An Encounter with “Yes Men” Leadership

rubber stamp

source: Thomas Hawk via Flickr

 The king of Israel answered Jehoshaphat, “There is still one prophet through whom we can inquire of the Lord, but I hate him because he never prophesies anything good about me, but always bad. He is Micaiah son of Imlah.” 1 Kings 22:8 (NIV)

Some time ago I found myself appointed to a project committee. The head of the committee was a young leader in the organization. I did not know him well, but I knew from observation that he was an up-and-comer. I was a late appointee to the committee and I did a lot of listening the first couple of meetings. I wanted to get a sense of group, the leader, and how my own personality and style might best fit into the whole.

It was in that second meeting that everyone on the committee was asked to share how they thought things were going and what could be done better. One of the first things that I had noticed was that our project leader had revealed two things that concerned me:

  1. He had an aggrandized vision for what our project was going to accomplish, speaking in hyperbole about how we were going to change the world, when it wasn’t clear we were actually going to accomplish what we were trying even on a small, local scale.
  2. He had placed himself in a position in the implementation that ensured he’d be in the spotlight, but it was clear to me that the position required strengths, abilities, and giftedness that I had not seen him demonstrate. I was concerned that he was setting himself, and the project, up for failure.

It would not have been appropriate for me to share my reservations about the leader with the entire group, so I kept that to myself. In the meeting I shared one thing I thought was going very well, and I shared one thing I thought our committee could do to improve the project outcomes.

I’m still not sure what I said that got me called into the leader’s office after the meeting. It was there that I was told I was too critical and the leader was questioning whether my presence would be destructive. He went to explain that he believed all criticism was inherently negative and counter productive. When I asked about the concept of “constructive criticism” he balked at the idea as an oxymoron, as all criticism in his estimation was negative and destructive.

It was at that point that I realized that the leader was right on one point. My presence on the project committee would be a negative. I knew I could not serve under such delusional thinking and keep my own personal sanity. At that point, I figured I had nothing to lose. I expressed my concerns with the project leader about his vision and his giftedness being misaligned. He saw this as just another example of my critical, judgmental spirit and said that it proved his point. I told him that I would quit, to which he responded, “Let’s not say you quit. Let’s just tell the others you’ve decided to take a break from the project.” I told him he could say whatever he wanted to say to the rest of the committee. I was done.

I thought about this experience as I read about King Ahab and the prophet Micaiah. Ahab hated Micaiah because the prophet refused to tell him what he wanted to hear. The king had clearly surrounded himself with “yes men” prophets who put their spiritual rubber stamp on whatever the king desired. Such leaders rarely become great leaders. Leadership requires an honest understanding of one’s own strengths, gifts, and weaknesses. It also requires wisdom to discern between good and weak criticism, the humility to accept responsibility for failures, and the strength to make changes for the good of the whole.

As I look back at my experience with 20/20 hindsight, I believe the project leader was a young leader driven both by his passion to do great things and his insecurities. To be honest, I recognized in him some my own weaknesses as a leader at his age. I believe that in his own personal journey he will encounter wise counsel from whom he can receive honest feedback, and he will eventually temper the dim view of constructive criticism he expressed to me. I simply wasn’t the right person to work with him. It happens.

By the way, the project continued on for another couple of years. I witnessed it accomplishing some good outcomes, and I chose in to contributing on occasion from outside the project committee. It never came anywhere near to realizing the grandiose vision I’d heard the leader proclaim in my brief time on the committee. The project leader eventually jumped at the chance to move on to bigger and better things.

Posted in Chapter-a-Day | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Contrition

Close up of an 17th-century depiction of the 2...

Close up of an 17th-century depiction of the 28 articles of the Augsburg Confession by Wenceslas Hollar. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Ahab heard these words, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and fasted. He lay in sackcloth and went around meekly. 1 Kings 21:27 (NIV)

For over 20 years I have been training and coaching people in the art of delivering customer service. In that time, I have found that there is no more contentious and divisive service skill than the simple apology. I increasingly find that individuals struggle with saying a simple, “I’m sorry that happened,” even when saying it as a representative of a business and there is no interpersonal relationship between customer and representative. I also find it common for clients to exchange the word “unfortunately” for any form of “sorry” or “apologize.” I find this fascinating.

