Two qualities we all need in order to become better leaders

trail breaking is just like any other leadership

Look at any cultural institution:  family, church, education, government – and you’ll quickly find evidence of a leadership crisis.  Broken marriages, absent parents, hypocrisy and power abuse, and the obvious lack of moral fiber to make hard decisions are evidence that the crisis is an epidemic.  The fruits of these failures is a polarized culture addicted to trivialities, power, and the value of appearance over substance. 

It can feel overwhelming, but there’s something each of us can do.  Each of us can, when called upon, break the trail towards a better way of living, a higher calling.  What kind of people are trail breakers?  Answers are found in many places, including backcountry skiing.  

It snowed 14 inches over the past two days while my wife and I were on vacation.  (Don’t feel bad for us – we’re winter lovers!)  We celebrated yesterday by making our way up a hillside, enjoying the views, and then skiing back down.  The special bindings and skins for your skis needed for this enables you to ski untracked powder, which always makes for the best skiing on the way down.

The person leading the way up the mountain is the ‘trail breaker’, which was me for most of the time yesterday.  As its the last day of my vacation, I’m beginning to think once again about all the roles to which I’ll return in a very short time:  father, visionary, teacher, pastor.   Making my way up the mountain, I’m reminded of the fact that the same ingredients needed for trail breaking are needed for effective living and leadership:

1. Risk.   There are invariably seasons when, unless someone’s willing to break trail, all progress will stop.  The well traveled paths are taken by those who ask, “what did we do yesterday, or last week, or last month?”  and then answer “let’s do that again!”  But healthy transformation doesn’t happen by mindlessly parroting the priorities, culture, ethos of yesterday.  It requires the risk to look ahead and see uncharted territory and say, “let’s go there!” Read the book of Acts, or the history Google, and you’ll find the same thing – pioneers who are on the front edge of transforming a culture (or a church, a family, a board, a city council) are risk takers.

Requirement for risk takers:  The right blend of courage and prudence.  Risk for the sake of risk is foolish, and the dozens of avalanche deaths every winter testify that risk takers can sometimes be so seduced by risk that they become deaf to voices of reason shouting that they’ve entered, not the land of risk, but the land of foolishness.

All of us tend towards either too much risk or too much prudence.  To find the right balance requires wisdom, and this is one of the reasons that Proverbs exalts wisdom as the most valuable commodity we can acquire.  Wisdom, though, isn’t found by getting yet another degree, attending another conference, reading another book.  Wisdom is a person.  I’ll only find wisdom by allowing Christ to speak to me.

Jesus: the ultimate trail breaker.  He breaks down social barriers.  He challenges the religious establishment.  He upsets the status quo.  He builds a team from misfits that nobody else would choose.  That we who follow Him are some of the most change averse people on the planet means we’ve stopped listening, stopped learning, stopped growing.  The only way that changes is for me to embark on a relentless pursuit of wisdom so that I know when to risk, and when to stay put.

2. Extra Energy -  The one who’s out front is doing the hard work of creating a trail.  Following’s easier.  Sure, followers might complain about the pace, the route you’ve chosen up the mountain, the weather.  But they’ll follow because it’s so much easier than breaking through the powder, which is thigh busting work even on flat ground let alone going uphill.  This means the trail breaker needs to be in better shape than the followers.  If I trust the person with whom I’m in the backcountry, I’m always delighted to let them break the trail, and when they’re younger than me I like to quote the bit in Lamentations about how it’s good for someone to bear a heavier load in their youth.

This is the reality for leadership everywhere, not just on the trail.  Being out front requires more.  In the mountains, that means who I am back in the valley matters a great deal.  If I spend my days sitting around doing nothing and eating prepackaged poison that masquerades as food, I’ll come up short when it matters on the mountain.

In your roles as friend, parent, leader, you need reserves.  That’s why we read that David “strengthened himself in Lord” when he was facing a crisis.  It’s why Jesus got up and “went to a lonely place” for prayer, frequently.  It’s why God gave us the rhythm of Sabbath rest, and sleep, the gift of good food and drink.  It’s why the inhaling habits of prayer, solitude, silence, are just as important as the exhaling habits of hospitality, justice, celebration, service. The ones who are breaking trail are, I promise you, taking the stewardship of their whole self, body/soul/spirit seriously.  So should we all!

There’s nothing new here.  And yet, there’s an appalling lack of sound leaders in our world.  As I skied down the untouched powder yesterday morning, I was reminded that the beauty and joy available to all of us through Christ doesn’t become reality in our lives, or the lives of those we love, without the blend of wisdom, prudence, risk, strength and endurance that all0w us to lead those we love and serve into new territory as trail breakers.

What element do you need to develop in order to become the person God wants you to be?

About Richard Dahlstrom

As Pastor of Bethany Community Church in Seattle, Richard teaches with vision of "making the invisible God visible" by calling people to acts of service and blessing. It's working, as a wilderness ministry, homeless shelter, and community meals that serve those living on the margins are all pieces of Bethany's life. "We're being the presence of Christ" he says, "and inviting everyone to join the adventure." Many have, making Bethany one of the fastest growing churches in America in 2009 according to Outreach Magazine.


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