Becoming an Irrelevant Leader

It’s the Sabbath, an opportunity to come up for air. Perhaps you are finding the same need. You have been deep in a project that has begun to consume your life.

I’ve been steep into writing a book on global leadership these past months. The way has been somewhat uncharted, and I am feeling my way as I inch forward. Perhaps you are there. Papers to write. A sermon series that is taxing your brain. I feel like a miner descending down a new shaft each day in search of ore; into the deep and the dark, looking for another vein. It’s hard work, hammering away for new insights. In my case, analyzing leadership books written by the likes of Bennis and George, and reading the lives of leaders from Churchill to Ataturk. Getting out of my Western clothes to gain a deeper understanding of how an African or a Latino or an Asian defines leaders—this is the hard work.

I’m learning in writing that there are halcyon days, seemingly free from storms and disturbances. The sun comes out, and I feel a fresh breeze. Anne Lamott describes these as moments when you have to keep getting out of your own way so that whatever it is that wants to be written can use you to write it. Things just flow.

But most days, you read and reread what you have written, and then you stare blankly at the screen, obsessing and praying that you do not die before you can rewrite or destroy what you have typed. And then, as Lamott writes, you press forward to complete the excrementitious work ahead (I’ll let you look that up).

But today, I am shifting from the corporate, political, and behavioral worlds I have lived in–to the more mystical. I am getting some fresh air from the coal dust before I contract black lung. Henri Nouwen is my guide. Some years ago, this Catholic priest wrote his own reflections on leadership, entitled, In the Name of Jesus. You probably won’t find it in the library of the Center for Leadership and Change at Wharton. I found it Friday by accident, hidden on a shelf in my office for years, given as a gift to me on an earlier visit to India.

While so much of what I read on leadership speaks to the importance of being relevant–smart, innovative, accomplished–Nouwen is convinced true leaders of the future are those who dare to claim their irrelevance. These words immediately go against the grain of my thinking. Who wants to be an “inapplicable, unsuitable, misplaced” leader? But as I read about Nouwen’s own journey, I began to understand. I began to breathe again

At one time, Henri Nouwen was a professor at Harvard, but he left its heady halls where he trained the best and the brightest, the leaders of the future, for a more marginalized setting. He left to shepherd the mentally handicapped. He shifted to a world of broken and unpretentious people, and it was here Nouwen was able to hear the voice of God and discover His presence in a new way. He was able to let go of his relevant self—“the self that can do things, show things, prove things, build things,” the self that feels it must be in charge, change stones into bread and do the spectacular.

In the community of L’Arche, he could receive and give love regardless of accomplishments. Anchored in a much deeper sense of the love of God, he no longer felt the need to be the self-made leader who can do it all. He discovered that a true leader is a vulnerable servant who confesses one’s own brokenness and need for forgiveness—and needs the people as much as they need him or her. But most leaders, especially leaders of ministries, are convinced otherwise—that they must keep a certain distance and hide their vulnerabilities. After all, the community needs a perfect leader. I’ve felt these same temptations and seen this wreckage too many times. We can be the worst when it comes to confessing our own weaknesses. We are admonished not to appear weak.

I remember once climbing to the top of a massive cliff, Preikestolen, “Pulpit Rock” which rises 604 m above the Norwegian fiords. It was a glorious moment, breathing in that rarified air. Reading Nouwen’s words is like this. So much of what I read down in the shaft below is about power and control—but up above, I am reminded that true leaders are about powerlessness and humility. This is not to be confused with leaders who have no spine, no decisiveness, and no vision. These are authentic leaders who are so in love with Jesus that they are ready to follow Him wherever He calls, willing to take on a Christ-like irrelevance.

About John Johnson

John Johnson is the former lead pastor at Village Church in Portland, OR. Presently, he is Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at Western Seminary and devoted to writing.