Are Some of the Best Leaders the Most Reluctant?
By Ian Todd
God cannot achieve God’s aims alone. We must respond to God’s call to leadership, despite the reluctance we may feel.
When Moses came upon the burning bush on Mount Horeb, he was just a lowly shepherd working for his father-in-law (Exodus, Ch. 3). And yet, he’d previously known a life of great privilege and luxury, as the adopted son of an Egyptian princess. Of course, that had all gone horribly wrong on the day that he murdered an Egyptian who was beating up a Hebrew slave. So, when God spoke to Moses from the burning bush, offering to make him “Leader of the Israelites,” you’d think he’d seize the chance. Here was a (literally!) God-given opportunity to re-establish himself as someone important, someone prestigious, someone to be looked up to, someone with REAL POWER! Forget herding sheep, he was going to lead a whole nation!
You might have expected that to be his reaction, but you’d be wrong. What Moses did was come up with a whole load of excuses about why he wasn’t the one for the job:
“Who am I that I should do this?” said Moses. “I will be with you,” replied God.
“What shall I say is Your name?” asked Moses. “I AM WHO I AM,” said God.
“But suppose they don’t believe me or won’t listen—what shall I do then?” argued Moses. God had equipped Moses with miraculous signs to convince even the most hardened sceptic.
Moses tried a different tack: “I’m not a good speaker; I’ll get tongue-tied!”
God replied with some exasperation, “I’ll give you the words to speak.”
Moses had run out of excuses and bleated, “Oh my Lord, please send someone else!”
By this time, even God had lost patience: “Okay, okay!” said God, “Your brother Aaron is an eloquent speaker. I’ll tell you what needs to be said, and Aaron can say it!” (Exodus, Ch. 4).
Not a very auspicious start to one of the most momentous events in the Old Testament, you might think. Or, on the other hand, maybe this was exactly the sort of start needed to ensure the eventual success of the Exodus. If Moses’ response to God’s call had been, “Righty-ho God, leave it with me, I know exactly what to,” it might all have been a disaster and the Israelites would have disappeared into obscurity as a footnote of ancient history. If Moses had been full of himself and buoyed up with his own importance, he could have ended up as one of the best examples of the old adage, “Pride goes before a fall.” It was, in fact, Moses’ insecurity and lack of self-confidence that enabled God to say, “I will be with you” and “I will tell you what to say.” In other words, Moses became a great leader because he was fully open to being led by God.
We see this repeatedly through the Bible—those with the greatest influence for good often seemed the least likely to make great leaders and role models at the outset. And the repeating pattern is that their lack of self-assurance meant that they were open to—and therefore had—assurance of God’s guidance. For example, the disciples were vulnerable and uncertain until the Holy Spirit came upon them at Pentecost. They were then able to speak openly and boldly (in multiple languages!) to any and all who would listen (Acts, Ch. 2). Saul (Paul) provides another example: he was driven by his own conviction to persecute the followers of Jesus until he was struck down and faced with Christ on the road to Damascus. While in that state of vulnerability, he three days later was filled with the Holy Spirit. This enabled him to become one of the greatest leaders of the early Church (Acts, Ch. 9).
Turning from a great Christian writer of the first century A.D. to one of the twentieth century, this is how C.S. Lewis described how reluctantly he turned to God: “You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of [God] whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms” (Lewis, C.S. Surprised by Joy: The Shape of my Early Life).
Jesus of Nazareth, our consummate leader and role model, is the one person in history whose relationship with God is so complete that the two are indistinguishable. Yet even Jesus didn’t burst onto the scene in a blaze of glory, or with a fanfare of self-promotion. He sought baptism by his cousin John before spending weeks of soul-searching alone in the desert (Matthew chs. 3-4). And one of his final acts before his execution was to wash the feet of his disciples—the ultimate expression of perfect leadership being synonymous with perfect service (John, ch.13).
Jesus’ understanding of how a person’s vulnerability provides the fertile ground necessary for a meaningful and constructive relationship with God is considered in some detail by Roger Bretherton in his book The GOD Lab: 8 Spiritual Experiments You Can Try at Home (River Publishing & Media Ltd.). In this book, Roger explains the human conditions necessary for a full relationship with God in the context of the first beatitude that Jesus pronounced during The Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” As Roger says, this is the most difficult of the eight beatitudes for us to understand these days. What is “poor in spirit” supposed to mean? In this context, Roger interprets “spirit” as meaning what we’re like. In other words, the essence of everything that we are and how we regard our being in relation to ourselves, to others and to God. He therefore goes on to question why “Jesus blesses poverty of spirit” rather than “richness of spirit”. The answer, in Roger’s words, goes as follows:
Richness of spirit, taken to its logical conclusion, is to be full of ourselves. To be certain, ruthless and unyielding. To be rich in spirit is to believe we have a lock on the truth and no longer need to consider other points of view—so entrenched in defending our position that we no longer tolerate questions or disagreement. We are rich in spirit whenever we feel full of our own ideas and ambitions to the exclusion of everything else. To be rich in spirit is to be closed, rigid and proud…
By contrast, Roger goes on to say that Jesus,
Commends the virtue of openness as the gateway to knowing God. It’s in an attitude of openness and hospitality that we can find [God]. Poverty of spirit isn’t low self-esteem or lack of backbone, but a simple acknowledgement that we don’t have it all nailed down and can therefore hear the needs and opinions of others. Poverty of spirit, among other things means being available to others and responsive to the world. A recognition that we’re not totally self-sufficient.
And Roger further asks, “Could it be that God isn’t looking for people who can offer him a seamless performance?”
Putting this into the context of leadership comes back to the point that the best leaders are those who are themselves led by God and are therefore fully open to, and accepting of, God’s guidance. Having said that, there may be those who would argue that, if the best leadership requires a good dose of modesty, and possibly reluctance, in order to be fully open to God’s influence and guidance, perhaps we should not take up the call to leadership at all. Perhaps the best policy is to leave things entirely to God to sort out because, at the end of the day, God knows best! We may hinder rather than help!
“Not so” is the response to such an argument by Thomas Jay Oord in his book God Can’t: How to Believe in God and Love after Tragedy, Abuse, and Other Evils. (SacraSage Press)—a response with which I agree. The reason for this is that Tom believes that God doesn’t just invite our cooperation, but absolutely requires it for the best possible outcomes to be achieved—or, as Tom puts it, “for love to win.” Tom calls this cooperation between God and creation “indispensable love synergy.” This means that God’s aims are achieved (which are always loving) by working with creation (synergy) and that the part played by creation is essential (indispensable). In other words, God’s aims for the created Universe cannot be achieved by God acting alone. This puts responsibility squarely on our shoulders to respond to God’s call to leadership, despite the reluctance we may feel. Indeed, as with Moses, initial reluctance may actually turn out to be an advantage!
Ian Todd is a retired immunologist and Honorary Assistant Professor at the University of Nottingham, UK. His main research interests are in autoimmune and respiratory diseases. He lives in the town of Wirksworth in the Derbyshire Peak District, where he helps with a thirteenth century church (and its twenty-first century congregation!).
To purchase the book from which this leadership essay comes, see Open and Relational Leadership: Leading with Love.