Leading with Faith

Daniel J. Ott

Leading with faith is to be aware of and appreciate the goodness of people, the beauty in work, and the creativity that emerges when we are open and present.

“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.” These words punctuate Shug and Celie’s theological discussion in Alice Walker’s novel, The Color Purple. Celie seems convinced that Shug is probably right that God is not some old, white man and more of an “it” than a “who.” God is best seen in the bird and the air and in other people. And these notions are quite consistent with the kind of faith I have in mind when I think about leading with faith.

Theologian Bernard Meland called this kind of faith an “appreciative awareness.” Faith is not so much assent to a set of beliefs and it is even less the assurance of any future outcome. Faith is a kind of trust. Meland says that there are two dimensions of faith. The first dimension is essentially just the trust one needs to live, it “is simply a will to live.” Here, faith is a trust that life is worth living and that we can keep our fears at bay and feel secure enough to keep going. The second dimension is a more conscious and more appreciative awareness of that which is creative and good in life. It’s noticing the color purple. It’s valuing all of those moments when something good or beautiful emerges. It’s appreciating the goodness in the people that surround us.

So what would it mean to lead with this kind of faith? It seems to imply a different kind of leadership. Too often, we think of leaders as strong, decisive, and even impassive. Many people who write about leadership advocate creating urgency and give advice about how to persuade people to see things as you do. Leaders rush to think about how they can make change and transform organizations. I would like to suggest that leading with faith implies being mindful, present, and available.

It’s not surprising that just about every recent book on leadership that you might pick up deals with the complexity and rapid change that mark our lives today. Military leaders, who seem to have a great proclivity for acronyms, call this VUCA – volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. What may surprise you is that many of these books on leadership advocate some sort of mindfulness in the face of VUCA.

Mindfulness is a concept taken from Buddhism. In its simplest form, mindfulness is attending to the present moment; not allowing the mind to race to the future or mull in the past. There’s an old story about a farmer who was jealous of the attention and reverence paid to the monks who lived on the mountain. One day, while the farmer was working in his field, one of the monks walked by on his way to town. The farmer called out to the monk, “Pardon me, but may I ask what it is that you monks do up on the mountain that is so special?”

“Nothing special,” replied the monk, “this morning I woke and prayed, I worked in the garden, and I ate my breakfast.”

“Yes, that isn’t special,” the farmer agreed, “I prayed, and worked, and ate this morning as well.”

“Oh,” said the monk, “perhaps the difference is that when we pray, we know we are praying, and when we work, we know we are working, and when we eat, we know we are eating.”

This is the kind of attentiveness that mindfulness involves, and it is the basis for an appreciative awareness. When we attend to the present moment, we can notice the color purple and be aware of the goodness that surrounds us.

Another aspect of mindfulness is what Buddhists would call “right intention.” Being mindful includes understanding the impact of our words, acting compassionately toward others, and conducting our business with ethical standards. Jerome Murphy in his book, Dancing in the Rain, calls this “minding your values” and sees it as the first step toward mindful leadership. He advocates that we take a careful inventory of our values and effort to always act and lead from a place of minding our values. This involves a deep faith and trust in goodness and truth. Transformation and change are always possibilities, but the transformations and changes that we seek should be consistent with what we take to be good and true. Transformation and change are not ends in and of themselves.

Leading with faith may also require us to understand being present as more than just attending to the present moment, however vital that may be. Otto Scharmer has coined the term “presencing” to indicate something like what I have in mind. Scharmer invites us to imagine the basic image of a “U.” We move down the left side of the “U” in the present and up the right side toward the future. The movement down the “U” toward the middle is the practice of mindfulness that I’ve been describing: being present in the moment, observing well what is going on around us, connecting with our deepest selves and our dearest values. What the movement up the right side of the “U” adds is an imaginative engagement with the future. This is a place of being present to the moment, present to our best selves, and being present to the emerging future, being present to creativity, being open to acting anew.

Here, leading with faith is not only attending to the already present goodness and beauty, but also opening to and trusting new instantiations of goodness and beauty as they emerge. We then engage those possibilities and release our creativity. So often the future can feel like a threat because of VUCA, but leading with faith is trusting the future can be better than the present. Notice, I did not say that leading with faith is believing that the future will be better, but trusting that the future can be better.

Leading with faith will also require that we are available to the persons that we lead. Leaders need to be available to those we lead in order to receive their best contributions and in order to help them feel valuable and valued. We need to be appreciatively aware of the people we work with. Schein and Schein, in their book Humble Leadership, call this kind of appreciative awareness of the persons around us, “personization.” They use the simple example of a surgeon who found that recognizing the people on his ever-changing surgical teams as persons was invaluable to successful results. He took extra time in the pre-surgery meeting to look each member in the eye, to listen well to their overview of their part of the task, to smile at them, and to thank them for their coming contributions.

As I have reached higher levels of leadership within my college, I’ve noticed that the higher the level of meeting the more likely there is to be chitchat and personal checking in as the meeting starts. At first, I thought this was a kind of largesse of leadership. I prided myself on running tight meetings, starting on time, moving efficiently through the agenda. Now, I’m realizing that this is the practice of skilled and effective leadership. They are taking time to make sure they recognize the personhood of those with whom they work and make themselves personally available. They are indicating that the members of their team are valuable, both for their work, and in their personhood. This sort of appreciative awareness of the people with whom we work, not only makes people feel more comfortable and valued at work, but it also takes seriously the relational and human qualities of the systems that make up organizations.

One of my favorite lines from the Bhagavad Gita says, “You have a right to your actions, but never to your actions’ fruits. Act for the action’s sake. And do not be attached to inaction.” Leading with faith is a way to take joy in the work of leadership and detach a bit from the fruits that our leadership may yield. In an age of VUCA, we can get lost in a world of results and bottom lines. We can get drunk on transformation and change. We can get frustrated by rough waters and thwarted efforts. Leading with faith is a way to calm the waters, to notice the color purple, to be aware and appreciative of the goodness of the people around you, the beauty in the work itself, and the creativity that emerges.

Daniel J. Ott is Associate Dean for Academic Initiatives and Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Monmouth College, Monmouth, Illinois. His articles and review articles have appeared in Theology Today, Political Theology, and the American Journal for Theology and Philosophy. He is co-author with Hannah Schell of Christian Thought in America: A Brief History (Fortress Press).

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

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