Raymond L. Wheeler, DMin

Musings about leadership


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Ethics – its not just a theory


Introduction – What Comprises a Theology of Ethics?

man hugging a woman wearing black tank top

Living an integrated faith

It is easy for ethical models to be disconnected from real life. James McClendon is one of many who have worked on creating ethical models that exercise a theology of ethical decision-making. McClendon (1986) writes that to be truly distinctive as Christian ethics – talking about morality must correlate with the fact that we are “. . . (1) part of the natural order, organic beings, bodies in an organic continuum, God’s natural creation; but also (2) part of a social world that is constituted first by the corporate nature of Christian existence, the church, and thereby our share in human society, God’s social creation, as well; and (3) part of an eschatological realm, the kingdom of God, the ‘new world’ (καινή κτίσις) established by God’s resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead.”[1]

McClendon summarizes these three strands as:[2]

  • body– we live in a body and so its desires and needs are not in themselves a problem but a blessing and a way to interface with our surroundings.
  • social – life finds meaning both in its connection to others and ultimately in our share in Christ’s story
  • resurrection – makes it inescapably clear that the story is to be marked with incalculable surprises. It summons us to a deeper engagement with our context not on the basis of known rules but on an eschatological basis that looks for the work of God’s promise that is unconfined by the way things appear to be.

In thinking through his theology, McClendon seeks to avoid a compartmentalized view of ethical thinking that often characterizes the way Christians behave ethically. Hence his efforts at explaining the interconnectedness of body, social, and resurrection realities in ethical thinking. He reinforces his project noting that:

…Paul was not willing to reduce Christian ethics to the third strand by denying the contributions of nature and of the storied community to the Christian situation – he was not willing to reject strands one and two in order to capitalize on the Christian strand.[3](258)

McClendon desires a theology on ethics to serve as a mirror that can confront the church with her potential convictions to ask whether she recognizes herself as she must be rather than how she is. In reading the case below, keep this challenge in mind. How would you answer the question raised by my former student? In what ways does my answer keep the recognition of how the church can be in body, social, and resurrection perspectives rather than simply recognizing how the Church is? What changes would you make to my answer? What aspects of the question did I not address?

The Case

Dr. Wheeler,

Sorry to reach out suddenly but I got some serious question that I just don’t know how to answer. A Friend of mine recently came to me and told me that his close friend (of whom he had feeling for but never expressed and grew into a brother sister love) came to him and asked him to sponsor her; meaning to marry her for papers. I don’t know how to answer this.[4]

He says that he’s only considering it because he wants to help her. He feels that as long as it’s done through city hall that he wouldn’t feel like it’s done officially under God and maybe they might grow to love each other seeing as they are close and if not he’s ok with it.

What are your opinions?

I feel that a marriage is a marriage and if he goes with it it’s under God. So, divorce shouldn’t even be an option, but I don’t know.

All feedback is very appreciated on this delicate subject.

Jerry.

An Analysis

Jerry,

Your friend is working under a false premise. An agreement founded on fraud Is fraught with multiple challenges.

First, he must lie to immigration about the true status of his relationship with his friend. The act is illegal designed to serve no good purpose. It can’t be justified in any ethical model.

Second, he must lie to himself by justifying his action – here by what you shared, his justification is the possibility of a healthy relationship. The odds are slim that a healthy relationship can be built on such a flimsy foundation. How does one build a foundation for the transparency, vulnerability, and repentance needed to build intimacy by working to maintain a lie?

Third he must lie to his friend. Does he desire sexual intimacy, emotional intimacy, and spiritual intimacy with his wife? Has he explained this desire to his friend? Or is he willing to forego sexual, emotional, and spiritual intimacy for the sake of her ambition? If he simply goes along with the plan he is lying to her. Or worse, will they simply hook up out of convenience? In this case they not only lie to one another about what they want, they violate a true covenant of marriage by passing off physical intimacy as irrelevant because they weren’t really married. Paul warned the Thessalonians against this kind of violation of others.

Fourth he must lie to his family or involve them in his deception. Either choice is a moral lapse.

Fifth, he must lie to the church by either declaring he is married or denying it.

Sixth, and most seriously, he must lie to God. His rationale that a civil marriage is not a real marriage before God is the first lie. How does one justify violation of law, family, friends, or the church?

So, agreeing to this action is illegal, he puts his own status at risk as well as hers. The act is unethical in that it is filled with deceit that only has caustic consequences in all his relationships not just the direct relationship with his friend.

