Having answered the question of why bother with secular resources at all as Christian leader, the question remains of how to engage with them well. I believe a proper framework starts with an examination of the Bible and of your context. It also involves reflecting on the context, values and worldviews of the author. Here are six steps that make a framework to critically and helpfully engage with a wide range of leadership resources.
1. Know the Bible
I remember listening to Kim Scott, author of Radical Candor being interviewed by Molly Fletcher who asked her what one book she would recommend leaders read and her answer was the great novel, Middlemarch, because she thinks great leadership is understanding people. I completely agree that good fiction (not just classic literature) is a great way to understand the human condition and Middlemarch particularly presents a compelling case for kindness over ambition. Christian leaders would obviously say the one book you need to read is the Bible. The Bible is absolutely where we should go first to understand God’s grand narrative, our own brokenness, and God’s infinite grace to us.
As Plueddemann warns in Leading across Cultures it’s easy to proof-text, finding Bible verses to support your preferred style of leadership: “Both authoritarian and egalitarian cultures can find biblical evidence for their opposing leadership values. Biblical principles of leadership need to come from the whole of scripture.” The ultimate aim for our leadership character should be Christlikeness, acknowledging that we are but weak jars of clay. Our character is formed by God, not our own efforts. Perhaps we should be careful of Christian leadership literature that uses Old Testament characters a guide-map for leadership. Don’t read about David or Solomon or Moses to adopt their strategies, read them in light of the model of Jesus to understand how God can work through leaders who hunger after God despite their sinfulness, their failures and their limits. Joshua Bogunjoko, SIM International Director, explained that he loves reading stories of Old Testament leaders because the one thing they were judged on was whether they led the people further from or closer to God. The arrival of the true King, who didn’t look like a King, whose Kingdom was not a nation but eternal, radically changes what leadership looks like for us this side of the cross.
While culture, context and leadership trends change, the Bible doesn’t so it should stand as the sole lens through which to view all other knowledge. This is not to say that other knowledge is unnecessary, but that the Bible alone is the source of infallible truth. As Craig Hamilton in Wisdom in Leadership puts it “Bible alone, not Bible only”. There is no biblical model for how to run a meeting or conduct a performance review but we can view every piece of leadership advice through a lens that sees people as image bearers of God; sees our role as leaders to be servants, shepherds and stewards; and sees our ultimate calling as to redemption and right relationship with God. Immerse yourself in those images and in God’s grand narrative.
2. Know your own context
One of the reasons I started this project interviewing leaders from a range of different organisations is a conviction that we don’t do a good enough job of articulating the uniqueness of the context in organisations where members raise their own support. The main summary of the interviews is here but the three main things I found are: formative stories of workers; organisational complexity owing to the fellowship and partnership models; and accountability to the senders – the churches and individual who partner financially. In cross-cultural organisations you have the additional complexity of incredibly diverse teams – multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-skilled.
There are lots of different ways your own context might affect what you do with an idea. For example:
- Advice on building a followership among employees might not work as well with independently minded people who have spent months raising support and feel the need to honour a narrative about themselves and their place in the world.
- Advice on management processes designed for a business context with very clear hierarchy and structures will not necessarily work well in a fellowship organisation.
- Advice for creating and cascading vision won’t be straightforward to apply in an organisation where each member brings not just their own vision for ministry but the expectations of their sending churches and financial partners.
- Advice for developing new leaders within the context of a large corporation will hit a limit with leaders who took on the role reluctantly or are doing it part-time on top of their visa-platform role.
- Advice for building trust in an organisation where people share cultural and professional backgrounds or have been hired for “cultural-fit” will hit challenges if applied in a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-skilled environments that are aiming to reflect both the diversity of the global church and our oneness in Christ.
There will be times however, when advice from a very different context can be just what is needed to challenge accepted ways of doing things or reorient the organisation and help leaders serve with humility, clarity and flexibility.
3. Know the worldview and the idols
Everything has a worldview. This is something cross-cultural workers should know well with our understanding of missiology and anthropology. Sometimes this is really clear. Susan Kahn for example has written a book called Bounce Back: How to Fail Fast and be Resilient at Work. So much of the advice is relevant and timely for support-raised organisations. It recommends a model of agile working, based on trust and self-compassion, that is so needed for a world full of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. The world of support-raised ministry organisations is a prime example of those four things. However one response she advocates to change, disruptions and loss is to look to the Stoics as a model of resilience and self-control. Stoicism and Christianity are not particularly compatible. Justine Toh reflecting on the modern Stoicism trend within self-help literature acknowledges that it offers: “good, practical guidance for remaining calm in a crisis — and not by shielding yourself from the grim realities of life either.” However she claims the crucifixion and resurrection story “offers us a striking critique of the Stoic account of life … pictures instead an ordered and loving cosmos, guided by a recklessly loving and thoroughly engaged God.” As Christian leaders we don’t want to switch off our emotions but take our anxiety and the anxieties of those we lead to God.
The character of God and the model of cruciform leadership we see in Jesus present an even better way to embrace failure and resilience while not shutting off our emotions, while recklessly loving the people we serve with compassion. Should we not read Susan Kahn because of her worldview that celebrates Stoicism? I don’t think so, but read it carefully and thoughtfully through a Christ-shaped lens. Don’t proof-text it and look for a bible verse here and there that might align with a more Stoic way of viewing the world. Subjugate it, taking the good and making it better with our Christian knowledge of the way we were really designed.