The root word of “unfortunately” is “fortune” which is synonymous with “luck.” When saying, “Unfortunately, you don’t have a receipt with you,” it’s like saying “It’s bad luck that you don’t have a receipt with you.” It acknowledges the other’s stinky situation, but does nothing to express any kind of personal empathy. It avoids having any personal skin in the game like the statement “I am sorry, but you don’t have a receipt,” or “I apologize, but without a receipt your options are limited.”

We don’t talk much, at least in the protestant circles in which I run, about contrition anymore. Contrition is the act of being sorrowful or remorseful about the ways you’ve blown it and the things you’ve done (or should have done but didn’t). In culture, and in media, it seems to me that we commonly find individuals who stonewall, obfuscate, deny, and deceive in order to escape taking responsibility for their inappropriate or damaging words or actions. As I write this, we are nearing an election day. One need only turn on the television to be bombarded by every politician with the same message: “I’m all good and am going to make your life rosy. My opponent is all bad and is going to ruin your life. Here are some gross misrepresentations of truth to deceive you into believing it.”

It’s interesting to note that when Jesus addressed potential followers, the call to following and believing were regularly predicated by an act of contrition. “Deny yourself,” “Take up your cross,” “Repent,” and “Sell all you have,” were prerequisites Jesus placed to faith and belief. Sincere contrition is a gateway to spiritual reconciliation, as we see in the example of Ahab in today’s chapter. By acknowledging our impotence, God’s power is loosened in our lives. By accepting our need, God’s sufficiency is quickened to provide. With the honest confession of our failures, God successfully showers us with grace through the blood of Jesus which was sacrificially poured out to atone for them.

Posted in Chapter-a-Day | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

For the Prophet, “The Play’s the Thing…”

source: seattlemunicipalarchives via Flickr

source: seattlemunicipalarchives via Flickr

The prophet found another man and said, “Strike me, please.” So the man struck him and wounded him. Then the prophet went and stood by the road waiting for the king. He disguised himself with his headband down over his eyes. As the king passed by, the prophet called out to him, “Your servant went into the thick of the battle, and someone came to me with a captive and said, ‘Guard this man. If he is missing, it will be your life for his life, or you must pay a talent of silver.’ While your servant was busy here and there, the man disappeared.”

“That is your sentence,” the king of Israel said. “You have pronounced it yourself.”

Then the prophet quickly removed the headband from his eyes, and the king of Israel recognized him as one of the prophets. He said to the king, “This is what the Lord says: ‘You have set free a man I had determined should die. Therefore it is your life for his life, your people for his people.’” Sullen and angry, the king of Israel went to his palace in Samaria. 1 Kings 20:37-43 (NIV)

I will never forget this one day in an Acting class I participated in college. Students were broken up in pairs and each pair prepared a short scene to perform before the class. My partner and I played our scene and, as we were playing the short scene, something remarkable happened. I have since learned that there are rare moments as an actor when you are on stage and you experience this (perhaps it happens frequently to great actors who are on stage for a living, but I believe it’s rare even then). When it happens you lose yourself in the portrayal and in the moment you are playing. The audience is caught up in it, as well. There’s this thing that happens, which is nearly impossible to describe or explain. I happens in that place at that moment between the actors on stage and between the stage and the audience which is a communal and emotional and spiritual moment experienced by the whole.

The scene ended and there was no polite, golf-clap applause that is traditionally offered to the players by the rest of the class. There was just an “oh….wow” kind of silence. I felt a surge of emotion like I wanted to cry. It was the power of theatre as a medium to relate story and theme experientially. It is that experience which is at the heart of what I love about live theatre.

One of the things I love about the stories of the ancient prophets is the way they used theatre to communicate their message. The prophet in today’s chapter creates a character and a story: A man is commanded to guard an enemy prisoner and is told that he will be sentenced to death if the prisoner escapes, which he does. He develops his character: He asks another to punch him in the face to make it look like he’d been wounded. He then performs his improvised scene: He plays out his part to the unsuspecting King Ahab when the king passes by, and in the playing out of the scene the King’s hypocrisy is revealed.

“The play’s the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king,”

– Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2, Line 416-417

I love that God’s Message can be communicated in endless number of expressive mediums from art to poetry to stage to novel to film to graphic design. And, I love that each expressive medium can communicate pieces of God’s truth in powerful ways unique to that medium.