So, I agree with your assessment – the idea isn’t just bad, it is spiritually, morally, and relationally destructive.

Ray

Conclusion

Why is ethical/theological reflection so important? McClendon cuts to the chase in his question of whether the church she recognizes herself as she must be rather than how she is. The absence of ethical reflection and action by the church yields behaviors that contradict the hope and the message of the church and this results in behaviors that are destructive and toxic. The community around us has no reason to consider the hope of the good news found in Jesus Christ if there is functionally little or no difference between our behavior and the behavior of anyone else.

The questions and issues I raised in writing my former student are not exhaustive. There are certainly other questions that are theologically appropriate to ask. There are other ethical models that would ask completely different questions e.g., individual utilitarianism. However, the context of the question arose in the behavior of the church and as such demands an approach that considers the issues raised by McClendon.

How well have you thought through your ethical model?

[1] James Wm. McClendon, Jr. Ethics: Systematic Theology Volume 1. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1986, 66.

[2] McClendon 231-232.

[3] Idib 258

[4] In case this is not clear, this is a request rooted in the process of immigration.

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Are You a High-Capacity or High-Activity Leader?


iStock_000056636476_LargeI sat with friends of mine, both of whom are highly capable leaders in an international non-profit organization. Over the course of our conversation, they described their weariness and exhaustion as it relates to the demands of their current assignment. I listened to their story and noted that they danced around the subject of their director. They were careful to express their respect for their director whom they described as a high-capacity leader. What intrigued me in the conversation was the mixed messages I heard. On the one hand, they expressed frustration with their director over his consistent micro-management and unfinished initiatives. Every couple of weeks seemed to render a new “strategic” initiative that demanded everyone’s attention. Each new initiative had little connection to the one before it and never took into account the expenditure of financial and human resources needed to accomplish it. I could not make out a grand plan or objective in any of the initiatives they described.  On the other hand, they praised his high capacity for vision and initiative. They spoke in lofty terms about how he worked on a minimum of three devices at once and endured a grueling seven day a week schedule. They described him as warm and caring and committed. Then they described him as manipulative and domineering.

I began to ask what made this person a high-capacity leader in their minds. They described him as a man who:

  • Possesses high energy that engages a wide scope of tasks and generates a never-ending list of assignments and expectations for his team. He texts each of them numerous times every hour and after hours with ideas and assignments.
  • Demonstrates low awareness of other’s emotional needs. In fact, they described a person who minimizes others’ feelings and the challenges they face.
  • Exhibits a highly imaginative yet episodic vision casting. They described an imagination that bordered on fantasy – ideas were disconnected from the context and the challenges inherent in them.
  • Generates a trail of burned out senior leaders who leave the organization disillusioned and hurt.
  • Engenders high turnover among junior staff and leaders.
  • Manipulates calls to action through questions of loyalty frequently expressed in the question, “Will you support me?”
  • Task focused recruitment filling existing jobs and seeing people through the lens of their task contribution rather than their entire contribution to the organization.
  • Creates a culture of shame and guilt.
  • Is a gifted communicator.
  • Rarely debriefs with his senior staff and when this does occur it is expressed with minimal transparency.
  • Exercises defensive reasoning – problems and consequences are not his responsibility, instead, blame is assigned to staff and the quality of their loyalty.
  • Episodically warm and affirming – when he is not demanding performance and loyalty.
  • Has lost connection to his wife and family.

As we talked I wrote out the list above and then read it back to my friends.

“Oh no,” they said, “he is a godly spirit-filled man. One of the highest capacity leaders we have ever met.”

“Do you mean high capacity or high activity?” I asked. “The two are not the same” I suggested.

One of the most damaging kinds of leaders I come across is high-activity leaders who mistakenly assume that the more tasks they generate the more leader-like they appear. This kind of leader assumes that long hours are the same as effectiveness in leading. They expect others to work like they do and to be constantly available for the leader’s needs. I suggested to my friends that their director was in fact addicted to his own adrenaline and that the cost to their organization would not only be the talent drain they described but the woundedness the organization would ultimately generate when people saw outcomes that contradicted the mission of the organization.

“Let me contrast a high-capacity leader for you,” I said. “If capacity is the ability and power to do or understand something, then a high-capacity leader is a person who assists her organization in accomplishing a greater scope of outcomes that align with the mission of the organization. The high-capacity leaders I know have the impact of not only increasing outcomes but also of attracting greater resources.”

