Leaders forget themselves…
By Matt Thomas
Executive Director, Baylor's Center for Christian Education
You’ve likely heard the adage, “know thyself.” You can find this phrase promoted in everything from self-help books to serious philosophy classes on university campuses across the country. While this phrase and philosophical concept dates back to at least the Temple of Apollo at Delphi and maybe even earlier, the phrase has serious problems when held under the scrutiny of Scripture and professional leadership literature.
It may seem obvious that knowing thyself doesn’t align with what the Bible says about what our minds should be consumed with knowing, but the reality is that too often, we functionally live with a disconnect between precept and practice when our theological, theoretical, and daily choices evidence that knowing ourselves may be what the Christian life is all about. To be fair, the Bible encourages us to be familiar with our weaknesses and areas that are prone to wander. However, when Paul the Apostle addresses these areas within his own life, he is quick to shift his mind away from his weaknesses to the power of the gospel and the identity he finds in Christ.
And even in the world of leadership, there is evidence that this adage doesn’t align with leading well. Leadership research tells us that impact is diminished when one leads without an accurate knowledge of those they are leading. Considering this and insights from Scripture, we know that one of the most effective ways to lead well is to lead with compassion. But leading with compassion is impossible if leaders are consumed with only knowing their own strengths and skills and are concerned mainly about their own well-being and development – know thyself. (Measure your compassionate leadership HERE or learn why compassionate leadership is scarce HERE.)
In their book, The Way of the Shepherd, Kevin Leman and Bill Pentak share an inspirational parable as told by the most respected CEO in America. In this parable, the fictional CEO shares how he learned the secret of leading others well when he was an MBA student who was being mentored by his professor through the ancient practices of shepherding. In the first chapter, the mentor stresses one critical lesson that all others stand upon: know the condition of your flock. He sets up this lesson by reminding the young student that managers cannot manage what they do not know. As the mentor continued, he encouraged the student to get to know not only the work the people are responsible for but the people responsible for the work. Like this student, what seemed like a natural inclination for a leader remains a mystery for many.
Christian leadership possesses a quality that distinctively emphasizes the heart and actions of the leader. What we are learning at the Center for Christian Education is that leading with compassion requires actions that position the leader to engage and serve others, not the reverse. The following strategic practices will help you lead with compassion.
First, pray for opportunities to show compassion to those you are leading.
It’s not always easy to think of creative ways to show compassion to those we are leading. Most leaders are focused on an issue, trying to find solutions to real critical problems, or even thinking about the next COVID protocol that needs to be implemented. With all this on your mind, it is only natural to isolate ourselves away from thinking about common ways to lead with compassion, but this may be more dangerous than we realize. Finding ways to compassionately lead begins with an internal disposition toward prayer by the leader. To help with this, one practice that a friend shared with me was pausing to pray that an opportunity would present itself to lead with compassion each time they sent an email to a staff member. Imagine how many opportunities you would be praying for on a typical day.
Second, show compassion to those you lead by increasing your awareness of their well-being.
Everyone wants to be noticed, except for maybe Eeyore. Being known, being valued, being loved, and respected is a universal longing of all humans…your team is no different. And one of the most important things you can do as a leader of people who want to be known, valued, loved, and respected is to increase your awareness of how they are actually doing. How are they feeling? How are they dealing with the added pressures of this challenging season? How are their families doing?
Unfortunately, I think most leaders understand how their staff is doing collectively but have no idea how to break that down to the individual level.
Third, show compassion to those you lead by giving time for individuals to speak to you.
One of the most pronounced ways a leader “forgets himself” is by listening to those around him. This can be a difficult shift for some leaders because moving from the desire to be understood to being understanding requires “self-forgetfulness,” as Tim Keller would say. But this shift is so critical that some psychologists believe that being understood is even better than being loved. In his book, The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge tells the story of the Natal tribe in South Africa whose common greeting between two tribesmen always begins with, “Sawubona.” The literal translation is, “I see you.” The reply is, “Ngikhona” which simply means, “I am here.” Senge tells the reader that the order of the greeting is of utmost importance because acknowledging the presence of another brings them into existence.
Although acknowledging another person does not bring them into existence, there is biblical precedent for respecting the Imago Dei in others when we acknowledge their need and presence. Leader, how different would your organizational culture be if each person knew that you saw them?
Fourth, show compassion to those you lead by actively listening and responding appropriately.
For compassionate leadership to characterize your leadership, you must have a genuine affection for the people you are leading and the best way to model this is to increase your desire to know about who he is or where she wants to go or what obstacle seems insurmountable to them. A powerful way to show compassion, in this case, is to be willing to occasionally set aside your issues and schedule and simply be with the other person. Why? Because being with the other person ensures that you will not only hear every word spoken but that you will not miss their message altogether. This is the only response that shows true compassion.
Here’s the rub: the biggest obstacle to leading with compassion is you. As I wrote this, I recalled times when Iwas the obstacle preventing me from leading with compassion. That reality taught me that what I think of myself influences the way I regard others. Sadly, this truth is the polar opposite of what a Christian leader’s behavior should look like. Biblically aligned leadership resembles a servant embracing all people and committing to regard them highly, based on what we can do for them, not what they can do for us.
So, whether you’re leading a school, a board room, a classroom, or even a lunchroom…effort made to compassionately know those whom God has entrusted to your care will never be a waste.
Here’s the pivotal question I’m wrestling with as I think through this idea, just how compassionate is Christian school leadership today? I hope to explore this topic across the semester through the CCE’s newsletter and blog. I trust it will serve you and your leadership well.
Lord, I pray for each school to be filled with educational leaders who compassionately lead everyone you have placed within their care.
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