There is nothing like a good crisis to throw the spotlight on leadership. The feeds of my digital subscriptions have all included a number of articles on “leading in challenging times” or variations on the theme. It is so often in times of pressure and uncertainty when people are most looking for leadership to provide a sense of security as much as sensible strategy—to help them feel safe as much as understand the plan.
As the leader of a relatively small (720 students, on-campus and online) but growing Christian school on the fringe of Sydney’s metro area that has grown during COVID-19, I thought it timely to share a few of my current reflections around leadership. Leadership guru John Maxwell defines leadership as influence—nothing more; nothing less. I understand his point. Anytime someone is contributing to a group or a team so that they are affecting the outcome or the process or the relationships of the team they are bearing influence and are, in that specific instance, leading. Putting it another way, if you are not affecting some change in the environment around you, you cannot be said to be “leading” in any meaningful sense of the term.
This also allows for the reality of someone “leading negatively.” This is not the same as leading poorly. Leading poorly might involve ineffective leadership—the inferior development or exhibition of the skills and capacities required to lead, resulting in having little influence. Rather, leading negatively allows for well-developed leadership skills and capacities being applied to bear great influence, but in a direction or to produce a result that is contrary to that which is desired. I would not be surprised if all of us at some time in our lives, in some context have been eyewitness and had first-hand experience of both.
Recently I heard another definition of leadership that has stayed with me, because it carries more of a perspective of good leadership. This presenter defined leadership as assuming responsibility for making sure the right things get done consistently. I like this definition. In referring to the “right things” it assumes a leader knowing deeply and discerningly the value system that can prioritize what needs to be done at any point in a group’s collective unfolding story, and can let go those things that aren’t right for that community or in that context. It’s not just about efficiency—getting the agreed-to things done (the things on the checklist)—it’s about discerning what is the thing that is most needful and getting that done. In noting that leadership assumes the responsibility for ensuring that those things get done consistently, it also implies more than just having a vision—it speaks to having a system of accountability that follows through and follows up.
As I have taken the forced opportunity presented by the current pandemic situation to consider my own leadership—my responses to the pressure, to the anxiety of others, to the pragmatic demands of managing resources and schedules—I have found myself reflecting on the leadership I am providing for my team and for my community. Are my colleagues and I focusing on completing the right tasks? Am I following through and following up in a way that honors both individual people and the shared purpose of our community?
Amidst these reflections I have found stimuli from a number of sources that are weaving together to help me better understand what I believe my leadership should look like, and what good leadership (hopefully my leadership!) might feel like for those being led. Among the things that have helped me reflect on my leadership has been a sermon by Tim Keller that a dear friend shared with me. Tim Keller was not specifically addressing leadership in his sermon—it was part of a series of studies he was giving to his congregation—but as happens when unpacking the Word of God, I could not help but apply the truths of his message to my own situation and my recent reflections on leadership. The essence of the sermon was on the grace of kindness. It made think, and rethink, what might “kind” leadership look like.
Giving of “You”
The first challenge Keller’s sermon on kindness provoked for me was regarding how personal it was. Rightly there is a great deal of leadership advice, written and spoken, that is focused around the essential need in leadership for authenticity and integrity; specifically about a leader’s true character and genuineness being prerequisite for effective influence and for growing people, relationships, and community.
In the book Leadership and Self Deception, the Arbinger Institute explains that people have an inbuilt capacity to discern the authenticity of others in a relationship. They note that no relationship is defined only by the behaviours of the parties involved but is also, in fact is primarily, defined by the “way of being” that each party exhibits in the exchange. The essence of the person—their attitude, their mindset, their heart—is the most determining factor in making the relationship either mutually effective and productive or otherwise. In Daring to Lead, Brené Brown talks about leading “without armour,” meaning leading with openness and genuineness from your inner life.
In his sermon about being kind, Keller notes that kindness requires you to show up “as you,” fully and completely. Kindness, says Keller, is not the same as generosity or even charity. It is not about giving “stuff” like money, gifts, or objects. I know that as a leader I can also be tempted to give “stuff” to my team—time, attention, advice, strategy, a comprehensive handbook that maps the protocols of our group, a clear infographic that captures the new vision or direction. Stuff. Not that there is anything wrong with any of that. It’s just that none of it is enough. If my leadership is to be genuinely filled with the grace of kindness it will be “me” that I give. My leadership won’t be in the things that I do for my team or my community, it will be how I am with them, how I share myself with them. In John 15:15 Jesus tells the disciples that He does not consider them servants but friends, because everything that He learned from the Father, He told them.
