Leading through the Uncomfortable

By Dick Koehneke

This is the third in a series of four articles on speakers at the August 10-11 Global Leadership Summit organized by the Willow Creek Association of Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago.  This article is about the message of Bryan Stevenson, an activist and lawyer who has dedicated his career to helping poor people and people in prison through his leadership of the Equal Justice Initiative.  In his speech on effective leadership he made four key points.  As we celebrate the Reformation 500th, I’m reminded that Martin Luther did all four of these things to one degree or another.   

[My comments are in brackets.]

  1. Get close to the people you are serving. Proximity enhances leadership. When you get close to the people you are serving and the problems they are having, you begin to understand the nuances and subtleties of the situation.  But the problem is that most of us have been taught to stay away from “the bad parts of town.” 

[Martin Luther left the monastery and got close to all sorts of people.  Leading from a distance is much more comfortable than leading from up close.  As someone has said, “I’m a very Godly person until I encounter another person.”  The pulpit and the podium provide a safe distance from which to analyze problems and proclaim solutions.  Getting close to people is risky; it means I might have to change my thinking and maybe even realize that what I’ve been thinking has been wrong.  The people who have made the biggest positive difference in my life were (are) willing to take the risk of coming close to me.  Is that true for you?]

  1. Change the narratives that sustain the problems we are trying to address. When we as a nation declared war on drugs, we decided that drug-dependent people are not patients in need of care; they are criminals who need to be in jail. We use the criminal justice system to deal with the problem of drug abuse and addiction.  We need to change the narrative from incarceration to treatment.  

[Luther changed the narrative on a ton of things.  What are the narratives that sustain the problems we Christians are trying to address?  How do we view people who do not know Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord?  Do we try to put ourselves in their shoes in order to understand them?  Or do we label them and stereotype them in the broad category of “unbelievers”?  When I feel that someone has labeled or stereotyped me in some way I am not as likely to be as receptive to their communication as I am if I feel they affirm me as an individual person with my own history, needs, wants, strengths and weaknesses.  How is it with you?]

  1. Stay hopeful. Hopelessness is the enemy of effective leadership. Hope gets you to stand up when others tell you to sit down, to speak when others say be quiet.  It takes courage to stay hopeful in the face of daunting circumstances, but it is our hope that will save us. 

[Christian hope and human optimism are two different things.  Optimism says, “Hang in there; things will get better.”  Christian hope says, “No matter what happens, I believe God is working out His purposes, and I will continue to trust and serve Him.”  That was the conviction that sustained Martin Luther. We need to make sure our hope is consistent with God’s Word and His will, not based on personal preferences or fantasies of some sort.  We need to stay in contact with trusted, mature Christian people who will let us know whether we are really working in hope or are laboring under delusions.  Someone wrote, “Overconfidence gives you the courage to act on your faulty convictions.”  Make sure you are hopeful, not overconfident.]

  1. Be willing to do uncomfortable things. The best leaders are willing to do things that are uncomfortable. As humans, we are biologically wired to do what is comfortable.  But positive changes occur only when people are willing to do uncomfortable things.  Leaders have to position themselves in uncomfortable places.  We need to connect with our own brokenness, which makes us very uncomfortable.  That’s how we identify with the brokenness of the people we are trying to serve.  Effective leadership is not measured by how we treat the rich and powerful, but by how we treat the poor and neglected. 

[I love my comfort zone, and I think you probably love yours too.  Here’s the problem, as I heard someone say:  “If you’re completely comfortable, you’re probably not growing” – and you’re probably not leading creatively either.  Problems, challenges and crises force us out of our comfort zone into our growth zone.  It would be wonderful if we could grow comfortably, but for some reason that doesn’t seem to happen very often.  As the saying goes, “That’s why they call it growing PAINS.”  Am I willing to force myself out of my comfort zone into my growth zone?  Am I willing to lead others out of their comfort zones into their growth zones?  What about you?]      

Martin Luther is a good example for us.  Here’s the ultimate, perfect example of someone getting out of the comfort zone to get close to people who need help:  “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”  (2 Corinthians 8:9)

“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5-8)