The urgent necessity of failure

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Used under CC 2.0 John Lui

No one likes it, no one looks for it. But if you don’t fail, you don’t learn. Part of the problem is that we’re taught that success is what matters most, we applaud achievements, we laud those who get things done. We hear about the time when everything works, but we rarely consider what happened in order to get there.

Any scientist will go through countless fruitless experiments before they hit the right formula. Thomas Edison is the person most frequently cited in this context: “I haven’t failed,” he said about his attempts to invent the light bulb, “I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work”.

Likewise we perhaps know in the back of our mind the stories of people who took numerous setbacks on their way to whatever it is that means we know of them now. JK Rowling was rejected by many publishers, George Washington lost five of his first seven battles. It is because of their success that we know their names, but it is due to their failures they were able to achieve what they did.

My personal favourite is a man who we today remember for his success. His family was forced from their property when he was 7, his mother died two years later. Aged 22 he failed in business, ran for the state legislature the next year and lost, then lost his job and failed to get into law school. At 26 he was engaged to be married for his fiancé to then die. He had a nervous breakdown and spent six months in bed. After getting into the state legislature he tried to become Speaker but lost. Aged 34 he ran for congress and lost, ran again a few years later and won, only to lose his seat two years after that. When he was 45 he ran for the senate, but lost. A couple of years later sought the nomination to the vice presidency, but received less than 100 votes. Two years after that at 49 tried again to become a senator and failed. Aged 51 in 1860 Abraham Lincoln became president of the United States.

Failure is more than a bad thing that might happen. It is inevitable and it is essential, it’s the thing that pushes us forward, if it was easy where would the challenge be? Handling failure is at the heart of developing character, but character is more than just being stubborn. It’s not in our natural instinct to do a lot of the things that we need to do to build our character, we are not always diligent, we’re not always charitable, not always slow to anger or quick to love.

We need something to change, to switch our mind set. Paul writes Romans 12: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

As Tom Wright says in Virtue Reborn: “Many people expect that virtue will happen to them automatically simply because they take part in the practices discussed here. But the practices aren’t like prescribed medicine that will cure you whether or not you understand how it works. The key to virtue lies precisely, as we have seen, in the transformation of the mind.”

Failure drives us forward when we have an idea of what we want to achieve. Failure tells us that we haven’t made it. But for that failure to prompt us to press forward we have to have a clear idea of what we are striving for. David Brooks, in his book Road to Character, looks at a series of people who throughout history have paid attention to the development of character over and above personal achievement – some of whom went on to achieve quite incredible things. It’s an illuminating book, and one which inspires the reader to prioritise eulogy virtues, the things we want to be remembered for, over resume virtues, the things we put on our CV. But it’s also a book with a hole at its core. Brooks sometimes alludes to the belief systems that provoke people to develop good character, yet he views them really as only a prompt towards a stoic almost Churchillian never-give-in attitude. This sort of attitude is crucial in many circumstances, in fact I’m in the middle of a new biography of Churchill which focuses on the role of his Christian motivation, but it isn’t enough.

If recalcitrant obstinacy is all that drive us forward, the thing which is our goal will become all consuming, failure will hurt each time it comes and success will be the end of the road – even if it is an end with a stunning panorama. But if the thing we aim for is only ever the second most important thing, we will keep perspective: when we fail it won’t be the end of the world, when we succeed we will continue to look beyond.

That’s why prioritising the growth of character is crucial but not for its own sake. We don’t act with integrity so at our funeral someone will eulogise about our honesty. We don’t prioritise relationships just so we are remembered as a great father, husband, brother and friend, as though the remembrance is what matters most. Building character can become just another thing which we strive to achieve. Without a perspective that stretches beyond our own accomplishments and failures character can become about making me into the best me. And that distorts the heart of good character. Character requires failure, and for that failure to mean something it needs a goal which is above and beyond us all.

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What exactly is leadership?

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A question that gets harder the more you think about it

Sounds like a simple question: what is leadership? But it’s one of those things that the more you think about it the more complex it gets. Leadership is something you know when you see it, and notice when it’s absent.

And the more I have thought about it, and thought about it a lot I have done over the past year, I’ve got more and more tangled up. So below is an attempt to unwind the strands of thought about leadership, especially among Christians, and even more specifically about Christian leadership outside the church.

There are two different tendencies toward leadership I’ve observed, both of which I think miss the mark in some way. The first is that leadership is something reserved for an elite few who are in charge, this usually means people with formal positions of authority, labels and status which show that they are in charge. Whether this is politicians who are leading the country, chief executives leading companies or pastors leading churches. A leader is the person at the top who is in charge.

The second perspective is that everyone is a leader, but if everyone is leading, who is following? It also leads to a view of leadership that becomes a catch all terms for multiple different attributes, and in the process downgrades a vital and important role.

Leadership in church

A brief side note here about church leadership which demonstrates some of the complexity in using the word. We (Christians) talk about church leaders, but when we do that we are collecting up a variety of different roles and bringing them together. When there is a single person in charge of a church it is relatively easy to refer to them as the leader, the vicar, minister or pastor is in charge. But when we break down what that single leader does we then have to ask which of these multiple roles makes them a leader. Is it that they are the shepherd of a congregation, or the primary teacher, or the administrative manager, or the vision caster? Many churches have recognised these different aspects as well as the enormity of the task facing one person given responsibility for them all so there are often different people who take on each aspect. In some churches there is an eldership made up of the senior leaders who act as the primary decision making body, in other churches a lay eldership oversees the more visible ‘leaders’. If we’re looking for a single leader you either go for the person with the greatest influence on the congregation or the person with ultimate authority.

Who is a leader?

This causes me to reflect on what exactly is leadership, and who is a leader? Perhaps the first step is to recognise that leadership is not a fixed state of affairs and being a leader isn’t a permanent position. This immediately tends away from restricting leadership to formal positions because it is possible, and frequently occurs, that someone has a title which might suggest they are a leader but are not actually leading. To be a leader you have to lead.

The second step is to recognise that leadership is context specific, so you can be a leader in one place and not in another. You might run your business and be a leader there, but not be a leader in your church or in the sports team you play in on Saturday mornings.

These perspectives lead me to view leadership as quite broad, it means that many more people are leaders at some time or place. Some of these contexts will be highly visible, others will be more fleeting and unnoticed. Added to this are differences in leadership styles and the type of leadership required in different settings.

Earlier in the year I went away to Snowdonia with some friends, we were attempting a challenge walk, and I was in charge of the walk. When we were on the mountain there was little doubt that I was leading. I had organised the endeavour, I set the course, and although I consulted with my fellow hikers, the difficult decisions to take were mine. But then we got back to the converted chapel we were staying in my authority was murkier if present at all. We were a group of friends on a weekend away, I found the shifting sands awkward, from requiring organised plans and clear decisions, we now were mutual participants in a shared activity – to try and impose the same sort of leadership would be weird, and I’m not sure my friends would have wanted it!

And yet, even in friendship settings we recognise leadership. It is evidently true that some people lead friendship groups, you see it when different people organise events or social gatherings, one person may strive to gather people together with great difficulty and another do it with ease. This is not just about personality and popularity, I know I am a good organiser, I can ensure things run smoothly and with limited potential for things to go wrong, but when it comes to less formal settings I find it more awkward. I work better where there are clearer delineations of roles and responsibilities.

In the language of start-ups, what is the minimal working model of leadership? If we recognise some things as leadership and other things as not, where does the border lie, is it as straightforward as either leading or following, and in most things in life you are doing one or the other? I think there is a better way of looking at it, and it starts from recognising that we can both lead and follow at the same time.

No-one ever acts completely autonomously, we are always taking our cue from something and often someone. As a Christian I am first and foremost a follower of Christ, and while I may lead in some contexts and follow in others, this occurs within the context of following Christ. Similarly, when I lead I may well be in turn following the lead of other people. Many organisations, whether businesses, churches, or elsewhere, are built on a similar model of delegated leadership: I can have leadership responsibility at work and still be following other leaders. Leaders delegate authority to other people with the freedom to exercise it but to do so within certain bounds.

Is everyone a leader?

One of the smallest scales of leadership is leading a family, this is rarely thought of within the leadership literature, and the number of people impacted may be small, but the responsibility is significant and the consequences of that leadership hard to underestimate. It is the parents, and for some people specifically the father, who lead the family, they set the boundaries of acceptable behaviour, they model a culture and characteristics which children adopt and they demonstrate skills (from walking to speaking, from football to trainspotting) they want children to learn.

I have moved towards thinking that everyone at some point, in some way, exercises leadership, and in that context is therefore a leader. This isn’t quite the same as saying that everyone is a leader, and certainly not in the way leadership is commonly considered, but it breaks down the elite mentality that leadership is only for a special few. Further, it means that the task of growing in leadership is something that we should all give at least some attention to. For some it will be a much more significant part of the numerous roles they take on, and therefore probably require greater focus, for others it will be more fleeting, but I struggle to think that anyone will never benefit from developing as a leader.

There’s one other aspect that proved contentious when I suggested it on twitter, we have role in leading ourselves, and this may be a foundational stage to effective leadership in any other context. In this I am influenced by a book I’m currently reading on the history of Jesuits, Heroic Leadership, by Chris Lowney, a Jesuit priest who went on to work for JP Morgan before looking at what leadership lessons could be learnt from the 450 year old Society of Jesus. One of the pillars of the Jesuits is self awareness, and key to this is leading yourself – the idea is that you can only lead yourself anywhere if you are first aware of who you are and what you are doing. Otherwise you will be led by something else. I would develop this concept within a clear framework of first following Christ and within that we can know our identity and from this develop our purpose and lead ourselves in that direction.

This was contentious because a reply came straight back asking whether I wasn’t just talking about self-discipline? I think it involves self-discipline, but as part of a suite of tools which we use to get somewhere. The key to me considering this as leadership is the element of direction, we want to get somewhere and we lead ourselves in such a way to get there. (This also includes leadership to stay in the same place, especially standing firm in the face of pressure.)

What this isn’t is a description of good leadership, or even effective leadership – leadership can be effective without it being good. However, I would argue that if leadership is ineffective it isn’t really leadership. A further question which was posed to me was whether leadership is, or at least should be, intertwined with goodness and morality. I probably agree that leadership should have a focus towards the good, but I don’t think it is intrinsic to its definition, we recognise leaders in all context include when they are leading themselves, people and organisations in a bad direction.

So my holding position – i.e. one which I hold light enough to be willing to change – is that everyone leads sometimes, and therefore understanding leadership, and learning how to do it well, is vital for everyone.

What is leadership?

That’s the who of leadership, but not necessarily the what. For that I return to two terms I’ve used repeatedly above and sometimes in an almost interchangeable sense: influence and authority. Leadership is about having and using authority, and it is about influencing people. On a microscale personal leadership fits this, but I believe it also fits across the board.

Within influence and authority lie many other aspects of leadership, probably foremost the use of resources – whether that’s materials, people or institutions. I could possibly simplify this even more and say that leadership is about the use of power. Influence and authority are types of power, authority usually considered the more formal and influence the softer. This is also where the leader/follower dichotomy breaks down, exercising power can be a lonely task and requires decisions that will sometimes alienate people. If the purpose of leadership is keeping people following you then difficult decisions may be ducked, but if the purpose of leadership is to do something, and the tool of leadership is the power to get that done, whether people follow is often important but only part of the equation. This isn’t to sound dismissive, working with people and keeping them part of what a leader is doing is usually essential, but it is not the overall goal, if it becomes that then leadership becomes a popularity game.

One reason why I prefer the term power than influence or authority is that the latter are often used as euphemisms to mask what we otherwise might shy away from. Influence is the use of power, authority is the use of power. Power can be viewed negatively within Christian circles – although if we’re talking about the power of the Holy Spirit that’s a different matter – it is seen as dangerous and corrosive, we follow Lord Acton in his aphorism ‘power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. But power is a gift, it is given from God for us to use, He gave Adam and Eve power in the Garden of Eden, Jesus gave his disciples power, and the Holy Spirit filled the early church with power. That we sometimes use it badly, is not a reason to despise it, but the motivation to see it stewarded with greater care and integrity.

The reason we have been gifted with power is to use it for a reason, and that reason is not our own greatness, or our own ends, we have power so that we can work as co-heirs with Christ, and the work that we are called to is front and central in the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’. We are not just killing time until Christ’s return or our death. We are part of His work to redeem all of creation.

Summary (until I change my mind): leadership is the use of power to achieve something

Maybe women shouldn’t lead churches [mutuality 2012]

“There are as many differences within each gender as between them.” These were words I wrote in the very first post on this blog last summer.

And then at the turn of this year I meandered around the topic of women in leadership through a few posts of different tone and focus and before long moved on to different topics that captured my attention and garnered more interest from readers. I also asked several women to write pieces on the topic very aware that being a man I had a particular and limited perspective. But that never came to pass.

I’m writing this post as part of #mutuality2012 a blog series and synchroblog hosted by Rachel Held Evans. And as I write I’m faintly conscious of an expectation that subliminally sits on any guys joining in this discussion: how to be apologetic for the way in which men have restricted the ministry of women in church and dominated them in family life, all the time being as fulsome as possible in support of women doing all things men do, and doing so in the most lyrical and disarming tone.

Except I may strike a discordant note, I’m not 100% convinced that all roles within a church should be gender neutral. This issue does not affect me in the way it does many others. In fact there are few people it affects less. I am a man, I am not married nor in a relationship, and I do not lead a church. So the words scattered on this page necessarily do not bear the same connection to personal experience that others may string together.

But then again, lets reflect on the nature of the body of Christ brought together in the church. And maybe what affects one of us affects us all. Maybe the difficulties experienced by some and inflicted by others are not the exclusive preserve of their perpetrators and victims. Maybe, what wounds one wounds us all.

So while I write from an abstract stance I am not disconnected from the issue. I am part of a church with women in it, I lead a small group with one, I have friends for whom this matters much, and others who frankly don’t care. And here comes the crux. I go to a church which would be broadly classed as complementarian, in that there are roles, or more precisely a role (that of elder) which only men hold.

I hesitate long and hard as I write these words. I have chosen to be a part of this church. I knew what they believed before I joined and have found them more open to women teaching than I had caricatured them as. And in choosing to be a part of this church I have therefore the need to respect the decisions the church takes. This is not an absolute abdication of opinion, but it is an awareness of the choice that I have taken.

But I am a nomad. This is not the church family I grew up in: there things were different. As a young child before clear recollection women wore head coverings in my church, until one day the church conducted a volte-face and stocks in conservative female head wear plummeted. One of the very best teachers in the church was a woman and my younger sister preached before I did. The family of churches it now belongs to is firmly in the egalitarian camp.

So I stand at a junction seeing down both routes and here is my hunch. It’s not a theological point of view. Or one evidentially proved. Just a hunch. I would rather the church did all it could to invest in leaders of whatever shape, size or gender.

My biggest problem with restricting roles to men alone, and by extension categorising women into a particular role, is not so much stopping women from holding those roles but the message that it sends which places a concrete ceiling above women in the church.

Maybe women shouldn’t lead churches. But what is the very worst that can happen if they do?

Maybe some of the men who lead churches shouldn’t be leading them.

A regular refrain of proponents of women in leadership is that it’s about gift and not gender. I want to throw that one away. Some of the very worst leaders are those with the greatest of gifts but the weakest character.

But nor is it all about gender. There are as many differences within each gender as between them. There are men that are singularly unsuited to leading churches. If gender is not a fixed set of characteristics, is it simply biology that dictates who should and should not take certain roles?

Yet there are some characteristics that seem more prevalent in one gender over the other, and when roles require such characteristics is it necessarily wrong that one gender is represented more than the other?

If we take a look at the issue through a different lens maybe we may get a better perspective. The push for more women in political leadership comprises two distinct strands. The first suggests that because men and women are equal they should be equally represented in political institutions. The second posits that because men and women have different traits, it is necessary that political institutions have a balance of both in order to benefit from the distinct skills and characteristics that each gender brings.

Is political authority male dominated because the nature of the role demands characteristics that are predominately found in men, or is it because we have defined political authority around the characteristics that are found in the men that have historically and contemporaneously occupied those posts?

Is church leadership male dominated because it requires certain characteristics, or have we defined it around those characteristics?

I like the idea of a church that is prepared to get things wrong. I like the idea of a church that invests in developing leaders.

If we open our eyes to the variety of characteristics within each gender and turn off our presumptions about gender roles we may end up in a familiar place. After all surely something lies behind where we currently are. But we may also end up somewhere different. Maybe more women will lead churches. Maybe more men will raise children at home. Maybe they won’t.

Maybe in the most equitable of worlds we would still have a church whose leadership is overwhelmingly male.

But I remember we don’t live in that world. And we need to find a response that recognises the uncertainties and difficulties and the challenges. That doesn’t deny the disagreements. For me, as someone caught between the egalitarian and complementarian camps, not feeling fully welcome in either, these means we give this thing a go. We embrace mutuality. What’s the worst that could happen?

