Leadership Through the Looking Glass
Mirror, mirror on the wall…
The past three weeks we looked at how simple objects can connect us to deep Biblical truths. We started with a jar of dirt to remind us that ‘It’s All His!’ We moved on to a paddle, to remind us that He is in control, and then to an apple to help us remember we are called to bear God’s fruit not just produce our own.
This week we will look at a mirror, which means looking at ourselves. Most leaders face the temptation to tie their self-image and their worth to their success in their leadership role. They want to see an image of confidence, success and satisfaction staring back at them each morning. If we can say physiologically, that ‘you are what you eat’, then we can also say psychologically, ‘you are what you do.’ If our identities are shaped by success and failure in our leadership roles, we will look for the applause and affirmation we need through our work. And now we are heading down a slippery slope. Or perhaps off a cliff.
When our job performance shapes our self-value, we will lead to get applause. Our decisions will be tainted with self-protection at best and self-promotion at worst. This is the plight of the owner-leader. By seeking to control all outcomes to assure a positive reflection back on them, they will absorb praise and deflect criticism. You’ve likely worked for this kind of owner-leader. It is soul-suckingly awful.
The alternative is the steward leader who finds their sole identity in Christ. Here is how Barry, our mentor in The Seventh Key, explains it to Jack, the struggling executive.
Barry moved his stool around so he was facing Jack. “Okay, so here’s the question Carl asked me: Where do you look for applause in your life?”
“Applause? I’m not sure what you mean. I’m don’t think I care a lot about applause in my life.”
“Let me try it a different way. Whose affirmation means the most you? Whose positive or negative view of you has the biggest impact on you?”
Ah, now he understood. “I guess I want my leadership team at work to see me as a good leader. Is that you mean?”
“Yes, in part. So it means a lot to you to have a good reputation with your leadership team? You look to them for affirmation, to give you a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment?”
“Yeah, you could say that. If they’re not happy, I don’t feel very good about how I’m doing.”
“We’re probably a lot alike there. Let me share what happened to me in my company in this area and see if any of this resonates with you. I put a lot of stock in being a good leader. I measured that by was how well my people thought I was doing–you know, morale, feedback, accolades, that sort of thing. I wanted my business to be successful but I also wanted my people to like me, to tell me I was doing a good job. That all seemed pretty normal for a while. But Carl helped me see that I was really using the feedback I got on my leadership as the primary factor to determined my own self-image. That and, of course, how I was doing as a father and a husband. I was really looking for other people to help me determine my value, my worth not only as a leader, husband, and father, but as a person. Does that make any sense?”
“It sounds pretty normal to me. Sure, I probably look to the same people to let me know I’m doing a good job, and that I haven’t gone off the rails. I’m not sure what’s wrong with that or where else you’d look?”
“Exactly. I mean in this world, where else do you look? The problem is that we start doing the things we need to do and saying the things we need to say in order to receive the affirmation we want to prop up that image. At work, it got to the point where I could no longer make the decisions I felt were right for the company if I knew people would disagree with the. That’s when I knew I was in trouble, when making everyone happy was more important than making the right decisions for the company. The irony was that I ended up making poor decisions and everyone still wasn’t happy.”
A dozen scenarios went through Jack’s mind. He’d gotten so tired of the battles that he’d started defaulting to decisions that would appease as many people as possible. But it never worked out that way.
I’m doing exactly the same thing.
Barry continued. “The same thing happened with my kids. I really wanted them to like me, so there were times when I let them get away with things I shouldn’t have to keep them from getting mad at me. It became somewhat of a vicious circle. All of it was linked to my need be affirmed by people I cared about. Can you relate to any of this, Jack?”
Barry’s words were cutting too deep. Jack’s mind was taking him places he had sealed off for most of his adult life. This wasn’t just about what people thought of him, this was about what he thought of himself. He had avoided these kinds of discussions for fear of what he might find if he ever tackled this issue head-on. Now Barry was putting it directly in front of him. Of course, his worth was propped up by what others thought of him. He lived knowing that if he failed others, he wouldn’t have anything left to fall back on. Considering all the mistakes he’d made, the last thing he wanted to do was look himself in the mirror and ask who he really was, why he was here, if his life really had a purpose or added any worth to the world. The very idea scared Jack to death.
I can’t go here. I’m not ready for this.
“Yeah, sure, I can relate to it. Probably more than I want to. I’m not sure how far I can go down this road with you, Barry. To be honest, this is a pretty sensitive area. I don’t know what you expect of me in this discussion, but there’s too much here for me to open this can of worms. So maybe we should just get to the key and let it be at that.”
Come on, Barry, just this once, give me a break…
“Well, I know this might sound trite, but I know exactly how you’re feeling. This whole subject kind of cut me in two when Carl put these questions to me. I don’t want to put you on the spot or make you feel uncomfortable, but I’d really like to go just a little further. If you want to stop after that, fine. But will you hear me out just a little longer?”
As always, Barry’s tone was genuine and humble. Okay, so he’d go along. But that didn’t mean he couldn’t put up some emotional barriers to protect himself.
Barry leaned back. “The reason I want to go on is that there’s some really great news at the end of this. At least, it was for me. You see, Carl and the Bible helped me understand that there is only one place I’m supposed to look for my identity and worth. My one, true identity is that I am a child of God. God loves me, Jesus died for me, and the Holy Spirit is there to guide me each day. All that should matter to me is that I know God loves me. It makes me want to know his will for my life and try to be as obedient as he equips me to be. Back to the white water raft again.” Barry smiled. “Any thoughts on that, Jack?”
“It sounds good in theory, but I’m not sure how you get it down into your gut. I mean, sure, I know God loves me and Jesus died for me. I guess I never thought about my identity being tied to that. That’s a good thought, I’ll have to chew on it for a while. But does it really replace how much we want to be liked, accepted and, I guess you’d say applauded, by others?”
“No, I don’t think it entirely replaces it. But it’s supposed to have priority. In other words, it’s supposed to be the most important source we use to develop and maintain our identity and worth. If we have peace with who we are in Christ, if our identity as his child doing his work on this earth is the primary way we evaluate ourselves, then these other affirmations have a whole lot less importance. The whole world can be against us, but when we know we are in God’s will, that’s enough.”
It sounded good, but… “That’s pretty idealistic.”
“Yeah, that’s definitely the ideal. And frankly, I don’t know how to get that into my gut. But I’ve been put on a journey to do all I can to make that real in my life. And I think I’m getting there a little bit more, day by day. I do know one thing, Jack, the extent to which I let Christ be my sole source of identity, the more peace, freedom, and real joy I have in life. If you asked Katie, she’d tell you that this one key changed me more fundamentally than any other step in this process. It was also the hardest.”
Jack almost laughed. Talk about an understatement. “When I think it through, it makes perfect sense. But it’s a long, hard journey from where I am right now.”
Barry’s voice pitched up. “That’s exactly the point. It is a journey, and if we can see it that way we can give ourselves the space to take the steps we need to each day. I don’t think God expects us to make some quantum leap and suddenly have this all down pat. Instead he just walks with us day by day, encouraging us, strengthening us so we can continue.”
Jack sensed this was a chance to deal with his struggles with his self-worth. He was less resistant now.
Freedom, peace, joy? I know I’ve come a long way on this journey but these still seem so far away. Whatever it takes, I want to get there.
Do you? My prayer is that you affirm daily that you are a child of God, and that is enough for you. Then you can lead boldly as God directs and trust him to be the caretaker of your reputation. That is true freedom!
 R. Scott Rodin, The Seventh Key. Kingdom Life Publishing, 2015, p. 88-91.