It was my first real job: I commuted to the heart of the city every morning. I had colleagues. I had business cards. I loved my work and I was getting my professional sea legs and learning corporate culture as I went.
Given my spot on the totem pole, I didn't interact with our leadership much, but I soon discovered that our CEO was a big deal. He had a weightiness that followed him wherever he went. Having always had a healthy respect for authority, I would smile politely and get out of his way on the few occasions our paths crossed.
Not long after I joined the staff, that CEO transitioned out and a new president was hired. Only days after his arrival, we found ourselves at an all-staff Cinco de Mayo party complete with games, a best salsa contest and a piñata. The big surprise came when the first bits of brightly wrapped candy fell from the brightly colored burro and plunked onto the floor. In that instant, the new CEO dove head-first for the loot.
The room erupted into laughter. Unable to resist competition, others dove in after him. A new levity had been unleashed among our staff.
That childlike display taught me a lesson in authentic leadership that I've held dear throughout the years. Instead of losing respect in my eyes, our new leader gained my respect for his ability to not take himself so seriously and to intentionally enter into our world. For as long as I was with that company, that leader remained approachable and more in tune with the pulse of the organization than the prior CEO had ever been.
Choosing Between Image and Relationship
We will all come to crossroads in leadership where we must chose a path that invites people into our humanity and allows us to enter into theirs; or choose the path of distance and manicured images that shine with what authors Tim Willard and Jason Locy refer to as veneer, "a thin covering that hides the real material underneath."
As Christian leaders, we particularly do a disservice to those we lead if we chose our image over relationship. When we're honest and take painful measures to cultivate humility, we get to show off God's grace and His strength at work in us. That same humility makes much of others by taking interest in the details of who they are. Because of this, we end up inspiring those we lead with the knowledge that God is in the business of using plain ol' people to accomplish His purposes on earth.
Authentic Leadership In Action
I was recently inspired by an article highlighting this kind of leadership at a metal fabrication company in Denver. Steve Hill and Jim Howey lead in an industry where management and factory workers operate in different strata, but they have created a different culture in their company. They've made investing in their employees integral to how they do business.
"Many days they walk the shop floor, engaging their workers as peers. Employees on the floor are treated as importantly as the managers," reports Christianity Today. Their company is not only profitable, but their employees get to encounter tangible grace in the process.
Listen to what Paul says: "In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant..." (Philippians 2:5-8).
We follow Jesus's example best when we dive in and draw near—when we rush the piñata instead of preserving our image. And as Christian leaders, we will fail in reflecting incarnational authenticity until we truly grasp the wondrous love and extravagant grace by which God drew near to us.
As Jedd Medefind and Eric Lokkesmoe point out in Upended , "We can only chose authenticity if we are motivated by more than desire for influence or popularity. ...Only in knowing...God are we freed to be truly authentic. Our confidence is in Him and His provision, not ourselves. So we can offer all that we are, and nothing we are not, to those around us."
Next time you have the chance to play it cool or dive in, consider risking your image and heart. Chose relationship and in doing so, reflect the extravagant grace of God at work through you.
Locy, J. and Willard, T. 2011 Veneer: Living deeply in a surface society. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan.
Lokkesmoe, E. and Medefind, J. 2012 Upended: How following Jesus remakes your words & world. Lake Mary, Florida: Passio.
Ivette Alegria Diaz is a California girl who loves L.A. but left a piece of her heart in Washington, D.C., where she ran around in suits and drank a lifetime's worth of coffee. She's passionate about politics, culture, family and creating community that makes Christ's heart known. Ivette is a FLI alumna from Summer 2001 and is happy to be on staff as the Recruiter and New Programs Coordinator for the Institute.