriarchy I am doing kingdom work.” That was a huge aha for me to be liberated from thinking doing this work could only happen in the church or when I was serving in an official clergy capacity.

After the session a male conference attendee came up to my book table to inquire as to whether or not he heard me correctly. He asked, “did you really say that you work to tear down patriarchy?” I hesitated, thinking this might be some type of trick question. I gave him a little side eye and said, “yes, I said that, why?” He was furious, exasperated with me, I suppose, he, fumed, “But men rule!.” Appalled, I literally dismissed him saying I have nothing else to say to you. He continued to talk, we debated but ultimately I got no where; nor did he. And may I add, he did not buy a book.

But here you have it. In one setting designed to empower women, a participant saw my work for gender justice as part of my faith walk. In another setting designed to empower Christians to live out our faith more broadly, a participant all but saw my work for gender justice as heretical to his theology of male superiority. I’m sure you know the old saying, “you can’t please everyone!” Staying true to your calling may mean upsetting some people, while motivating others. Staying true to the calling means staying faithful to the message, even when it is unpopular.

Staying true to the calling can be challenging. Shifting mindsets is tough work–sometimes there may be applause and most of the time there won’t be. You’ve got to do it anyway. That is really what true kingdom championing is about: in the face of opposition or unpopular opinions can you remain true to your calling? Can you and will you stay true to the values and principles that are foundational to your calling?

So now it’s your turn to reflect on your leadership. To what and to whom are you called? What informs and invigorates your leadership? What are the core values or principles that define your leadership? What are the contexts for your leadership? What passion or principles enable you to lead in multiple contexts?

Feel free to drop me reply or a note. I’d love to hear from you!


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