Something funny is happening lately, and that is, I keep getting invited to have a seat at the grown-ups table. In recent months I’ve been welcomed to the board of a local nonprofit with the specific request that I take part in “shaking things up.” I’ve been nominated to join the lead team at my church, a 2-year commitment that implores me to take part in shaping our community’s spiritual and financial priorities. People I admire—most of whom are ten years my senior—are asking me to suggest mentors for them. There are other examples: an invitation to write an article for a prominent publication; a request to moderate a panel of visionary Cincinnatians as a way to introduce their great work to leaders from nearby cities; an encouraging proposition to deliver a sermon alongside my husband; a call to help shape the next decade of funding priorities for a local family foundation. The list goes on.
I’m not sure why all of this is happening now, but it’s certainly exciting...and terrifying. Exciting because I feel called to step up, have a voice, share what I’m learning and play an important role in making decisions. Terrifying because most of the time I feel incredibly unequipped to do that which is being asked of me. There’s a force at play telling my brain that I don’t have what it takes so why even bother. That same force threatens me with the notion that perfection is the desired outcome so best strive for that. Needless to say, that feels like a lot of pressure and I’m often left feeling completely overwhelmed.
But perhaps there’s another way? What if leadership as we’ve come to see it commonly depicted in our culture is just one mode of operating among many? Can I be a five-foot-two, quiet, contemplative presence who prefers Danskin clogs over Dior pumps and still somehow embody a posture of influence?
Several of my own lived experiences have led me to consider what I value in a leader. Reflecting on these character traits have been helpful as I start to form a vision for the type of leader I long to become. The leaders I admire most share similar attributes:
- They model vulnerability–These leaders seem to be unshaken by getting an answer wrong, sharing a “dumb” idea or being imperfect in public. They welcome dissent, are hospitable to criticism and see feedback as a way to move forward.
- They shape compassionate, unifying spaces–These leaders don’t put themselves at the center. Instead, they are skilled in facilitating democratic group dialogue, welcoming all voices, gently steering the energy of the room and mediating conflict when it arises.
- They embody a sacred listening practice–These leaders are present (phone tucked away) and willing to engage others in the moment with respect and dignity.
- They know who they are and have a deep understanding of their own values and how those values shape their leadership practice–These leaders are likely on their own inner-spiritual journey and see themselves “in process.” They’re refining the ways of their minds and hearts and are deeply in touch with their own uniqueness and how that uniqueness can manifest to benefit the world.
As I consider the qualities above, it becomes easier for me to imagine stepping into this kind of leadership. What I may lack in physical stature I can make up for in emotional presence. While I long to have the “right answers” perhaps there’s more value in being a patient listener and asking thoughtful questions. Maybe being uncomfortable behind a lectern creates more opportunity for me to shape non-hierarchical, democratic forums where multiple voices are heard. This kind of leadership feels deeply relational and intimate—it feels more human.
Whether I’m comfortable with it or not, it would seem that a path towards a bolder level of leadership is unfolding before me. Do I trust that path and believe that I have what it takes to make the journey? Will I keep inching forward, despite shaking knees? For me, these are deeply spiritual questions and so I choose to have an equally spiritual response: God does not demand us to be successful; he simply calls us to be faithful. Perhaps the best I can do is trust that there’s a bigger force at work that desires my patience, persistence and obedience, and that that same force is leading me in ways I can’t yet imagine. Maybe we will never feel ready for the adventure ahead, but today, I choose to trust that force and take a step forward.