Kahn is a straightforward example because the worldview is clearly there in a subheading. Other examples may be harder to discern. Sometimes they may at face value be quite anti-Christian but deep down reflect an understanding of humanity that is quite well aligned with a biblical understanding. Simon Sinek for example examines human emotions in a compelling and very non-stoic way but he is deeply humanist and puts it down to chemical and biological impulses. Just because he doesn’t understand the source of our created natures, doesn’t mean he doesn’t have wisdom to share. When I listen to Sinek I hear him wired towards service and endlessly optimistic about our potential for growth and good. I can’t help but feel that he understands the image we bear even if he doesn’t understand whose image it is. This is common grace, God doesn’t just give those within the community of faith the capacity to understand and formulate responses to the needs of the human condition.
It is important to remember that “even explicitly Christian work will have idolatrous discourse” (Timothy Keller, Every Good Endeavour, p. 197). I worry about the tendency to recommend any business literature from any context as long as it is written by a church-goer. Patrick Lencioni is open and explicit about his faith and the influence it has had on him. However, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, for all its wisdom and insight isn’t devoid of a very western worldview and idols of material success.
4. Know the context
Some books are written to address particular issues in a given context or culture. I loved Radical Candor and Kim Scott’s encouragement to care personally and challenge directly. It felt really easy to apply within a Christ-like model that demonstrates love first but doesn’t shy away from helpful rebuke. However, the more I reflect on what I am learning about American culture and how they do feedback, I realise Scott is trying to address some of the limitations she sees to the cultural dislike of direct negative feedback. Coming from an Australian culture where we are much more comfortable with negative feedback and actually struggle more with giving specific positive feedback, reading Radical Candor and trying to apply it unthinkingly with American colleagues might create friction or misunderstanding. Being direct in a culturally Australian way may actually look like being overly negative to some other cultures.
The best way to understand both worldview and context is to read a lot, read widely, read competing views, read literature from different cultural and professional backgrounds. Only then will you notice the subtle differences. Reading Larry Persons’ The Way Thais Lead: Face as Social Capital dramatically changed the way I viewed the relationships and leadership behaviours of people I worked alongside and partnered with in Thailand. His description of the Thai concept of barami, a form of face or honour built on humility, kindness, generosity and pure motives is definitely something western leaders could learn from. I am still working on learning from traditionally underrepresented views that will challenge and grow my thinking.
No one will be able to keep up with every new resource or theory out there. There are plenty of shorter articles, podcasts, TED talks and twitter threads. Embrace these as a way to get introduced to new ideas before committing to a 300-page book and as a way to take in a diversity of views.
5. Adapt for your context
Once you have got to know the worldview and context of a resource, and you have sifted it through what you know of the bible and your own context, you should be well equipped to really critically engage with the ideas, adapting them in ways that grow your leadership.
There are a number of possible limitations that might affect the way an idea might be implemented. Are there time limitations? If you have a team that all have visa-platform day jobs, convincing them to set aside a lot of time for planning and vision meetings might be really challenging. Similarly you might struggle to get add a lot of extra meetings if there is low commitment to your team because they all have other primary teams and see the sending organisation as primarily a place for support rather than direction and collaboration.
There will be other practical limitations like budget for travel, consultants or retreats. Virtual teams or teams which are a mix of virtual and co-located will mean you need to think about how to conduct something remotely or bridge the virtual divide. Mixed-language teams will present challenges for strategies like brainstorming. This is just a sample of the things you might need to think about as you ponder the application of ideas in your particular context. There will be solutions if you are intentional about crafting something that works in your context rather than adopting a strategy wholesale.
A biblical lens should always bring something better or deeper. If a secular resource talks about servant leadership, think about what it would mean to be a servant like Christ, giving up everything – our rights and even our life. If it talks about vulnerability and authenticity, what do we learn from the kind of relationships we see in the early church?
6. Involve your community
The final question I believe we need to be asking ourselves as we seek to grow as leaders is not what but who do we turn to in our quest to find and understand resources.
So many of the leaders I interviewed pointed to people or communities of people who had been effective resources in their leadership development. The most quoted passage about the usefulness of scripture is 2 Timothy 3:16. The things it says scripture is useful for, teaching, correcting, rebuking and training in righteousness, are entirely relational. The Bible is designed to be read in community. Doing so can help us get past our confirmation bias; the tendency we have to look for and agree with ideas that confirm what we already thought or felt. I believe we should be seeking this in both our spiritual formation and in the formation of our leadership character.
People are a resource, you can learn from their experience, they can help you understand resources and can prompt you to look at ideas you might not have otherwise. Don’t just look for people who will agree with you. Look for relational opportunities to see things in a different way or to refine and clarify your thinking.
Many organisations are prioritising mentoring and learning cohorts as part of leadership development training. This should provide a great place to start but as formal programs conclude, leaders should be looking to continue to develop a community. The concept of a Community of Practice is a framework that can be helpful for building this more intentionally. Communities of practice have the potential to get outside of formal programs and structures, crossing geographic and organisational boundaries. Above all look for people who bring a diversity of view points, who will challenge you, encourage you, consider different ideas and help guide you towards self-awareness, growth and change. “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10: 23-25)