I became a better thinker by becoming a better learner. To become a better learner, I had to quiet my ego.
Edward D. Hess, Learn or Die
It seems like a simple recipe. First, you quiet your ego. Then, you become a better learner. Finally, you emerge a better thinker. If you have ever witnessed a disaster being pulled from a smoking oven, you know that some recipes are more difficult to execute than others. The recipe for better thinking is one of those difficult recipes and ego is the spoiler.
Recently, I met with a group of leaders at a seminary in Central America. The blend of leaders from eight different countries provided a rich experience. Engaging leaders in dialogue about leadership transformation stirs passionate discussions about positive change and the unique challenges that threaten to derail progress.
It’s remarkable what happens when you pitch a broad question into a group of forty leaders. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to survey the cultural landscape. So I asked them, “What are the greatest leadership challenges you face in your context?”
Conversations about challenges are revelatory. When you throw a big question out into the mix, there is typically a brief hesitation. It can be moment of truth, or not. The pregnant pause awaits the first person to break the ice. Will it be one of those safe answers or will it be a candid evaluation? The question was easy enough. Everyone faces challenges. But raw honesty about specifics feels risky. Should I say something that draws attention to my feelings of inadequacy? Will my response make me sound like I’m weak? Am I playing the victim?
After the first response, the answers began to pour out in a steady stream. Each reply served to confirm that leadership in any culture will test your mettle. Whether in South, Central or North America, courage is a prerequisite. The basic challenges are fairly predictable. Resistance to change is common. Apathy is a challenge. The comfort of the status quo is pervasive. Some structures are obsolete. The fixed mindset of followers is difficult to overcome.
And then it happened. In the midst of the pedestrian responses, there was a breakthrough. A lone voice rose above the others. Someone found the nerve to speak the forbidden words of leadership. He found a way to quiet his ego and speak the truth. Sometimes I don’t know what to do. As if it were a magical moment, I repeated the words slowly. There are times that you don’t know what to do? The moment was as savory as a fresh cup of coffee from the mountains of Guatemala. After slowing digesting the words, the message began to deepen.
How did we arrive at this moment in leadership when raw honesty stands alone in stark contrast to rehearsed answers? Why have we come to believe that it is forbidden to utter such leadership blasphemy? Leaders confront reality, evaluate the obstacles that threaten success and then inspire others to move forward in a strategic direction. But, leaders never admit they are struggling to find the best way forward. Or do they? As long as you always know what to do, you don’t need to listen. If you are intellectually invincible, you’re not likely to be interested in growth, let alone impeccable honesty. It happens slowly. But, in the end, you can reach the point that your ideas are always the best. Leadership challenges are kept at arm’s length. After all, when your ego is loud, the real leadership challenges are always on the outside.
When King Jehoshaphat faced a difficult challenge, he prayed (1 Chron. 20:6-12). The fact that King Jehoshaphat prayed is not surprising. It’s a powerful prayer. In my Bible, I have underlined and highlighted the last line of the payer.
For we have no power against this great multitude that is coming against us; nor do we know what to do, but our eyes are upon You. (1 Chronicles 20:12)
The prayer of King Jehoshaphat provides a rare glimpse of a leader who was willing to confront reality. Ironically, the best way forward often begins with I don’t know what to do. The way begins there, but it doesn’t remain there. Honesty brings openness. Confession will move you from isolation toward your source of wisdom and the provisions that God has provided around you. When you face a challenge this week, begin with the following steps:
- Be honest about what you know and do not know and give others permission to do the same.
- Don’t hide behind a closed door – whether literal or metaphorical.
- Stay positive about the future.
- Take the initiative and engage with others.