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Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Leadership Prodigal

Dr. Gary Roberts
Robertson School of Government

“When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. ‘Do you understand what I have done for you?’ he asked them. ‘You call me 'Teacher' and 'Lord,' and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them" (John 13:12-17).

One of the great paradoxes of the Christian faith is that the foundational principles are simple to grasp and communicate, but extremely challenging to practice. Salvation is freely given to all those who confess Jesus as Lord, but confession is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for achieving the fruits of the Holy Spirit and working out our salvation with fear and trembling. It is relatively easy to become a Christian, but immensely challenging to live as one. We must struggle against three powerful enemies: the inherently self-centered motives of the flesh, the temptations produced by the worldly idols of success and affirmation, and the presence of spiritual evil.

This profound truth reinforces the challenges of servant leadership in the workplace, the path less well traveled. The MA program at RSG has the high privilege and daunting responsibility of instructing students in the character and competency elements of servant leadership. We stress that competence without character will be like a silent colony of termites undermining the pillars of our witness leading to an inevitable structural collapse. We instruct students on the twin towers of accountability and encouragement that define Golden Rule love in the workplace. As it states in scripture (Hosea 4:6), “my people perish for lack of knowledge,” but knowledge alone does not protect us from a gradual erosion of fervor and dedication to serving others.

A leadership prodigal is a manager who knows the truth, but has abandoned his or her first love for four major reasons: the path of expediency in realizing the temptations of obtaining worldly riches (power, fame, recognition, etc.), succumbing to burnout and fatigue from the bone weariness inherent in well doing without adequate rest and boundaries, the “fear of man” in which we place the approval of others over God and principle, and the blinding influence of pride that extinguishes the light of humility and transparency. The leadership prodigal is in dangerous waters as indicated in John 13:17, as we are blessed if we know the truth and embrace it, and conversely, there is a curse if we understand our obligations and choose not to honor them.

How do you know if you are a leadership prodigal? One indicator is the disquiet in our souls as our conscience convicts us. Success born of impure motives or means will always leave a sour taste after the initial sweetness of success subsides. Another indicator is the feedback received from peer employees and subordinates. We will receive clear signals of a discrepancy between what we say and our actions, a “hearing and doing” gap, through a noticeable erosion of passion and commitment, a bitter fruit of employee disengagement based upon a reduction in trust.

What is the solution when one is lost in the wilderness of the leadership prodigal? The first strategy is prevention which entails a ruthless and ongoing commitment to testing our motives and actions. We must identify the root cause of our actions. A journal is an effective means for identifying long term patterns and changes in our behavior. Secondly, embrace an ongoing commitment to 360 degree appraisal through an accountability partner and mentor who will speak truth into your life. Finally, embrace subordinate and peer appraisals that provide candid feedback on how others perceive our actions. As was the case with the prodigal son, we all stray from the straight and narrow, but we possess the blessed assurance that if we take one step toward God, He will come running to us!

1 comment:

  1. Dr. Roberts,

    It is refreshing to see an article with profound truth, grounded in scripture. Thank you for including scripture, for I am reminded of the words of Christ, “The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life” (John 6:63b). As a Regent alum and adjunct professor of international relations (at a secular university), I spent the last semester explaining the very principle you mentioned—excellence is a combination of character and competency.

    Beyond my job, however, none of this would be possible if I lack the biblical integrity to carry out such principles. While my speech has been characterized as being “peppered with Scripture” many critics have been more convinced by the power of the Spirit to carry out such principles. By the grace of God, I intend to embrace a life of integrity. In the book, Integrity, Henry Cloud mentions that the Oxford Dictionary defines integrity as the “state of being whole and undivided,” like an integer (whole) number. While wholeness is often achieved through a lifelong process of growth and development, truth is most effective when we produce good fruit on a continual basis.

    On a final note, when I translate truth, it often extends beyond conservatism given my clientele. Thankfully I found a few Regent professors who stood out from their peers and said through their actions, “Yes, I understand that you have liberal tendencies. You were a governor’s intern for a democratic governor. And I will teach you how to have integrity even if must walk in dangerous places. No, you do not have to be conservative to make a difference for our God; you just have to follow Him. And like Daniel and Joseph, God will honor you if you continue to honor Him.”

    P. Francais, a pseudonym