By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.

Director, Yeshua Institute

When it comes to leadership, Pope Francis and I have a few things in common.

  • One, we both had leadership positions thrust on us at a relatively young age.
  • Two, neither of us was adequately prepared for the challenge.
  • Three, in our Lord's loving embrace, we can admit it.

That awareness came to me as I contemplated the first core principle of Leading Like Jesus that we mentioned in our last Catholic Leader (Jan. 3 ’18).

That story, outlining nine core principles of S3 Jesus-like Leadership, drew more interest and feedback – all positive – than we’re used to getting with most articles in our newsletter. So we decided to devote time in future issues to more deeply probe each principle. In this issue, we begin with the first principle:

1. Leadership begins on the inside.

When we think of a leader, we generally think of someone in a formal position of leadership. But that perspective is like having blinders on. As our second principle notes: “All of us are leaders some of the time.” Whenever we try to influence others, we are trying to lead. When a newborn baby’s cries prompt parents to rush to her crib, she is leading.

It starts early

Yes, it starts early – in fact, even before birth. When an unborn child kicks his mom and prompts mom to change position, that unborn baby is leading.

You might protest that the baby cannot be leading because it doesn’t intend to lead. But your objection raises an important part about leading: it isn’t always intentional. Others are often watching us and taking cues about how they should speak and act from us even when we’re not aware of the surveillance.

That lesson came home to me when my dear little second daughter finally learned to say her S sounds – and uttered a profanity in front of my dad. No, neither me nor her mother intentionally taught her that word. But obviously she learned it nonetheless.

Nice job, mom and dad.

Unintentional leadership happens all the time. We’ll explore that dynamic a little deeper in our next issue of The Catholic Leader.  For now it’s sufficient to recognize that all of us are leaders some of the time – and that includes times when we’re not aware that we’re leading.

Starting with the heart

When we present our Leading Like Jesus Encounters to help people learn how to be S3 Jesus-like Leaders, we introduce Servant (S1) Leadership and break it down into four dimensions:

  • Heart
  • Head
  • Hands
  • Habits

All of these dimensions are focused on helping a person develop the characteristics required to lead as Jesus led. Notice that the first two dimensions deal with interior matters – what we value and what we know.

And as you’ll also notice, the first and most important consideration is what we value – what really matters to us.

For way too many of us – and for all of us some of the time – what matters most to us is ourselves.

It seems to be the case that as soon as each of us develops a little self-awareness, we feel the critical urge to be safe. If someone else isn’t assuring us of that all the time, we take matters into our own hands to make sure we are getting what we want, or what we think we need.

Turns out that Jesus command to “love your neighbor as yourself” is very, very difficult to do.

The leadership challenge

When it comes to intentionally leading other people, there’s a problem with the very human inclination to put our own personal interests ahead of everything else. You see, when those who are supposed to follow you determine that you are looking out primarily for yourself, they don’t really see much of a choice. They quickly conclude that they have to primarily look out for themselves too.

Sometimes this self-protective response occurs – and shapes our character -- even without our conscious awareness. Take instances where children grow up in the homes of alcoholic parents inclined to erratic and violent outbursts. Studies show they struggle to trust others – and that struggle may prove to be a lifelong cross.

In either event, nobody is minding the group’s mission, its purpose.

So it’s no wonder that both individual and group performance suffer, especially in comparison with groups led by people who put the group’s mission first, ahead of their own selfish drives and desires .

This problem has been verified in countless studies of effective leadership and organizational excellence, whether we are talking about families or multinational corporations.

The fact of the matter is that the challenge of becoming a good, effective leader is a heart problem.  Great leaders need servant hearts.

What matters most?

Not all amazing servant leaders are consciously trying to lead like Jesus. Some don’t even believe in God, much less aspire to be guided by and behave like the Son of God.

It’s possible to be a good, effective servant leader by staying focused on the organization’s mission and developing a set of behaviors that consistently conforms to that commitment.

It’s possible, but it’s difficult.

Why? Because nature hates a vacuum. And if there is no one who matters more to you than yourself, it’s all too easy to lapse into self-serving perspectives and behaviors.

Conversely, we can see the power of other-centered perspectives and behaviors when we observe – or even better, experience – the love of a parent for a child.

Nearly always – I would say it is the norm – parents are willing to die for their children. They know it deep down in their hearts, often long before their child has even developed a personality. I recall holding our first baby deep into the night as she struggled to breathe through the congestion of a cold. I beckoned God. I tried to bargain. “Take my life for the health of my child,” I begged.

My plea astonished me. What sense did it make to propose trading a life for clearing a little congestion? Yet, in that moment, in that relationship between a parent and a child, it made all the sense in the world.

Parenting changes you. It changes everything. Even if you believe you love your spouse more than life itself – which after 51 years I still do – a helpless child, your child, changes everything.

It’s the power of that selfless love -- so powerful that we will even risk our relationship with that beloved child for his or her own good, usually many times over – that accounts for the fact that most kids, born little bundles of need, turn into good, decent, caring and competent adult human beings.

Not all of them do. And none of them turns out perfect (despite what a parent may think from time to time). But most of them turn out very, very good. And the primary reason they do is that they are loved.

Working miracles

When our hearts are in the right place, we can work miracles. In fact, we often do.

But sometimes getting our heart to that place is a struggle. And keeping it there always involves more struggles -- many more.

As we consider who or what should matter most to us, we should also consider who or what is not only willing but able to play that role in our lives.

  • A spouse may do it. But what if you outlive that spouse, or your spouse rejects you, explaining perhaps that they “just fell out of love?”
  • A child may serve as your center for a while too. But children grow into adults with lives of their own. If they are wise, they won’t want to be your “be all and end all” for very long.
  • Perhaps a title, a prominent address or possessions can be your reason for living. But the world is full of people who “got it all” and will tell you now that none of it really mattered in the end.

If we are looking for someone who is not only willing but able to serve as the center of our lives – in good times and bad, at our very worst as well as at our best, for as long as we live and then even beyond that – there really is no option but God.

Putting God first and foremost in our lives is not an easy thing to do. Keep God there is at least as difficult. But we can do it. With God’s help, with grace, we can do it.

In Jesus’ own day

In the Gospel of John we’re told of a time in Jesus’ life and ministry when followers were abandoning him. It must have been in significant numbers because it reached a point where Jesus turns to his chosen 12 and asks them: “Do you also want to leave?” (Jn 6:67)

Peter answers him: “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (Jn 6:68)

Developing a loving, intimate, trusting relationship in which we, like Jesus, make doing his Father’s will the very point of our lives is not easy. But that’s where our heart belongs.

I’m reminded of St. Augustine, and how he came to that conclusion the hard way – after years of hard living. For many years his life was a succession of desperate, often hedonistic searches for fulfillment. He tried excessive pleasures, false religions, philosophy, whatever he could find. It was all in vain.

Finally, after paying a great toll on body, mind and spirit, he addressed God with this hard-won conclusion: “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.”

Our path of S3 Jesus-like Leadership begins on the inside – in the deepest recesses of our hearts. There, with God, we can find peace and purpose.


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