Last fall I had the wonderful opportunity to teach Sunday school at our church. It was a seven-week study of the book of Romans, and while no one can teach all of Romans in seven weeks I took on the task of getting through the first seven chapters in that time period.
The first week was a lovely introductory time, as I gave a pretty basic outline and introduction of the book. After the first class a few people came up to introduce themselves and talk to me. They were all very nice and welcoming. One asked if I would provide notes for my lectures (no I would not) another asked what kind of shoes I was wearing; it was nice.
Weeks two, three and four of the class were pretty calm as I presented the contents, navigated some difficult issues, and dealt with lively questions and answers. I liked these people and I was having a great time.
On week five (the one week Deb didn’t come to the class) the wheels came off the bus. It began with one person saying to me just before I got up to teach, “I remember when I was undisciplined like you and couldn’t prepare notes before hand.” Ouch! Another said to me, “this class wants discussion not just to hear you lecture.” I have to admit I was a little taken back. I thought they liked me. Each week I had left plenty of time for questions and there had been some lively discussion but I didn’t let the discussion get sidetracked into tangents that would take us away from the main points. I was shocked, and somewhat surprised, but should have realized this was going to be a tough week.
I presented my lecture and then the discussion turned somewhat hostile and argumentative. I tried to remain calm and gracious while at the same time answering the questions from what the text taught. When I got home I told my wife that the wheels had come off and wondered why I had ever agreed to teach this class. I don’t need to make enemies at my church, and I sure didn’t need this grief. Or did I?
On week six the mood had changed. It had gone from being argumentative to engaging. The questions were more about clarification and they weren’t about arguing. By week seven it was almost a love fest. They were with me. They were engaging and seriously asking for clarification of some of the things I said. They wanted to really know what the text taught. It was great fun, and while two weeks earlier I had not wanted to go back by week seven I was sorry to leave.
As I reflected back on this I was thinking – this is the paradigm for leaders. The introductory time leads to the difficult time, which leads to real followers.
When we begin to lead something we begin by casting the vision of where we want to go. Where we will lead them. In the group there will be those who are immediately with us as well as those who are skeptical but who will treat us fairly. But as we extend our message we encounter the real issues of extending the vision and the difficulty begins.
Leadership involves taking people from point A to point B and the most fundamental law of psychology is that people resist change. So when you have a new vision, and you want people to follow you in that vision, you can expect them to fight the change.
This is when those who are truly leaders do not back away from the fight. They engage. The great leaders can engage it with grace and dignity – think Reagan – the bad leaders engage with hostility, anger and insecurity.
If we never engage the fight we never have followers. That’s the lesson. If you want people to follow you, then you have to be willing to engage the fight. I wanted to disengage, not go back and not engage the grief. But that’s not who I am. God has called me to lead, and engage the difficulties.
To be a leader you have to have a certain edge. You must have a certain strong desire to engage people in a difficult arena, and enter into the fight. Only then can you ever have followers.
It is important to remember that all the great leaders have engaged the fight. Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and even Jesus engaged the fight. In fact we see these three stages most clearly in the life of Jesus. In the beginning he was healing people, turning water to wine and walking on water. What’s not to like? Then he had enemies and he engaged them in the fight, ultimately leading to his death. But He won the fight by raising from the dead and having followers all over the world for thousands of years after His resurrection.
That my friends, is the greatest leadership story ever. If Jesus hadn’t engaged the fight we wouldn’t have Good Friday, and without Good Friday we wouldn’t have Easter Sunday!
Every leader must cast a vision, engage the battle and hope for the fulfillment of vision. That’s what leadership is all about.