I started writing out the following list of characteristics I’d observed in high-capacity leaders:

  • A strategic focus on the kinds of tasks that must be engaged to achieve the desired outcomes. A high-capacity leader defines delegation and exhibits energy management. They have an enormous capacity for output that they follow-up with time for rejuvenation and they make room for both output and rejuvenation in all their team.
  • They demonstrate self-awareness in their emotions, self-confidence, and self-assessment and they exhibit social awareness in consideration of others’ emotional well-being.
  • They are highly imaginative and ground their imagination with a thorough awareness of the facts of their situation. They don’t deny challenges they recognize them and help their team generate strategies to address them.
  • They bring focus and inspirational purpose to their organization.
  • They have a history of producing high-capacity talent around them. This is in part a function of recruitment and more a deliberate investment in the capabilities and development of others. They attract the best and they openly appreciate them.
  • Their teams are characterized by low turnover and deliberate turnover. By that I mean they routinely give up their best people to take wider responsibilities in the organization.
  • They are motivational – they know what their people’s personal goals and ambitions are and they have a knack for integrating those ambitions into the organization’s objectives.
  • They are people focused when recruiting – they know that if they get the right people the tasks of the organization will be maximized creatively.
  • They develop a learning culture in which people are not afraid to make mistakes and take a risk.
  • They routinely debrief with their staff engaging them in a broader analysis of the organization and its context. Transparency is king for this leader because he wants his team to know the score.
  • They may not be a warm person but they are consistently appreciative of others and recognize jobs well done.
  • Their families are intact – they tend to have long-term marriages and share abiding intimacy with their spouse.

“Hmm,” my friends pondered my list and the contrast to the characteristics they described in their director. “We never saw this before,” they finally uttered.

I put the two lists side by side and the contrast between a high-task and a high-capacity leader jumped off the page.

“I’m not sure your definitions are reliable,” they suggested.

“I am open to rearranging the list and changing definitions,” I responded. “However, let’s start with outcomes, do you disagree in the outcomes I have listed for a high-task leader in that they damage their family, exhibit high turn-over, are abandoned by disillusioned senior leaders?” I queried.

“No,” they responded, “when we look at our director’s life and outcomes we can’t disagree with the description.”

The question that resonated with my friends was what kind of leader they would choose to be and whether there was a way to help their director see the contrast. Change, especially where high-task leaders have framed their identity around what they do rather than who they are, is difficult. It is part of what drives them to reaffirm their identity by adding more tasks. The sad part is that they often don’t see how toxic they have become to those around them.

What question resonates in your mind? Are you a high-capacity leader? Or, have you somehow exchanged true effectiveness for busy-work?  Look honestly at the outcomes your life is generating – what do you see?


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Engage Diverse Populations – Be a Learner


Engaging diverse populations in the church both locally and globally predictably generates conflict. This is true from the first day of the church’s existence in Acts and remains so to this day. “In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.” (Acts 6:1 NIV) Such conflict arises out of competing loyalties, divergent assumptions, and contending values. Hence, I engage diverse populations with three primary commitments.

First, I have a commitment to remain present and curious. It is easy to withdraw at the first tension felt in engaging cultures that differ or even regional differences within the same culture. I have learned along the way to take a deep breath and stay in the discomfort long enough to learn what the other’s perspective is. Routinely I enter such situations, whether the classroom, a local congregation, or denominational or organizational governance body with a verbal commitment to be a learner. Typically the statement sounds something like this, “I see that we come to this meeting (or class) from a variety of perspectives. Given that, I make two commitments to you. First, I will be as clear as possible in my communication, please ask questions if I am unclear. Second, when it comes to understanding cultural or gender differences that exist between us I am your student. I can only know your perspective if you teach me. So, if I offend you, it is not intentional. It is ignorance that only you can help me understand and be aware of.”

Second, I have a commitment to recognize and encourage the capacity of the group I am meeting with to address their context and think through their challenges and solutions as a facilitator not a dictator. The apostles asked the Hellenistic Jews to identify their solution givers. The apostles did not select the deacons. They did provide a parameter that got the process of selection and then solution development going. Likewise in facing diverse populations I attempt to limit my input to helpful parameters or possibilities that the group must work through using their own assumptions, values, and allegiances. Assuming the capacity and capability of the group to engage the realities of the gospel in the context of their frame of reference works similarly to The Pygmalion Effect – the group rises to the occasion of my belief in them.

