May 8, 2017

Healthy Leadership

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A Note from Luminex: This morning’s blog post is the ninth in a 10-week series on leadership. Enjoy!

“Love seeks only the good of the one loved.”
– Thomas Merton

Emotions are not problems to be solved. They are signals to be interpreted.”
– Vironika Tugaleva

“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a sick society.”
– Jiddu Krishnamurti

Health is overrated.
That is, if health means some kind of equilibrium free from stress and pain. Think I’m crazy? The World Health Organization still defines health as a state of complete well-being, a scant difference from the oft-criticized definition of health being “absence of disease or illness.” Leaders adopt this model of health to their own peril.

Leadership, whether leading a social movement for change or trying to lead an institution into an uncertain future, is inherently opposed to equilibrium. There will always be tension, uncertainty, doubt, questions, difficulty and pain in leadership. This is even more prevalent in vulnerable and marginalized communities, where societal pressure and cultural injustice is multiplied. People seeking overall equilibrium and ease in life ought not to apply to leadership (James 3:1).

Perhaps we do better to call ourselves to attentive leadership, where leaders assume a posture of awareness and curiosity. Attentive leaders can notice their emotions, particularly the negative ones, and allow those emotions to become teachers. Our negative emotions can reveal systemic injustice, opportunities for compassion and can serve as a “check engine” light for needed rest and recovery. Emotions create the environment by which we can be attentive to our environment and then take principled action (out of our core values)

Inattentive leadership is dangerous.
Inattentive leaders do not avoid pain or tension, they simply ignore it, drink it, eat it, inject it, distract it away or blame others for it. Organizations, churches and communities led out of ignorance are more likely to marginalize, demonize and exclude their enemies. The most extreme examples of this toxicity are cults where dissenters are punished and shunned. However, many Christians and churches fall into the same trap- and always have. Just look at the horrifying story of 3 John, where toxic Diotrephes creates a system of domination and uniformity out of a desire to be first. The same pattern plays out today as well; after all, narcissists are more likely to be promoted until the emotional wreckage they leave becomes greater than the benefit of their certainty and confidence. As Fr. Richard Rohr says, “If we don’t transform our pain, we most assuredly will transmit it.”

My natural tendency is to project my discomfort and pain- to blame someone else for it. It’s a tendency that affects my marriage, my parenting, my leadership, my friendships, and ultimately my capacity to engage the stranger and the marginalized. I am sure that my spiritual director would tell you that it affects my communion with God as well. I am also sure that I don’t want to walk the road of Diotrephes- I would rather walk the road of Christ, the way of attentiveness.

For me, that has meant increasing my contemplative prayer through guided meditation and silence (I use the app Insight Timer), joining an ecumenical contemplative prayer circle hosted by a friend, hiring a spiritual director and growing my capacity to tell the truth to close friends and confidants. My way is not your way, but I invite you to consider your own attentiveness:

  1. Ask yourself what systems and structures are affecting you today, and what effect you are having on the systems and structures around you.
  2. Consider your own emotional state- what are you emotions teaching you? What are they warning you about, or what are they inspiring within you?
  3. Is your current pace sustainable? What is your plan to adjust, if and when it becomes necessary?
  4. Who is your community of support and accountability?
  5. What are you pretending not to notice inside of you and your communities?

While being attentive to self and community is not the only way to grow as a leader, I am not sure of any leader who grows without becoming more attentive.

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