Imagine picking up your car from the shop after a routine tune-up. The technician says, “Your car is in great shape. You do a great job in maintaining it.”
On your way home the brakes fail. You discover there is no brake fluid.
Now, how do you feel?
You go to the shop, find the technician, and say, “Why didn’t you tell me there was no brake fluid in the car?” And the technician says, “Well, I didn’t want you to feel bad. I was afraid you would get upset with me and I want us to be friends.”
Just how furious would you be?
Would you say something like, “I don’t come here for a fantasy-based ego boost! I come to have my car maintained. When it comes to my car, I want the truth.”
Imagine going to the doctor for your annual check-up. At the end of the examination, the doctor says, “You are in great shape. You have the body of an Olympian. Keep up the good work.”
Later that day, while climbing the stairs, your heart gives out. Tests show clogged arteries.
You go back to the doctor and say, “Why didn’t you tell me about my condition?” The doctor says, “Well, I did see that you were one jelly doughnut away from the grim reaper, but I didn’t want to hurt your feelings. I didn’t want any problems between the two of us. What if you started liking another doctor?”
Now, what would you say? “I don’t come here to be pacified about my health. When it comes to my heart, I want the truth!”
The Truth of Courageous Leadership
When something matters to us, we don’t want a false comfort based on pain avoidance. We want the truth. In any discussion of leadership, we if we are to build trust, we must deal with the risk of honesty and the gift of clarity. Truth-telling in the church is about courageous leadership. Specifically, it’s about embracing the skill of vulnerability.
Being a courageous leader is hard work. No one is writing hymns that sing, “Amazing truth, how sweet the sound.” As a leader, the closer the relationship, the harder the truth. In every one of us, there is the feeling that we do not want to hurt those who mean so much to us. That’s why so many leaders, in their relationships, run into the “Jack Nicholson theology.”
You Can’t Handle the Truth
Remember Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men?” Remember that famous scene near the end? It’s the one scene that even people who never saw the movie know. Nicholson’s a marine officer on the witness stand. He is angry. Out of his anger he shouts, “Do you really want to know what happened?”
Tom Cruise says, “I want the truth!”
Nicholson shouts, “You can’t handle the truth!”
A lot of leaders run on Jack Nicholson theology. We act like people can’t handle the truth. We don’t want to hurt others and we don’t want others to hurt us. Since when did caring for people and truth become divergent paths? When we give up our role as a leader for the sake of not hurting feelings, or being liked, or for keeping things peaceful, even our silence speaks loudly.
What Gets in the Way of Courageous Leadership
The question is, “What gets in the way of you being a courageous leader? We have learned that what get in the way usually becomes the way. We abdicate our role as a leader, contributing to establishing a church culture that becomes a barrier to disciple-making.
After reflecting on the work Brené Brown has done around courageous, daring leadership, we had to ask ourselves the question: What behavior and church cultural norms stand in the way of courageous leadership?
We need courage to focus on our mission of disciple-making. Do any of the following behaviors and church culture sound familiar? Do any of these behaviors stand in the way of your courageous leadership? Because what stands in the way, often becomes the way.
13 Behaviors that Get in the Way
- Do you avoid tough conversations?
- Are you being nice and polite in the place of being truthful and compassionate?
- Do you say one thing to the pastor’s face and another to your friend?
- Are you undermining the leadership of the church by gossiping or by making up what you do not know and passing it off as truth?
- Do you avoid talking about Jesus or the mission of the church because you don’t want to offend people?
- Do you participate in parking lot meetings? The meetings that take place after the meeting where you agreed with the decisions but outside the meeting you disagree?
- Do you fail to acknowledge your fears and feelings in regard to change in the church? Changes like a change of pastors or sharing a pastor or having fewer people capable to serve and to give.
- Does your church lack connection to the community? Are you no longer vulnerable? Do you avoid relationships with people in the church because you were hurt by someone or offended by someone in the past?
- Are you afraid of failure? Do you fear looking stupid or saying something wrong about situations, relationships, or opportunities in the church?
- Do you explain away or ignore external criticism? Have you ignored or rationalized the ministry environment and the current cultural situation inside and outside the church?
- Has denial and blame of others taken priority over examining your soul?
- Are there needed changes that no one is willing to make? Are there untouchable areas and unspeakable issues that are debilitating but are declared to be “off limits” from critique or discussion?
- Do people have a sense of hopelessness? Is there talk about tomorrow with any sense of clarity or excitement, or has nostalgia for an unreturning yesterday replaced the stepping into the future?
What’s the Solution?
There are no quick fixes or easy solutions to the complexities of the behaviors and cultural norms we just named. But one of the ways to address these behaviors is to develop our skills as brave and courageous leaders.
And that starts with learning the skill of vulnerability. If we want to share the truth, we’re going to need to practice the skill of vulnerability.
We can’t lead with courage without embracing vulnerability. No, we’re not talking vulnerability for vulnerability’s sake. What we’re talking about is relational vulnerability.
Here’s how Brené Brown describes vulnerability from her decades of research, “Vulnerability is the emotion that we experience during times of uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.”
Disciple-making necessitates vulnerability. Without vulnerability, there is no connection with people, let alone a connection with Jesus. To love is to be vulnerable. If we love God and are going to love our neighbors, we are going to be vulnerable. From the place of vulnerability, we can learn not only to tell the truth with compassion but to ask for what we need.
An Invitation to Practice
We know practicing courageous leadership means sometimes we will fall, sometimes we will fail. But we also know, “our ability to be daring leaders will never be greater than our capacity for vulnerability.”1 Vulnerability is a skill. It’s a skill we can learn.
It’s time to talk about what’s getting in our way so we can get it out of the way. If you’re willing to go on this journey with us, head over to the LeaderCast Podcast and listen to Episode 050: What Gets in the Way of Disciple-Making? We talk about the 13 cultural norms and behaviors above as well as share an experiment to begin practicing courageous leadership.
Tim Bias and Sara Thomas
- Brené Brown, Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts. , p. 11