Posted in Chapter-a-Day | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Elijah, the Spaghetti Western, and Me

28857-man-with-no-nameThe Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of theLord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
1 Kings 19:11-12 (NIV)

Elijah is such an intriguing character. His personality seemed uniquely created to be the person God needed. He appears on the scene like Clint Eastwood‘s “man with no name” in Sergio Leone‘s spaghetti westerns. Out of the wild comes this charismatic loner displaying miraculous qualities and a passion for God. He seems invincible. Outnumbered 450 to 1, Elijah gets into a spiritual shoot-out with the prophets of Baal and, thanks to a heaven-sent fiery climax, he finds himself the last man standing. It’s the stuff of a Hollywood action blockbuster.

Then, the story takes an unexpected twist. The invincible hero does a complete 180 degree turn and becomes shockingly human.  Fresh from the miraculous victory at Mount Carmel, Elijah learns that Queen Jezebel has put a price on his head and he withers on the vine. After three years of famine, scratching out an existence in the wilderness, and the big showdown on Carmel, God’s heroic prophet is physically, mentally, and spiritually shot. He shows the all too familiar human qualities of fear, anxiety, depression, despair, and suicide.

Elijah runs away. He gives up. He throws in the towel, lays down to die, and begs God to bring the end quickly. He then goes on a self-pitying pilgrimage to the mountain of God. Upon his arrival, there is a cyclonic wind, a great earthquake, and a raging fire. God was nowhere to be found in the cataclysmic manifestations.

God appears in a whisper, and asks His man a profoundly simple question: “What are you doing here?

I find in this story of Elijah so much of my own frail humanity. I experience amazing, miraculous moments along the journey and then seem to forget them when petty anxieties paralyze me. I have episodes of victorious faith, then run from the next challenge. Given to blind, self-centric drama I fail to see all that God is doing in and through those around me while I project the weight of the world on my  own shoulders, blow my own problems grossly out of proportion, and then slink into a corner to obsess and lick my petty emotional wounds.

Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.

And yet, I am strangely encouraged by Elijah’s story. I am no different than this hero of the faith. Human frailties are common to every spiritual hero, because every hero is limited by his or her own humanity. The question is not whether I will experience common human episodes of fear, anxiety, insecurity, despair, depression, self-pity, weakness, and conflict. We all experiences these things. The question is how I will respond when they happen. And, they will happen. Too often I pray for and expect God to send dramatic winds of change, a seismic shift in circumstance, or a explosive miracle to sweep away my humanity. I am beginning to learn that what I need to listen for is God’s still, small voice meeting me right where I am, in the midst of my all too human condition.

Posted in Chapter-a-Day | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Unique People for God’s Unique Purposes

The Monuments Men Cover…and [King] Ahab had summoned Obadiah, his palace administrator.(Obadiah was a devout believer in the Lord. While Jezebel was killing off the Lord’s prophets, Obadiah had taken a hundred prophets and hidden them in two caves, fifty in each, and had suppliedthem with food and water.) 1 Kings 18:3-4 (NIV)

This past summer I read The Monuments Men by Bret Witter and Robert Edsel. It is the book upon which the movie by the same name was based. One of the more intriguing pieces of the story was person of Rose Valland (Cate Blanchett played a character in the movie based on Valland). There was nothing particularly remarkable about her. She is described as the type of person who blended in and did not attract attention. She was, however, a woman of acute intellect, strong character, and indomitable courage.

Valland found herself a clerk in the midst of the Nazi’s looting of the world’s artistic treasures. A passionate lover of art, she literally risked her life to secretly document which paintings and works of art were stolen and where they were taken. The men who served with the Monuments Men were rightfully praised for their efforts, but were it not for Rose Valland being in the position she held and having the courage to do what she did, many of the world’s great works of art would no longer exist.

As I travel this life journey, I am intrigued to observe how people find themselves uniquely placed in situations and circumstances in which they are able to use their God given gifts and abilities in order to accomplish specific purposes. I thought about Obadiah and Elijah as I read today’s chapter. Here are two very different characters in two very different circumstances who are part of the same events. Elijah the prophet is a reclusive, unpredictable outsider living in the wilderness far away from the centers of political and religious power. Obadiah, on the other hand, is a polished and educated insider working in the administrative heart of the corrupt and evil monarchy. Very different men, very different places, but both uniquely suited to fulfill God’s purposes. God used them both, and they each had a unique job to perform.

