In my recent leadership reflections, I’ve become convinced that leaders get out of bed not to primarily further a cause, but to answer a question. While multiple questions persist and exist, there’s one that tends to hold the rest in orbit. It gnaws, focuses, and drives the leader.
For Frederick Douglass, the question began with five words: “Why am I a slave?” One can trace from this genesis the rest of Douglass’s maturation, understanding, and learning. He elaborates, “Why are some people slaves, and others masters?” (Blight, Frederick Douglass, 28). This existential question, “Why am I a slave?” begins innocently and youthful for Douglass, but uncovers personal and systemic darkness beyond which he could have originally imagined. These roots run deep. He draws from this question an answer of sub-humanity as he delved into the psyche and mentality of the oppressor. Treating others as subhuman, Douglass discovered, was the path to oneself also acting in subhuman ways. I end my semester’s reflection on Douglass here, with a driving question that marked the rest of his work, foreshadowed the rest of his life, and echoes beyond his legacy. “Why am I a slave?”
I abruptly transition my thinkings towards my organization, Cru, because it is at a crossroads. The simultaneous battles and need for clarity are beyond coincidental, and I must believe they are a pruning type of providentially. Cru begins its 70th year as a large institution this year. Tracing “normal” institutional life cycles and propensity towards inward focus and thus death, the organizational age is a large enough issue in and of itself. Furthermore, at this point, three semesters have been impacted by COVID-19. Internally, we are working out our priorities and understanding of two major topics: sexuality and racial equality. Lastly, we underwent a major reorganization where we have not come out the other side. This perfect storm is requiring the right questions to be asked from our leadership.
But what about me? What’s my response? What’s my question as a mid-level leader in a large organization? What should demand my time, energy, and prayers, as I personally extend my margins? I offer this question: How might God want to bring a freshness of Himself and His mission to and through Cru? The constellation of questions that arises, as a result, seems like this might be a generative question. What needs to be fresh? What is stale? What is the renewed mission? With what postures? Principles? Practices? What do we do with the stagnant ideas, or do I dare say, with stagnant people? The rapidity of generating those questions makes me think I might be close.
Our US director recently said, “Our role is to pray for, dream about, and innovate creative and relevant ways to connect with people and to intentionally and boldly share the message that alone enables a person to enter into a relationship with Jesus.” In response, I ask, “How might God want to bring a freshness of Himself and His mission to and through Cru?” That’s my current driving question.
Photo Credit: Fine Arts, Dan Sproul
David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018).
5 responses to “Driving Questions”
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I appreciate your driving question. I wonder how you see God answering that question? What small things are being revealed to lead you to an innovative answer? Also, I wonder is that the same driving question for Cru? And if not, then how do you best navigate within an organization if your driving question is different than theirs? Does Cru even have a driving question?
Shawn, Your questions are powerful and worthy for all to consider. I find myself at a place where much of my life is behind me and what lies ahead is murky at best. In this day and age the desire to make a difference impacting those around us is critical. I believe that the unsettling process created by COVID 19 has created a teachability and desire for something more with all of us. I would be interested in hearing your insights as things unfold.
Shawn, have you talked to other people in Cru about what their own driving questions are? I would be curious to see where their own hearts are in relation not just to yours, but in relation to Cru as a whole.
I so appreciate your focus on the leader’s driving question as it seems to locate the ache that informs her leadership. My interpretation of the questions that surface near the end of your piece is that they are all organization-centric. Yet I wonder if there is a more core, more personal question that articulates your particular ache. What question lies at your core and how does it intersect with the pressing questions within your organization?
As a mid-level leader in another large, aging, and declining organization, I’ve wrestled with the same questions. For me, I’ve settled on two very specific areas of focus- 1) my own personal faith journey and my desire to be authentic in every area of my life; and 2) the relatively localized context in which most of my leadership is centered (my church) and how we can be the best expression of Christian community possible. This approach has lifted a huge weight off my shoulders and allowed me to put my energy in things that I can actually influence. Regardless of what the future of the UMC turns out to be, God’s Kin-dom will still need authentic people and communities of faith. Drilling down a bit- what small piece of the mission can you claim, even if the larger organization remains stuck and in decline?