Third, and this is where I have experienced the best bonding and trust, I eat with them. It sounds amazingly simple – and it is. When I demonstrate respect for their culture by eating their food I join their social/familial network. I was once invited by my Pakistani neighbor to enjoy a meal with him and his family, all of whom were visiting from Pakistan. I faced predictable scrutiny and suspicion as a Christian among Muslims. Other than my host, everyone was very reserved until I dished up a serving of every course. I sat with the men who waited to see my response to the spiciest yogurt like dish. I took a big scoop with bread and meat (as I had seen them do) while an audible gasp rushed across the room. I opened my mouth popped the mixture in and munched with a smile of delight. The room broke into applause, smiles, and conversations started from every direction. 

The church is always diverse where people live out authentic faith – encountering cultural and ethnic diversity is unavoidable around the God who loves the world. Perhaps the best overall advise? Be child-like in your approach to learning. You don’t have to “have it all together.” You just have to be easily approachable and engaging.


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A theology of leadership: it always has a cultural context


cropped-addis-ababa-week-1-0581.jpgWhen thinking about leadership through a theological lens it helps to be aware of the impact of one’s worldview on the process. We don’t think in a vacuum but in the context of the values, allegiances, and assumptions that make up the core of our worldview. So, approaching a theological reflection on what constitutes leadership is a process that requires both self-awareness and humility.

A culture’s view of power distance, certainty/uncertainty, masculinity/femininity, time orientation, and individualism/collectivism represent the factors that make up cultural constructs of what constitutes leadership.[1] These cultural factors are implicit. A practical theology of leadership recognizes (1) the cultural differences that go into defining what appropriate leadership looks like and (2) the dissonance in perspective that is certain to follow the transformative work of the gospel. This transformative work in collaborating across worldviews works both ways necessitating the need for a strong self-awareness and willingness to learn about and from others prior to making generalizations about leadership effectiveness or ineffectiveness.

The New Testament often utilizes metaphors to lay a foundation for defining leadership. Peter, for example, writes, “I exhort the elders among you to tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it – not for sordid gain but eagerly. Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock.” (1 Peter 5:1-3 NIV)

The use of the shepherd metaphor quickly identifies leadership as a servant role. Sure, a shepherd is in charge of sheep but her primary assignment is the care of sheep. Peter draws a picture that can challenge or affirm cultural factors that define leadership.

Some cultures maintain a strict hierarchical relationship or high power distance between follower and leader. Peter doesn’t argue the extent to which leaders and followers should relate in a peer or subordinate/superior relationship. He does insist that leaders not repress or deride their followers. I can walk onto a Korean campus and observe congregants bowing to their pastor. Is this appropriate from my cultural perspective? No, it’s surprising – even off-putting. However, in paying attention to the relationship I see the deep care and respect that is mutually given in this act. At issue isn’t the form but the transformation of values that inform the form.

Femininity/masculinity is also addressed. Who should lead? Can women lead men? The imagery of a shepherd is not restricted to male or female. Even in the Bible cultures varied in whether men or women cared for sheep. The point is that the imagery of Peter plays well to either male or female leadership roles and calls for the same approach to servant leadership in submission to God.

Good practical theology utilizes imagery as a starting point for insight amplified through cultural lenses that are both sufficient and incomplete. When cultures, even distinctly different cultures, approach the scripture with a heart to learning (the essence of discipleship), both can learn from the other and both will experience the affirmation and challenge of their cultural assumptions.

[1] Geert Hofstede. Culture’s Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions, and Organizations Across Nations 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, 2001


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How the nature of relationship intersects with the organizational structure found in the local church


customersIt isn’t uncommon today to find remnants of the mindset of the industrial revolution in how the church thinks about structure. The mechanistic assumptions so predominate in business and non-commercial structures throughout the 20th century often seeped their way into church governance here in the west in the adoption of a corporate organizational authentication for tax purposes.  The emergence of the church growth movement contributed to this same mechanistic set of assumptions in that it often uncritically adopted effectiveness driven assumptions that placed relationships in a subordinate position to growth and self-preservation in the church. This propensity to mechanize organizational structures to gain efficiency and effectiveness fall short in that they stumble over the reality that people are involved. One business writer commented that a well-known shoe company’s heavy investment in TQM was undone by one guy in the order fulfillment department who purposely stuffed two right foot shoes or two left foot shoes in a single box. When asked why he was doing this he responded that his manager had treated him poorly and his actions were revenge because his manager’s bonus depended on consistently accurate order fulfillment.

Similarly, church leaders can tell their own stories about how one person’s or pastor’s vindictiveness held the entire organizational structure of a congregation hostage and leveraged a mechanistic structure to redefine reality or expectations of what the community of the church should be.

What makes the church so unique is that Jesus set the cornerstone of the church’s structure firmly in healthy relationships. Jesus said, “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.” (John 15:8-10)

Jesus outlines the task (remain in love) and the outcome (bear fruit) that make up the parameters of the church’s organization. Based on what Jesus modeled, love (or the organizational structure of the local congregation) is characterized by truth-telling, forgiveness, support, instruction, insight, inquiry, missional focus, and developmental bias. Love is not an afterthought or optional component to the relationships Jesus expected of the disciples as they continued his ministry. Love and its characteristics are the core feature that determines the legitimacy of the church.

Relationships are not an intersection in the organizational structure of the church they are the constituting frame that allows for the diversity of gifting, outcomes, and methods inherent in the works of God operating through the church. Relationships define the church’s purpose and its method. For example: does the organization accept responsibility i.e., bear fruit as outlined in Luke 4:18-19? Does the organization evaluate its context and behavior with truthfulness? Does the organization generate restored relationships, maturing behavior, continuous insight into what God is doing? If relationships serve only to intersect with a structure that is built on some other foundation (e.g., mechanistic) then relationship fails to be the nucleus and becomes a secondary add-on that is not elemental to effective and efficient operational systems. Organizational structures that push relationships to a secondary status inevitably become toxic and a contradiction to missio Dei.

So, how do you functionally define the structure of your congregation? Perhaps it’s time to sit with your leadership team and review what makes the structure of your congregation really tick.


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How does the nature of God shape our work?


downloadTheological propositions and discussion are often seem detached from the work-a-day world in the way we think. That doesn’t mean however that theological thinking is irrelevant to our day to day existence.  Consider the doctrine of the Trinity.  Work that reflects the nature and agenda of God, is shaped by the wholeness, uniqueness, oneness, and clarity of God’s triune nature. God’s triune nature, evident from the opening pages of the scripture, serves as a tutorial for one’s personal identity and expectations for how ministry should work and the collective identity of the local expression of the church.

Personal identity is that foundation from which all of us serve. How we see ourselves, understand our own nature, and define our strengths is the essence of our definition of ministry. Our nature reflects the triune nature of God in that we exist as corporeal creatures that can reason and think about transcendence in purpose and meaning. Starting from the Trinitarian nature of God who exists without self-contradiction is a far better beginning for self-understanding than the dualism our culture inherited from the Greeks. The challenge of a dualistic approach is the denigration of rather than engagement of our corporeal existence. Evangelicals have wrestled long and hard about how to live in a body and maintain a sense of holiness and wholeness – but they wrestled with the idea of separateness or contradiction rather than integration. That God took the form of a human in Christ and lived in a way that flourished in a relationship with God and others models an integrated way of thinking about self. Being human, Jesus lived with all of the drives, hormones, distractions, temptations, and limitations of a corporeal existence. It remains then for us to accept that the body is not an albatross hanging around the neck of our spirituality but the foundation that gives us the capacity for relationship, interaction, and moral reasoning in the quest of meeting the needs of the body.

Expectations for how ministry should work are seen in Christ who modeled humanness filled with the Spirit of God. Foundationally ministry in Jesus’ model is responsive, “Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise.” (John 5:19 NIV) We are not called upon to do God’s work solely with the strength, abilities, and drives of our corporeal existence. We are called upon to participate with God in the power of God’s being in a new relationship with the Holy Spirit. The agenda and the capability to impact humankind at its deepest and noblest level is God’s. Here ministry becomes an adventure of response to God the Holy Spirit that simultaneously confronts the powers that imprison the human condition to servitude and unleashes wholeness that washes over people physically, mentally, and spiritually.  We are those who are truly alive. We are also truly present with God and with others. We see God’s works, we see others. The combination is transformative.  The capability to engage this relationship is the gift of the Holy Spirit.

In the triune nature of God, we also have a model for how the collective identity of the local church can function in its variety of gifts, a variety of ways to serve, and a variety of operations. The fundamental declaration of the Trinity is, “Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is one!” (Deuteronomy 6:4 NASB) This unity that finds no room for competition, one-upmanship, or withdrawal is the eschatological summons of the local church to live out its fullness in the gifts inherent in its members. We are diverse in gifting, service, and effect but one body. Moving as one has the potential of impact on our world that a diffused or contending intramural existence can never have.

