Leading from the God-Shaped Pole

By Tim Burnette

Authorial and authoritarian leadership styles are different.

How does God lead, and how can we lead lovingly?

Since this is a book about leadership and open and relational theology, I’m gonna assume you, the reader, are cool with me beginning with God as a model for leadership. In essence, the central question for this exploration will be, “How does God lead?”

For process theologians like myself (“process” coming from philosopher Alfred North Whitehead’s vision of an open and relational universe always moving), God is often referred to as a “lure.” And, yes, that is meant to evoke exactly the kind of image you think it is.

Think of what happens when you cast a fishing pole out into a body of water — the purpose of the lure on the end of the line is to draw fish toward it for a bite. The same goes for God. Part of God’s activity in the universe is to draw all things like a lure toward their most intensely beautiful expressions in every moment of becoming. And yes, all means all — even you.

Whitehead remarked, God “is the poet of the world, leading it by God’s vision of truth, beauty, and goodness.” In short, what Whitehead is saying here is that God is a leader — and a leader who leads by casting a vision, not implementing a vision.

For those of us wondering how we might emulate God in our own leadership situations, it’s also important not only to note the positive values associated with God’s vision, but also the nature of how God’s vision leads the cosmos forward. Whitehead winks and nods at the nature of God’s leadership style just before the aforementioned quote in saying, “God’s role is not the combat of productive force with productive force, or destructive force with destructive force.”

So, what does that even mean then? Basically, it means that if God does not operate in the universe like a productive or destructive force — or what we in philosophy often call an “efficient cause” — think a pool stick striking a billiard ball to make it move — like one force crashing in to another thing — then, God must operate in a different way altogether.

If Whitehead gives us a hard ‘no’ to a God who acts by using some kind of coercive force, then instead, he must conjure up for us the image of God acting as a poet for a very specific reason. It’s clear that he is using the image of the poet to create an altogether alternative form of power or force.

Think of the power of poetry. It doesn’t lie in its communicating a proposition to be asserted as true or untrue. Its real power lies in the aesthetic allure of the words and ideas themselves in the sense that they evoke something in the reader. To be moved by a poem is not the same as being moved by pool stick. The moving element in a poem moves us in a fundamentally different way than a coercive force. Its power (which could also be a grand meditation on the nature of true power) lies in its evocative, alluring, and value-saturated invitation to the reader.

This is the way that God deepens Beauty in and actually, in Whitehead’s words, saves the universe — as a poet. It’s simultaneously both God’s activity and God’s leadership style — and it should be our leadership style too if we care to lead like God and be in the flow of life.

At different times in our lives, each of us is tempted to lead from places of power. It may be climbing an institutional ladder to reach the top and have the most influence, achieving the top performance in an organization to prove our value, or getting the highest degree in our field so everyone in our leadership context will know how powerful we really are. We’ve all likely played those kinds of leadership power games in some form or another.

But friends, this is simply not the heart of God. It’s not that success, achievement, or accolades are bad, per se. It’s just that they’re not the place from which divine leading comes. Leadership flows not from the top-down, but from emphasizing a kind of leadership that flows from “the tender elements in the world, which slowly and in quietness operate by love.” Notice the profound change in source here — namely that God’s force is not productive or destructive — meaning, God does not ever lead like an all-powerful leader from the top, but rather, God’s leading is power-giving in its immanent tenderness and love.

What a different world we would live in if our organizations, churches, governments, etc., did not see power or domination as fundamental to successful leadership, but rather tenderness and love. This process understanding of God offers us such a radically alternative vision for leadership than we often observe in our world. In a time where religious and political leaders almost unconsciously put their powerful and loud personas (which are really just their public-facing masks of ego) on display, God offers us an entirely opposite vision of a leadership that operates by love.

In this distinction about power lies the secret of God’s leadership of the universe itself, and our invitation to lead as well. God acts in a way that is em-powering rather than power-ful. And, what ends up happening if we embrace this shift of perspective is that we too will find ourselves as leaders having the real potential within us to lure and change systems as we align with God’s loving lure.

The name of the way God leads the universe, which includes our everyday lives, in this alternative manner actually is love, plain and simple. In 1 John 4, the Bible goes as far as to say that God is Love, but as many of us in Western Christian contexts know, the biblical definition of love is often distorted and defined in ways that don’t really reflect the heart of the tender love of the process God at all. Some people employ what I like to call ‘love, and’ or ‘love, but’ theologies. Love is patient, love is kind…and will send you to hell if you aren’t a believer. Love the sinner, but hate the sin. You know what I mean.

This kind of love is not really love at all. It’s really just the result of the western-moving Christian movement of love getting in bed with imperial power — yes, the very same power that we are countering in this essay. When love becomes associated with power in any sort of domineering or colonizing way, we can be sure that it is not love…at least not the love displayed by God, or the love seen in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Authentic love is self-giving, and in this kind of giving is true allure and true ‘power.’

So the challenge for those of us longing to lead like God in our leadership contexts is to lead by love — which is always non-coercive, always tender, caring, and quiet, and always casts a vision that invites the most Beauty possible in a given context or season of organizational life. Where the rubber hits the road with this highly theoretical approach to leadership is here, in a simple (and hopefully as profound for you as it was for me) charge. In every leadership situation, pay attention to which power is luring you: Is it authoritarian power or authorial power?

Authoritarian leadership is always quick to coerce others to conform to their agendas. Authorial leadership is the power of giving away a generous invitation to the world to participate together in a more collective expression of creaturely cooperation. And that’s what leadership environments usually are, creatures learning to cooperate to make something beautiful in the world. Monitoring our internal motivations can help us to stay in the flow of love as we lead. Are we grasping for power and affirmation? Or, are we giving out of the surplus of the very loving lure of God within us?

The true power of leadership flows from finding an authorial place within you where you, responding to God, can draw others tenderly toward a more beautiful togetherness. When we do this, we can be sure that we are leading from the God-shaped pole. If we can be continually mindful of our hearts’ motivation and lead from this place of love, then we can proactively work for a more beautiful future rooted in a source that promotes harmony in every leadership endeavor.

Tim Burnette is a contemplative philosopher, theologian, writer, and teacher. He earned his doctorate from Claremont School of Theology, where he studied process cosmology, philosophy, theology, contemplative practice, and compassion. His professional interests are in philosophical beauty/aesthetics, communal formation, and spirituality. He curates the Way Collective, a spiritually rooted and theologically fluid contemplative Christian community of shared practices and values in Santa Barbara, CA. He is also a partner, father, and musician who tries to keep his head in the cloud of unknowing as much as possible so his heart can remain open to the Manifold’s polyphilic embrace.

To purchase the book from which this leadership essay comes, see Open and Relational Leadership: Leading with Love.

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