Great leaders are always growing and learning. They read regularly. They watch attentively. They ask important questions and they listen to wise counsel. I’ve always been a student of great leaders, and have allowed the wisdom and paths of those leaders to shape me personally as I lead and mentor others. I continue to discover that this forming and shaping has not only impacted my leadership style, but also my personhood—the way I see myself in relation to God and how I respond in my relationships with other people. Growing in wisdom and being secure in my own identity is what allows me to lead and love well. Security and safety are great confidence builders. They’re like rocket fuel that energizes us to give generously of our time, resources, and talents.
This summer, I had the opportunity to lead and mentor teenage girls through my nonprofit ministry, Leadership LINKS. I worked with a fabulous group of friends and Board of Directors who know their identity in Christ. Together, we committed to freeing these future leaders of any false sense of themselves by helping them understand their purpose and by encouraging and equipping them to see themselves as leaders. Sometimes, when we don’t have a clear view of ourselves, we look to others to define our self-worth and to validate us. So we began by asking the girls questions like:
Who do you follow? And why? For any of us, the answer to those questions reveals something about our hearts and our core values.
Sometimes we are too quick to follow people simply because we want what they have. We allow others to influence us because it overcompensates for the things we lack in our own lives. This is how reality stars become millionaires regardless of their morals or character. They perform, and we sit idly and watch. Through passive experiences like these, we may not reflect personally but we are in fact being influenced and changed because our connections and affinities towards people does shape us.
Not all people watching is bad, however, because there are leaders who are worth studying. What I have learned from faithfully studying and watching other effective and self-sacrificing leaders is: Leadership is not simply defined by having a title, position, platform, or simply telling people what to do. Authentic and effective leadership naturally flows out of our being—who we are—not our doing.
The insecurity or lack of self-awareness is the reason we can all observe someone with a title, platform or position, and waver on whether or not we will model their brand of leadership. However, I am constantly learning that effective Christian leaders are always growing, learning, reading, watching, praying, changing, asking the right questions and listening well. They are the leaders whose influence transcends generations and have the most impact on the world. Leaders like Jesus, the Apostle Paul, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther, and Jonathan Edwards cause us to pause and ponder. And “yes,” we must take note of women leaders like Ruth, Mary of Bethany, Mother Teresa, Susan B. Anthony, and Phillis Wheatley. These were all leaders who struggled internally to understand their own identity. They wrestled as they watched and tried to understand the signs of their times. Their faith was firmly planted so they were willing to take risks and confidently move forward because they knew that even their failures did not and could not define who they were as people. They are not trapped by a false sense of themselves, or enslaved to the performance of who others thought they should be. From leaders like them, my identity is affirmed and I learn live more freely.
One of the greatest historical leaders to impact my life has been Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I’ve oftentimes been impressed by Dr. King not because of his lack of fear, but rather because of his willingness to move forward in spite of his fears and personal struggles. I believe he was a man who was self-aware. Whenever I have an opportunity to read about, listen to a sermon, glance at a photo, or hear from others who have loved and served with him, I stop and pay attention. I had such a rare opportunity this summer.
While attending “The Summit: World Change through Faith & Justice” conference, I was able to sit at the feet of Rev. Dr. C.T. Vivian and learn from him. Dr. Vivian served on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. executive staff as a strategist for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which helped enact the Civil Rights Bill in Selma and the Voting Rights Bill. He has been a leader and trailblazer in his own right ever since.
When I sat in a small group of faith and justice leaders listening to Dr. Vivian, it became more evident to me that the Civil Rights Movement was championed by people who understood their identity. They knew who they were as a people of God, and they gained confidence about who God called them to be on this earth. They were leaders who took risks because they fully expected God to act on their behalf. In Dr. Vivian’s own words, “When you are with God the victories come, and when victories come, you don’t expect anything else…Start with ‘Victory is Mine’ says the Lord.” This simple understanding of who was in charge and who they belonged to is what shaped their individual and corporate identity, changed the culture, American history, and indeed the world.
This embodiment of a human being created in the image of God, for the purposes of God is one I will never forget. It speaks to true leadership and identity. Near the end of the conference, attendees had the opportunity to receive a prayer and blessing from the Elders in our midst. I stood in line in awe of this faithful and respected leader. As I approached him, his warm, wrinkled yet strong hands clutched mine. He held on tightly as I bowed my head. He prayed earnestly and then looked me in the eyes and said, “Never forget who you are. Little girls need you.” I grabbed hold of him as if for dear life as tears began to flow.
I will not forget. I will not yield to a false sense of myself through empty performance or by seeking the praise or approval of others. Whether in victory or in defeat, I will remember that I am a child of God. He holds the keys of my life in the very palm of his hands. I can simply be me. My responsibility is to trust God’s provision and guidance for my life, and so it must also be with you.
When you read the Bible or look over the course of history, what leaders do you follow? Why? How does the influence of these leaders shape your identity, purpose, and calling?
Perhaps the most important contemplation for today is: Do you know who you are?
© Natasha Sistrunk Robinson 2015