Understanding Leadership

Max DePree is widely quoted for saying, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.”

If it is possible that DePree is correct, what can we make of this idea? Surely it is counterintuitive in relation to what we think we want in leaders. When we say, in our churches or in our political entities, “We want new/better leaders!” just what is it we take ourselves to be needing? Do we recognize that we lack a proper grasp on reality?

My perception is that this is far from what we think we need. When we cry for leadership (as I see happening these days), I hear a cry to Make Things Happen! Our congregations are dying, being aged out of existence. Our denomination as a whole is suffering, wondering if we’ll still be here in a decade. We desperately need leaders who will Make Things Happen. Or to put things a bit less stridently, we need leaders who will bring about our desired outcomes.

That sounds good to me. Seeing a leader as someone who Makes Things Happen in an organization makes good sense. As a leader I certainly want to Make Things Happen. I don’t want my organization to die or just fade away. I can also be more specific. I want to reach more people. I want to see more people come to faith in Jesus and live as devoted disciples. I want to see the members of the church more actively committed to living out the church’s mission. If all these things were improving, quantifiably increasing, that is, then I could reckon myself to be a good leader.

But what if not making things happen isn’t the problem? What if the root problem is a faulty view of reality? What if DePree is right?

While it is plenty challenging to Make Things Happen, at least when we do we are often making people happy. It feels good to make people happy. But how many people perceive themselves to have a defective grasp of reality? How many people come to leaders saying, “Please help us perceive, understand, and navigate reality better?” If we were to say something like that, we might have to admit that we have some real weaknesses now.

Though I feel the pressure to Make Things Happen – since there are so many good things that need to happen – I’m attracted to DePree’s adage. What does “defining reality” look like in the church? I’ve argued elsewhere that doctrine functions to help us understand and live in the context of God’s continuing activity in history. When we properly grasp Christian doctrine, we can identify the characters, the setting, and the plot line up to now. With this identification in hand, we can then take the step of joining the drama ourselves. If we understand doctrine in this manner, then the proclamation and ecclesial instantiation of doctrine sounds an awful lot like what DePree calls “defining reality.” If all this is correct, then our leadership must be rooted in the practice of Christian doctrine and let our reality be defined by that rather than by what our culture (or modernity in general) has to offer.

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