I have found that we like to place God, His followers and His purposes into neat little prescriptive boxes that fit our comfortable paradigms. I am reminded this morning by Elijah, by Obadiah, and by Rose Valland, that God uses vastly different individuals of His own choosing and calling to accomplish purposes that lie beyond our comprehension.

 

Posted in Chapter-a-Day | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Intriguing Person of the Prophet Elijah

The upper part of The Transfiguration (1520) b...

The upper part of The Transfiguration (1520) by Raphael, depicting Christ miraculously discoursing with Moses and Elijah. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So [Elijah] did what the Lord had told him. He went to the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan, and stayed there. The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning and bread and meat in the evening, and he drank from the brook. 1 Kings 17:5-6 (NIV)

The prophet Elijah is one of the most intriguing characters in the entirety of God’s Message. He appears out of nowhere, has a brief ministry marked by miraculous events, confronts the evil and powerful King Ahab and Queen Jezebel of Israel, and then disappears in a whirlwind.

Most people don’t realize it, but Elijah also figures into Jesus’ life and teachings. When asked who people that Jesus was, his followers respond that Elijah was a trending vote getter. Jesus told His followers that John the Baptist was the person of Elijah returned to restore all things. On the mount of transfiguration when Jesus was revealed in His glory, Elijah appeared with Him. Jesus referred to Elijah in His teaching on multiple occasions. While hanging on the cross, witnesses thought Jesus was calling out to Elijah.

As I read today’s chapter, I found it interesting that the miracles of Elijah seemed to strongly parallel the miracles of Jesus. The widows flour and oil never ran dry, much like the baskets filled with bread and fish when Jesus fed the crowds with His all you can eat fish fry by the Sea of Galilee. When Elijah takes the dead widow’s son into an upper room and bring’s the boy back to life, it is eerily reminiscent of Jesus going into the room of Jairus’ dead daughter bringing her back to life.

One of the things I have come to appreciate more and more in my sojourn through God’s Message is the connections, parallels, foreshadowing, and recurring themes that stretch across the entirety of the story that God has told and is still telling. I love that God is both an artist and an author. He is telling a story. It is His-story.

Posted in Chapter-a-Day | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Peace and Stability in Volatile Times

source: eastcentralillinoiswxphotography93 via Flickr

source: eastcentralillinoiswxphotography93 via Flickr

 

In the twenty-sixth year of Asa king of Judah…
In the twenty-seventh year of Asa king of Judah…
In the thirty-first year of Asa king of Judah…
In the thirty-eighth year of Asa king of Judah…
1 Kings 16:8, 15, 23, 29 (NIV)

 

After the reign of Solomon, the nation of Israel was split in two. Ten of Israel’s tribes comprise the northern kingdom of Israel with the capital in Samaria. A “Game of Thrones” is a good way to describe the political situation in the northern kingdom as the throne is occupied by a string of strongmen who largely ascended by power, violence and force. Nineteen kings occupy the throne over a period of about 200 years before being conquered by the Assyrians.

 

The tribes of Judah and Benjamin comprise the southern kingdom of Judah with the capital in Jerusalem. Judah remains loyal to the house of David and clings to God’s promises to David. The throne is occupied by nineteen kings and one queen from the line of David over a period of about 350 years before Judah is conquered by the Babylonians.

 

I found it interesting that King Asa of Judah was described as being faithful to God and he reigned over 40 years. It struck me while reading today’s chapter that during Asa’s reign the political situation in the northern kingdom is extremely volatile with a series of military leaders and strong men claiming the throne. Every one of them is described as being committed to the local pagan idols and gods rather than the God of Israel. In the case of Zimri, he held the throne for an entire week before committing suicide by burning the palace down around him. Yikes.

 

This morning I’m pondering the contrast in the two nations during Asa’s reign. It’s an apt word picture for how I think of my life with and without my faith. Despite the ebb and flow of blessing and tragedy along life’s road, I find a high degree of peace and stability from my faith in Jesus – much like Judah seemed to experience during Asa’s reign. I think back to what I remember life being like before my decision to follow Jesus and it feels a lot like the political situation in Israel with life swaying aimlessly with each shift in the power of emotions or circumstances.

 

Today, I’m thankful for peace and stability even in the midst of volatile life changes.

wayfarer chapter index banner

 

 

 

Posted in Chapter-a-Day | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment