When you read about the children of Israel, it is not hard to come away with a leadership perspective of “do these people just not get it?” Time and time again the people of Israel, despite seeing firsthand the powerful acts of God, seem to display a common pattern of drift, rebel, and forsake.
Psalm 78 gives some strong language about how God led His people:
In the sight of their fathers he performed wonders in the land of Egypt, in the fields of Zoan. He divided the sea and let them pass through it, and made the waters stand like a heap. In the daytime he led them with a cloud, and all the night with a fiery light. He split rocks in the wilderness and gave them drink abundantly as from the deep. He made streams come out of the rock and caused waters to flow down like rivers. (Psalm 78:12-16)
After reading of these great acts and how God led Israel, you might think there would be different wording than what you see in the following verses:
Yet they sinned still more against him, rebelling against the Most High in the desert. They tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved. They spoke against God, saying, ‘Can God spread a table in the wilderness?’ (Psalm 78:17-19)
If you know anything about the children of Israel, this pattern is not unusual – in fact, it seems to be status quo.
It’s a new year – what will be different?
As you look at this new year, perhaps you feel like your own leadership gets similar pushback to what you read above. You do, they don’t. You push. They push back. I remember having employees like this in a prior life before moving to Wisconsin. I was a team leader at a business and I distinctly recall two ladies arguing at the copy machine and it quickly turning into a shouting match and almost getting physical – in the middle of the office! Within this same team was another individual, who claimed to be a Christian, who would cuss at his clients on the phone.
Talk about feeling like my leadership was going nowhere! Some days, my leadership was discouraging at best and utterly defeating at worst.
If you have been in any type of leadership position, my guess is that you have encountered similar situations. And there are days that you are just at a loss for words.
We are in a new year – 2016 – and it is not unusual to look at the year ahead and at least give mental assent to what things you would like to change in your own leadership style, how you can grow, or where you can be more effective.
Great leadership is not always measured during the proverbial “good times.” Rather, leadership is best assessed in the types of scenarios such as I described above.
Though we are not God and cannot ascribe to His greatness, He does model for us what we are able to do as our leadership is infused by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Sometimes, despite our best intentions, acts of good by us seem to only get responded to with flattery, lies, and backstabbing.
What do we do? How are we to respond? What can our leadership look like in this new year?
Verse 38 provides the answer.
Yet he, being compassionate, atoned for their iniquity and did not destroy them; he restrained his anger often and did not stir up all his wrath. He remembered that they were but flesh, a wind that passes and comes not again. (Psalm 78:38-39)
Though I cannot emulate God in His perfection or character, as a believer in the gospel of Jesus, I do have the power of God within to draw upon in how I lead. And if you read through all of the different ways that Israel opposed the leadership of the Most High God, the response in verses 38-39 seems surprising.
But this is what should be expected of us as leaders when we are intrinsically motivated by Jesus’ agenda and not our own. And in these two verses are four responses we can model in our own leadership in 2016, whether those we lead are moving with us or against us.
“Yet He.” Those are powerful words, because they come after a verse that described how Israel treated the leadership of God.
But they flattered Him with their mouths; they lied to Him with their tongues. Their heart was not steadfast toward Him; they were not faithful to His covenant. (Psalm 78:36)
In spite of these responses to the leadership of God, we see a most unusual word – “compassion.” But that is exactly what a gospel response looks like. Mercy. Mercy only comes when you as a leader are not viewing your own image as priority one. When you are willing to be vulnerable and realize that those you lead need your leadership despite the fact that they may push you away.
And remember, compassion cannot be manufactured. It must be driven from within because of how God provides the grid through which I view others.
In addition to being compassionate, the next response is that God “atoned for their iniquity and did not destroy them.” That word “atoned” means to forgive, to cover over, to pacify, or make reconciliation. This means that we need to have somewhat of a teflon skin when it comes to leadership. Not taking everything personally. Not being defensive. Instead, we always seek to move to peace and right relationships.
I don’t know about you, but this is a tough one. I want my image to look untarnished and to have my guns loaded to point out the fault of the one making the accusation.
But that is not the way of the gospel. Because if our goal is to make disciples, then we have to set the stage to make that happen. And in leadership, you will never get an inroad with people by having to be right all of the time.
Reining in the anger
The third quality that God exhibits in His own leadership with Israel was not what He did do but what He didn’t. There was justifiable anger to be displayed, but He restrained it and of all the wrath that He could have poured out, He chose not to.
What love…what steadfast love. Is love my first response to those I lead? Or am I known by how quickly I point out the flaws or failings of others? If you were to poll the people you lead, what would they say about you? Are you known more for the anger that you could have displayed but withheld, or would those you lead say that you rarely withhold any emotional outburst from them?
Knowing the stuff of which people are made
I really like this phrase used of God: “He remember that they were but flesh.”
I think it is easy to forget this at times. As leaders, we have to expect to take criticism, having people disagree with us, or others making accusations without knowing all of the context or background – and receive it with grace. And as unfair as it may seem, we just cannot have that same expectation about those who are following. And part of it is what separates those who lead from those who follow.
It is important, if we are to be effective leaders in 2016, to remember the stuff of which people are made. The world is more dysfunctional than ever, and people are carrying more of their dysfunctional lives into the office or work environment. Sure, it would be nice if work-life and outside-work-life were kept separate, but that is not often the case.
People we lead are carrying loads, physically, emotionally, or spiritually, and if we are not careful, we can look at others with this “I can suck it up, why can’t you?” mentality that is unhealthy and unrealistic. I do not want to just be a leader, but a Christian leader – one who looks like Jesus. And that means understanding that many of the people we will lead live in a state of instability.
But that is where the gospel comes in.
If we are about discipleship, then remembering the stuff of which people are made demands we view them through a proper lens. I love this definition of discipleship by Jeff Vanderstelt:
Leading others to increasingly submit all of life to the empowering presence and lordship of Jesus Christ.
Regardless of the type of environment we work in, secular or Christian, this is the leadership that we are called to exhibit.
It’s a new year. And whether you make much or little of the notion of “new year’s resolutions,” the fact remains that gospel-centered leadership must look and feel different to those who are following you. Otherwise, we really have no business calling ourselves leaders.
It’s a new year! Lead on with renewed impact, motivation, and vision.
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