The Trinity shapes our sense of identity, our sense of capacity, and our sense of belonging and interdependence. To the extent, we engage the Triune nature of God in vulnerable repentance and obedience the church emerges as a holistic expression of God’s love and power. To the extent we ignore or diminish the triune nature of God we become irrelevant – just another player in the field of our pluralistic society that has just another truth claim without power.


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Leading is an act of reconciliation – or it should be


web version(An excerpt from the book, Change the Paradigm: How to lead like Jesus in Today’s World. Copyright 2015 by Raymond L. Wheeler. Used with Permission)

We sat around tables set up in a conference arrangement, and Professor Elizabeth Conde-Frazier sat just to my right. She paused long enough for me to rest from typing my notes. I realized after some moments that she was not going to restart her lecture immediately. I stretched my hands, repositioned them over the keyboard of my computer, and then glanced around the room. Every eye was aimed my direction. I turned to look at Dr. Conde-Frazier and caught a penetrating gaze. When our eyes met she inquired, “Why are you here?”

The question itself did not strike me as odd for two reasons. First, as a master teacher, she modeled a powerful and effective teaching style. She was a master at transitioning from content to dynamic reflection that refocused and honed our personal experience.

Second, as a middle-aged white guy in a culturally and gender diverse institution I often betrayed my own biases and upper middle class, suburban, and theologically conservative assumptions in my comments. This usually engendered a torrent of commentary from my academic peers on the evils of social privilege. A litany of historical references to abuse by those who held power and privilege often morphed into personal stories of marginalization or worse. I learned to listen to these stories as a process of education and reconciliation. I was, after all, a token representation of everything that social privilege represented in its best and its worst.

Power is not easy to possess when it is realized. The call to service Jesus gives makes power highly inconvenient. I would rather argue that it was not I who engaged in the kinds of social abuse described by my peers. However, as a leader I represent power and privilege—all leaders do. I did not grow up in poverty. I lived on the good side of town, and my parents remained married to one another throughout their lives. My upbringing was different from many of those in the classroom. I did not have to dodge gangs or violence each day growing up. I did not go hungry. I attended good schools and my parents could afford medical care. I was exposed to a great deal of cultural diversity as the son of a college professor. But the diversity I saw was sanitized—I saw it without its context. So, diversity was simply a curiosity—a distraction from the usual. I did not understand the experiences represented in the diversity I saw. Compared to so many others the word “privileged” does apply to me.

“I am not sure of the context of your question,” I responded.

“Why are you here,” she repeated with the same penetrating gaze. “Are you here to add to your social power and status through the acquisition of a doctorate or are you here to learn to serve?”

The question framed a tension that is common in a learning process and is common in engaging Christ. Is the acquisition or possession of social power de facto a contradiction of service? The inference beneath the frequently prickly comments of some of my academic peers in the program affirmed that many thought privilege and service were mutually exclusive. Many of them had suffered at the hand of social and ethnic prejudice. They arrived in this class by indefatigable persistence against all odds. Admittedly I did not understand the hurdles they had to cross to be there.

Clearly, a danger exists in the pursuit of power or added social currency. Blind pursuit of power leaves a wake of wrecked hopes and lives callously dismissed as mere collateral damage in the pursuit of ambition. But even if a person is not pursuing blind ambition the dilemma of injuring others while on the quest for justice does not go unnoticed by those hurt by the exercise of good intentions. A group of graduate students in Kenya helped me understand the damage of activism with good intentions. As we discussed ethics in leadership and the idea of reconciliation and justice, they pointed out that they did not object to justice. They objected to the way others defined justice for them. “We have a proverb here,” one of them stated. “When elephants make love, the grass gets crushed, and when elephants fight, the grass gets crushed.” From the perspective of the grass, the issue is not whether elephants fight or make love—the issue is that the elephants are unaware of the grass in the first place.

Leadership is complex. Effective leaders, those who know how to move people to work together toward specific objectives with passion and excellence, know that leadership requires more than style, skill, tools, experience, or power. Servant leadership works because of its underlying set of convictions about people, power, organizations, and success. For many it does not matter if the intentions of a leader are good or bad they still get crushed in the leader’s pursuit of success.

This reality is why defining servant leadership in the context of a leader’s life, work, organizational structure, spiritual development, and commitment to develop others is so important.