Leadership Reflections from a Sick Bed

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The Importance of Reflection
I was recently hospitalised for a few days with a sudden and unexpected illness.  While it was not an experience I relished, it did afford time for reflection.  Reflection is a necessary task for all leaders.  Yet it is one often squeezed out by two common Christian fetishes: activity and it compatriot, over-commitment.  So, perhaps the Lord gave me an enforced space for such pondering.
Much of my reflection was about life in general: human frailty and transience, our tendency to shrink from suffering, the importance of family, the privilege of Western medicine, etc., etc.  Wrapped up in that was a good deal of self-pity.
However, as time wore on, it occurred to me that there were, perhaps, lessons about leadership that I could learn, from the perspective of a sick bed.  For it seemed to me that my leadership might be informed by my sickness and its accompaniments: my incapacity, a heightened awareness of my limitations, reminders of my mortality, and my almost total reliance upon other people.
Valuable but Not Special
One of the first things that occurred to me, jabbed as I was with needles and infused with antibiotics in the local hospital along with all the other patients, is that though all of us are valuable, none of us is special.  I was treated like everyone else in a public hospital which is one of the benefits of a [relatively] equitable health care system we enjoy here in Australia.  One of the insights of Christian thinking that undergirds Western civilization is this: all human beings are made in the image of the Creator, individually of worth and to be treated equally.  Though only an unconscious foundation of our contemporary culture, it has shaped many of the modern institutions that we take for granted, including public medical care.  All people deserve access to good, basic medical care.  A concomitant of this truth, against the grain of our culture, Christian theology teaches that none of us is special in the sense that some deserve more than others.  While valued by God, none of us should be immune to the normal pressures of and threats to our well-being.  That applies to Christians and non-Christians alike.
How does this relate to leadership?  In this way: Christian leaders need to exercise humility, remembering that the role does not make us ‘special’, deserving of more deference, kudos, consideration or better treatment than others, or of a higher status.  We are, in the pattern of our Master, members of the Kingdom called to serve our brothers and sisters, not lord it over them (Mark 10:41 – 45).
Indispensable?  Not!!
Chasing close on the heels of that truth is the fact that none of us, as leaders, is indispensable.  Incapacitated on my hospital bed and then “confined to quarters” at home for three weeks, miraculously the work of the Kingdom (and the Baptist Association) continued!!!  I could scarcely believe it!!  Yet it did.  Others stepped up and took on extra responsibilities.  Some meetings were cancelled, others postponed.  And catastrophe did not arrive!!
How often, as leaders, do we fall into the egotistical and usually unconscious mind-trap that we are essential to the work of God going forward.  We are not!  And if we have in some way made ourselves “indispensable” for a particular role, it is a failure of leadership not a measure of our importance or skill.  For surely as leaders, if we are to follow the Jesus-model of disciple-making we are to train others “who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Timothy 2:2)
Team, Networks and Community
A third feature of my illness that occurred to me needs also to inform my leadership is that we can’t make it through by ourselves.  One of the blessings of being ill for a slightly extended time was that I was deeply appreciative for the support of the medical professionals but, in particular, of friends and family members.  These last two texted, visited, phoned, listened, challenged, prayed and gave practical support such as delivering meals, and driving me home.  These actions reminded me that (remarkably) I was loved, but also that I was deeply fortunate to be part of a wider community and network.  Frequently I reflected on how dreadful it would be to be alone when ill or in trouble.  I needed the team and the community to get through.
So, I was reminded that trying to go solo as a leader is a great mistake.  Good leaders build teams, engage in networks and embrace community.  New Testament leadership is always plural.  In my experience the solitary pastor-leader is one who is more prone to discouragement or the hubris that can lead to spiritually and emotionally abusing others.  The strong, silent, solo-leader model is anathema to healthy pastoral leadership.  At the end of the Epistle to the Romans, was does that great individual leader, St. Paul, do: affirms a wide networks of other women and men (Romans 16:1 – 17).   Who are the names that would be on our list of that sort?
Knowing Capacities and Limits
A further reflection I made is that we all have varying capacities but we all have our limits.  In my estimation, I have a pretty high energy level, determination and capacity for work.  The early stages of feeling unwell came in the midst of a very busy time.  Typical of a male, and over-estimating my ability to keep going, I pushed on through four days of activity all the time feeling increasingly worse.  I propped myself up with Panadol and Neurofen.  However, in the end, they had no effect.  I reached my limit, went to bed, then ended up in hospital.  It would have been wise to eat humble pie and stop earlier.  I didn’t.  I paid a heavier price than otherwise might have been the case.
So it is with leadership!  We are wise to get as clear as possible about our emotional, physical, skill and knowledge capacities, which do change over time.  We need feedback from others.  We need to monitor how we are travelling.  We must ask the Spirit for insight, clarity and wisdom.  Often, we think we know our capacities and limits.  As the Johari window reminds us however, others can often see things in us to which we are blind.  We might envy the capacities of others or pride ourselves on the ability to carry a heavier load than someone else.  But, we all have our limits.  Let’s keep our eyes out for them or we risk longer term damage to ourselves and others.  As St. Pauls says we need to “think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.”  Romans 12:3.
The Human Touch
One last thing: in leadership as in many other parts of life, modern technology is a wonderful asset, but can never replace the importance of the human touch.  My stay in hospital brought home to me how very technical modern medicine is.  Modern technology may very well have saved my life when ill.  Various gadgets and gizmos were used to quickly restore my dangerously low fluid levels, attack infection, monitor my heart rate, blood pressure, temperature, blood counts revealing infection levels, scan my lungs, drug my discomfort.  All of these were important to my recovery.  Yet do you know what I most appreciated while in hospital?  The human presence of nursing staff who took the time to react with me as a person, understand and empathise with me about how if felt, calm my fears, answer my questions and attend to my comfort.  Frequently but regrettably, the technological requirements of the hospital got in the way of those more human interactions.
It was a salutary reminder to me that as a leader I must never, never ignore the importance of genuine human concern, contact, care for those whom I might be leading or with whom I might be interacting at any given time.  Leaders have many technologies and tools at our disposal these days (however did Jesus get anything done without the internet and the smart phone???).  Leaders are often pressed for time in our rapidly changing environment, with ever spiralling demands.  We can become distant, sealed off by gadgets: smart phones, e-mail, twitter, the internet, skype.  They are wonderful tools.  They are terrible masters.  For, even for the busiest lead pastor, “a look, a smile, a touch” (Bill Hybels), is wonderfully impacting, communicating a human touch that people remember more than technological savvy.
So, though perhaps it was not even in hindsight that I counted my short period of sickness as a “joy”, I do now count it a benefit, providing time to reflect on lessons learnt that might lift my leadership just a little.  That is my prayer at least.

1 COMMENT

  1. Excellent article Viv. Worthy of a wider readership. I learnt many of those same lessons over five years ago. The waft of them still remains in my life and impacts my ministry.
    Your article helped to pick up the breeze and remind me of what really matters and the importance of pace and constantly trusting in Jesus, rathan than the pretence that I am king of the world.
    Trust you are doing better. You are a blessing and your enormous labour in the Lord is not in vain – as neither was your incapacitation in the Lord.

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