Courageous leadership begins with me
We all want the best for the congregations, communities and organizations we serve. However, we may not often reflect deeply about how our own self-awareness plays a crucial role in the capacity to lead in our various settings. In a newly released book, Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times, Dr. Nancy Koehn, Harvard Business School historian, offers a fascinating exploration of how a leader’s internal life shapes the leader’s external action and influence.1
Koehn’s book unfolds simply. She tells the story of five remarkable persons who faced challenging contexts and found ways to exert meaningful leadership. The stories of Ernest Shackleton, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglas, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Rachel Carson create a rich backdrop to draw the lines and shapes characterizing the inner life of leaders. These stories offer an impressive set of dynamics for those of us who desire to be faithful to God and to our true selves in the practice of leadership.
Although the five persons whom Koehn studied were very different and possessed distinct missions, she traces common characteristics among her subjects. Each person was quite human; they had experienced great pain in life, yet still led through their humanity. They were curious people who sought to understand what was happening around them. They experienced failure and great disappointment.
Each person Koehn chronicles had great ambition, yet their ambition grew to serve some larger mission in the world. All of them were willing to work on themselves and eagerly sought out opportunities to learn and grow. They were committed to remaining emotionally aware of themselves and of others. They assessed their own feelings and insights into what was happening around them, and they used their insights to bring about constructive change within their sphere of influence.
In particular, Koehn notes three perspectives common to these leaders:
- Each of them utilized and valued solitude and reflection. They recognized the need to slow down and to refrain from reactionary responses – to the point of being content to do nothing at all for a time.
- Each of them committed to a deep and worthy goal much bigger than themselves. The mission was big, but the path to that goal was flexible. They demonstrated adaptability in accomplishing their mission.
- Each of them demonstrated great resilience. Each faced crisis and calamity, but those seasons created opportunity for personal growth and learning. Bonhoeffer would call such places “boundary situations.” It is often in those times that personal and spiritual growth can best occur!
I commend Koehn’s book – it’s amazing to see a secular leadership book speak so overtly about Christian faith and commitment, especially as it plays out in Bonhoeffer’s story. My hope for you is to find time and space this week to reflect on your own journey of leadership. How are you learning and growing? How big is your mission and task in life? And how are you moving forward in and through your own very human struggles?
1. Nancy Koehn, Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times (Scribner, 2017).