Great leaders embrace paradox. I’m convinced of it. Tomorrow begins BOCO, our annual winter camp and this year we’re taking somewhere around 130 middle school kids to the mountains. I’m completely sold out to this idea. I’ve fasted for it, I’ve given money to it, I’ve cast vision with parents and leaders and students, I’ve driven for sign ups… I’ve been deeply involved. And the reason why is this: Deep down, in my bone of bones, I truly believe that many of the kids that come here this weekend will look back sometime down the road — maybe decades from now — and point to these three days as the time that God did something. This is the weekend that God moved. This is the weekend, maybe the first time ever, that they felt loved and valued and treasured for who they really are. This is the weekend that relationships are built and God breaks people and God comes crashing down in a big way. I have bold confidence that God will work in and through every person there and accomplish something amazing.
I have this confidence because I’ve seen it happen over and over and over again. It makes me want to be a better leader. And in my book, saying I want to be a better leader is equivalent to being used by God in more and more ways to accomplish that moving and that changing and all that stuff that God does. I want to be a part of it all. Every last bit of it. And I need to move closer to God to make that happen. I need to become better.
And one of the funniest and strangest things I’ve noticed is that extraordinary leaders do something extraordinarily uncommon:
They embrace paradox.
And paradox number one is this: Extraordinary leaders are always pushing the edge, even when they never see the needle move. Leaders are hardwired for results. We almost intuitively want to get as many metrics as possible. If we don’t know where we are, how can we know if we’re improving on getting there? How do we know if we’re winning without a score on the board? Good leaders are always watching that needle on the dashboard and pressing it further and further, millimeter by millimeter.
But extraordinary leaders? Extraordinary leaders push the needle even when there is no needle to watch. BOCO is a primo example. I firmly believe that what happens in the hearts of 130 some kids this weekend may not be seen for months, years, and in most cases decades.
Spirituality of students is not something you can wire to a dashboard so you can watch it grow and push the edge. It’s a lot more like planting seeds. Seeds you may never harvest. Seeds you may never even water. Extraordinary leaders plant those seeds faithfully, they’re always pushing, always planting, and never getting discouraged because the needle’s not moving because they fundamentally understand that there is no needle on some things.
Paradox two: Extraordinary leaders know that I am most teachable when I am most vulnerable. That’s a line I ripped off of an Andy Stanley tweet from a few weeks ago. I’m still wrestling with the depth of that statement. It doesn’t sound paradoxical on the surface, but I think it really is. We would think that we’re most teachable when we have the most information, or when we have the most experience, or when we’re the most ready to learn.
But I contend that we are our most receptive to teaching when we’re most vulnerable. When we open up and reveal who we really are. When we’re willing to lie down on the operating table and open up our deepest shames and fears. When we’re ready to tell the people around us things we’ve never told anybody. Those are the moments we learn the most from.
Paradox three: Extraordinary leaders always go first. This seems almost like a no-brainer. Leaders … lead … which implies they get to things before everybody else. But if we really contend that we’re most teachable when we’re most vulnerable, there’s a corollary: extraordinary leaders go first. When I lead my 7th grade groups and I have some feeling I’m trying to foster, which is usually vulnerability, I try to go first.
Leaders usually think they need to give off a “having it all together” vibe, but leaders set the pace. If the leader goes first and tries to act like they have it all together, they kill any chance for real vulnerability. (and, by extension, one of the most powerful teachability moments) But leaders that are real and go first in sharing their vulnerability set the bar for a real discussion with real vulnerability.
Paradox four: Extraordinary leaders know the more you give, the more you have to give.
It’s a scriptural principle from Jesus: the more that you give others, the more that gets returned back to you. I’ve found the paradox that the more I give away my time to others, the more time I have around to give. I once added up the number of kids I’ve tried to be in relational sync with (which I define as significant one-on-one time spent together outside of church directed programming) and was amazed at how much relational bandwidth I had.
3 years ago if you told me I’d be spending as many as sometimes 4 or 5 days a week spending time with kids and pouring out my life, I wouldn’t have believed it. How could you possibly spend that much time? How would you have time for anything else?
And yet, here I am, and most days I feel lazy because I feel like I have a ton of free time I’m wasting. I could be doing more but I’m not and I have a lot of free time to get myself in trouble.
The time thing is especially weird to me because it’s not like we can actually get more time, and yet the more I give, the more time I have available seems to go up. Beats me how that works. Paradox. And yet it’s been true of my talents, it’s been true of my money, ideas, credit, and time. Even at work, I’ve spent more time giving away credit for things I’ve done, and for ideas I’ve had, and I’ve found I’ve had even more and more ideas, and the ideas are getting better. In every single category of life — money, time, ideas, talent, etc — the more I’ve given, the more I’ve been overwhelmed at how much more I have to give. I’ve leaned in and given away lots and now my every category is overflowing. And now I don’t care about using any of it on myself, but for giving even more away.
Paradox five: The most extraordinary leaders are the most extraordinary servants.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to connect the dots back to Jesus washing the disciple’s feet. The best, most extraordinary leaders I know aren’t the rowdy guys wheeling and dealing. They aren’t the ones that attract attention to themselves. The best and most extraordinary leaders are servants first.
“Servant leadership” has become a fad term lately, but I love what Rick Warren said about it on twitter: Service is not a style of leadership but the very essence of it.
Leadership and service are fundamentally connected. Paradox.
I’m sure I could keep going, but those are the big paradoxes I’ve seen so far. Extraordinary leaders embrace paradox. We don’t know why they work, or why they’re true, but we know that in most cases these are all upside down values. And God’s kingdom is an upside down inside out kingdom compared to what the world values. God’s kingdom values love and service and sacrifice. Man’s kingdom loves power and fame and self-exaltation.
Is it any surprise leadership — real God-made and God-appointed leadership — is an upside down paradox?