This post is part of #mutuality2012 a series hosted by Rachel Held Evans

Women in leadership: gender generosity

Theology is probably not my strongest point, I get impatient with it, I want to move on, I want the answers with everything resolved and neatly organised into custom made boxes. But that’s not how theology works. Maybe by its very nature it has an unresolved tension that runs right through it: a complexity that permanently remains just out of grasp.

It can’t be ignored altogether, but nor can it be rushed. And the legacy of two millennia of deliberation enforce a hesitancy against jumping to conclusions and the risk of hubris of thinking that you know for certain what others have wrestled for generations over.

So I step with some trepidation into the theological terrain of gender. And I do so knowing that behind me sit not only theology but also tradition and reason and culture, all things that flavour and colour the debate. A tradition that has seen men take the primary roles in public and church life, a tradition that suggests a woman’s role is with her family. A culture that tells me men and women are equal and all discrepancies must be removed. And reason that struggles between the two, trying to use the witness of scripture to arbitrate between what is and what should be.

The fact that for pretty much all of the visible history of the church men have held all the leadership roles does not tell us very much. It could either mean that it’s been right all along, and we should carry on as we are. Or that we’ve got it colossally wrong and history just anaesthetises us from this.

I think that the New Testament tells us two broad messages about the role of women within the church and a third that relates more broadly to gender, and maybe specifically to marriage. Here I will deal with the first two and leave the third to a later post.

The first message I pick up is that women were clearly active and present in many, and probably all areas of the early life of the church. Men are clearly the dominant force in the early church and they are the witnesses that we look to in the letters of Paul, the ministry of Peter and the training of Timothy. But women had a role too and from the hints we pick up about Phoebe, Junia and Priscilla their role was significant. Junia was described as highly regarded among the apostles. Scott McKnight has investigated this particular lady’s history and how through many centuries she was exorcised from the text and turned into a man. Women read scripture in public, helped instruct apostles, they hosted churches, they financed ministries, and as an apostle, which Junia was, would have planted churches. The churches we know now cannot easily be compared to those of the first century so working out which roles in our present churches they would occupy if they lived now, or if our churches existed then is a tricky exercise. So instead, I’ll satisfy myself with a broad description that women were significantly involved in the life and leadership of the early church.

The second message is that there are clear prohibitions on the activity of women in the early church. Mostly this involves women not being permitted to speak in church and have authority over men, but it also addresses head-wear and make-up. These, as the most explicit commands relating to gender and the church, have traditionally won the day, and are certainly hard to ignore.

Other arguments are also marshalled against allowing women to occupy positions of leadership which I believe to be spurious and distracting, for example citing the male only membership of Jesus’ twelve disciples. While true as fact it means nothing, absence does not confer endorsement. I would take the issue of slavery as a parallel, Jesus did not speak out against slavery, that does not mean he condones the practice.

Another that I find hard to give credence to is the use of the masculine pronoun when referring to apostles and teachers, and the command that they should be the husband of one wife. Firstly, I see very few churches refusing to permit single men in positions of leadership, even if they would not allow women to occupy them. Secondly, lets play a little game of futurism. In a few centuries time records of the Conservative Party in the early twenty-first century come to light. Historians debate whether or not the party allowed women to hold the post of chairman, after all, the title suggests it refers explicitly to a man. The problem comes with the records of Sayeeda Warsi, otherwise recognisable as a woman, but described as a chairman. What are we to think, that this was in fact a man?

As I summarise very briefly the theological landscape surrounding gender and the church I think we have to hold two apparently contradictory messages and decide where that leaves us. One, women were in positions of responsibility and leadership in the early church, secondly that women are instructed not to teach.

The problems that I have with drawing too heavily from the passages that tell of women not speaking in church is that our adherence to them, even in churches that place strict confines on the roles a woman can take, is patchy. For example, very few churches operate a mandatory policy of head-scarves for women. Nor do churches insist women must be completely silent in church as passages in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 suggest. The point I am making is that even in conservative churches these passages are parsed and interpreted before application.

It seems to me that one of these themes must be wrong, or at least wrongly applied if interpreted as a universal command. And I think that’s where we start to get towards some sort of resolution, for me it is easier to see how the commands requiring women to be silent and not teach men are reflective of specific situations in the early church. It is hard to write off the practice and ministry of women who are commended as highly regarded. Quite where this leaves us I am not certain, but it does show the direction in which I am travelling.