Just a few verses prior Jesus makes another bold claim about friendship: greater love has no man than he lay down his life for a friend. Here then is the kindness of friendship—unconditional commitment and absolute transparency. Leadership that is kind will be personal. Underneath all that is done, it will exhibit both the qualities of unconditional commitment and absolute transparency in the way the leader is present with their team.
Keller also notes that the grace of kindness is entirely practical. Drawing from the principle of being kind to one another as explained by Paul in Ephesians 4, he notes that the apostle urges believers not to let any “corrupt” or unwholesome communication pass between them—only that which is helpful for building others up according to their needs. The grace of kindness must be helpful. It isn’t trivial or worthless or pointless. It isn’t just self-expression by the one who gives it, or the natural expression of their kind-heartedness. It must be helpful to others, and helpful in a way that “builds them up.”
Kindness is not about only being positive or only doing what pleases people or saying what they want to hear. Kindness is about helping others grow, even if that means a hard conversation. It is kinder to have that tough talk and help your team members grow in their understanding and capacity than to keep comfortably quiet and they retain whatever quality or habit is limiting their life or their contribution.
This is not to say that kind-hearted leaders can’t spontaneously arrange for something nice for members of their team. That is often a wonderful thing to do. Have the spontaneous celebration, make a habit of community “shout-outs” for good work, give the unexpected extra preparation time. But again, these are not enough. It is more about noticing what people need to grow and meeting that need so they can grow. And knowing their real needs—the things that will really allow them to grow or that are really getting in the way—will require that you really know them as they are. This is a measure of how personal you have been in your leadership. Leadership filled with the grace of kindness will be intent on making a practical difference for the people around them—providing what things are needed and removing what things are obstacles for the personal growth of your team.
Finally, leadership with the grace of kindness will have prophetic awareness and intent. The passage in Ephesians 4 suggests that kind behavior anticipates the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit until the “day of redemption.” This is the vision that will occupy leadership that is truly kind: looking for the growing in grace and in gifting of the people you are called to be with—more than growing their capacity to contribute to the team; more than growing their skillset or competence or professional practice; more than empowering them to help achieve the community vision or mission. It involves an awareness of them growing more and more into the likeness of Christ and of maturing their faith.
I was taught by a very wise and godly leader who influenced my own life and leadership early on that to lead a growing Christian school I would need to help grow Christian teachers, and that to help grow Christian teachers I would need to grow them as Christians as well as teachers. Leadership that manifests the grace of kindness will hold a clear vision of the spiritual end point for all the members of the community, and will hold that as the measure of what is the right thing that needs to be done at any given moment.
Leading for Today
During these days of constant change thrust upon us by COVID-19, it is also important to lead oneself with kindness. I am not talking here about the secular notion of “self-care” but rather acknowledging that you are unable to disciple and help others unless you yourself are in a healthy state of mind. You can’t pull someone else out of a hole if you’re also in the hole. Take care to keep in step with the Spirit by maintaining the spiritual disciplines of reading God’s Word and prayer. These disciplines are particularly important given that physical gatherings, and the fellowship that goes with them, are extremely limited during the pandemic.
By relying on the Holy Spirit to lead me well, I can fulfill my desire to lead with the grace of kindness. I want to lead “kindly”: to lead with my authentic personhood being present in radical transparency and unconditional consistency; to lead by providing practical help to the specific needs of the people I walk with; and to lead with a prophetic vision for who they are becoming and what our local part of the Body of Christ is called to be.
About the Author
Brendan Corr is the principal of Australian Christian College – Marsden Park in Sydney, Australia. Originally a secondary science teacher, Brendan is a graduate of University Technology Sydney, Deakin and Regent College, Canada. While deputy principal at Pacific Hills Christian College for 12 years, Brendan also led the New South Wales Christian Schools Australia registration system. Brendan’s faith is grounded in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and a deep knowledge of God’s Word. Married for over 30 years, Brendan and Kim have four adult children. On the weekends, Brendan enjoys cycling (but he enjoys coffee with his mates afterward slightly more). He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.