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The Crucible of Leadership

by Canon Neal Michell

What makes a leader? My shorthand definition of leadership is that leaders solve problems with and through other people.

Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas wrote on this in a recent edition of Harvard Business Review. They said that “one of the most reliable indicators and predictors of true leadership is an individual’s ability to find meaning in negative events and to learn from even the most trying circumstances.” They go one to say that “the skills required to conquer adversity and emerge stronger and more committed than ever are the same ones that make for extraordinary leaders.”

In other words, life happens to everyone. All along our way we are tested by life’s circumstances. Those who extract wisdom from both their failures as well as their successes emerge as leaders. Here’s a story from my own experience.

The young priest and the organist

The church organist had resigned two weeks earlier in protest over a decision I had made. Since that time, several parishioners came to me asking me to apologize to and rehire this beloved organist. I had been at the church a little over a year. I was a young rector with a congregation of people considerably older than myself.

People said, Wasn’t I being a bit rash? Couldn’t I give in a little bit because musicians are, as we know, a bit high strung? Didn’t I realize that the church couldn’t really handle this kind of conflict?

These conversations were all swirling in my thoughts as I was visiting with a former senior warden of the parish whom I had encountered in public (by the way, he receives this newsletter). He said to this young priest, “You do realize that people are watching you, don’t you? Many people, both inside the church and outside, are watching to see if you’re going to cave in. There are a lot of people pulling for you.”

Upon further investigation, I discovered that this organist had, in fact, resigned under each of my two predecessors. Each had encountered conflict with this person. This organist had resigned in protest both times until the rector relented.

A priest friend (who also receives this newsletter) sent me the book Antagonists in the Church by Richard Haugk. This book showed me how to navigate these rapids and walk through this crucible with integrity. Those were lonely, lonely days and nights. At the end, I’ll tell you “the rest of the story.”

Leaders are formed

While it is true that some people seem to have “natural leadership abilities,” life is what actually forms leaders. A key component of leadership formation is character development. Robert Clinton (The Making of a Leader) says that God uses integrity checks to evaluate our intentions in order to test our character.

He says that there are three parts to an integrity check:

(1) the challenge to consistency with inner convictions;

(2) the response to the challenge; and

(3) the resulting expansion of ministry.

Recall the story of Daniel (Daniel 1:8-21) who faced an integrity check that could have cost him his life. Daniel and his three friends, not wanting to become ritually unclean, chose not to eat the food and drink offered by the king. God honored their faithfulness and blessed their obedience.

As emerging leaders we face a series of integrity checks all along the way. Often, however, we face early on a big integrity check that determines whether integrity is instilled in our character. Some do not pass integrity checks. King Saul in I Samuel 15 failed the integrity check in his life. As a result God gave the kingdom of Israel to another.

The good news is that our God is a God of second chances. Peter was tested numerous times. Nebuchadnezzar as well. In the Christian life, failure is never really final. But our ability to lead as well as the opportunities to grow in responsibility are often stymied by our failure to pass a key integrity test in our life.

An exercise

Reflect on your own life. Was there a time when you didn’t pass an integrity check? Are there times when God brought circumstances your way that have lovingly confronted you with these same issues? As we are faithful in the small things, God will give us responsibility over larger things.

The rest of the story. . .

So, what happened at that church? I did stand firm in my convictions (with much support and hand holding from my senior warden). We eventually hired a new organist (which is hard to find in a small town—God really provided). The truly important thing, though, was that the rector actually became the rector. Up until that time, it was the loudest voices that held sway in the congregation. As I learned to stand firm and with integrity, the church emerged stronger as it accepted the leadership of the rector.

It wasn’t really about me or about whether I got my way or not. It was about right order and appropriate submission in the church. As I stood resolute—not alone but in conversation with those fellow leaders around me and with God—I grew, and the church grew as well.


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