Leading from behind: Servants and Fools by Arthur Boers

Leading from behind: Servants and Fools by Arthur Boers September 29, 2015

When I hear high powered leaders talking about all they accomplish (or get others to accomplish) I sometimes think of that old Emily Dickinson poem – I’m nobody!  So I was struck when Dr. Curt Thompson, in his splendid work The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves (reviewed here) reminded us that we are all leaders, or can become leaders, in our own way, in our own places. We need not be (to use Ms. Dickinson’s image) “public like a frog — to tell one’s name the livelong day” but we can be co-creators with God, helping craft our days and touch the world around us. I deeply believe this.  And because I so firmly believe that we are made in the image of a creative, working God,  we are culture-makers — at our very essence. (See Andy Crouch’s must-read Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling and Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power for very helpful explorations and reflections on this. These InterVarsity Press classics are Hearts & Minds essentials!)

Besides, apart from this conviction about the nature of who we are and who we can become as image bearers and culture-makers, we’ve repeatedly seen how books and reading can transform ordinary people, giving them refocused vision and new competencies, deep confidence and joyous commitment.  Nobody is a nobody! And, as the saying goes, readers are leaders.

Even though many of us believe what the Bible says about the “priesthood of all believers” and enjoy pondering what it means to be “salt” or “leaven” or “light” in the world just as Jesus said, we still are sometimes cynical about the field of leadership.  There are so many prideful, power-hunger, stubborn leaders, aren’t there?  And sometimes religious leaders just seem to take on the worldly ways of Wall Street or whatever trends are popular on the management bestseller list adopting the worst traits of the society around us.  

So let’s think about leadership – no need to avoid the subject or assume the worst, as if all the books on developing leadership skills are from the Donald Trump School of Taking Charge.  A lot of them really are thoughtful and helpful.

We have bunches of books about leadership and it would be fun to hear what you have found most helpful.  I have a few friends who read these sorts of books religiously (no pun intended) and we are always refining our go-to titles and the ones we most recommend.

Henri Nouwen’s little reflection on the temptation of leadership (really, the temptation of any of us) called In The Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership still remains a good seller for us.  Do you know it?  It is a bit counter-intuitive, but we really like Dan Allender’s Leading with A Limp — what an interesting, liberating book!  With the Pope’s visit fresh on our minds, you may want to consider 2013’s Pope Francis: Why He Leads the Way He Leads: Lessons from the First Jesuit Pope by Chris Lowney.  Lowney wrote a really interesting and very helpful study a few years back called Heroic Leadership: Practices from a 450-Year Old Company That Changed the World.

For now, though, here are just a few very new ones that are worth knowing about.

storied leadership.jpgStoried Leadership: Foundations of Leadership from a Christian Perspective Keith Martel & Brian Jensen (Falls City Press) $18.00 Okay, this one isn’t brand new, and we promoted it when it first released early last spring.  But I wanted to start off with it as it is a very good, truly delightful, brief survey of what some call “the Biblical meta-narrative” and how that big picture of the unfolding plot lines of the Bible can and should shape our views of reality. Without using the word “worldview” this offers a foundational Christian view of life, out of which can come a Christian view of society and subsequent social imaginaries.  And yes, out of all that can bubble up a coherently Christian view of what leadership is and what it looks like.  The chapters are short, the writing crisp, the insights profound.   I think it is a really good entree into thinking faithfully and learning new ways to practice faith and leadership in the real world.  We recommend it for students, for those new to this topic, and I am sure that experienced leaders will be glad to review it, being struck by notions such as “Kingdom Collaboration” and (with a nod to Steve Garber) “Proximate Leadership.”

And that is just the first half.

The second part of Storied Leadership includes a good handful of specific skills or habits that good leaders will embrace. From learning to manage expectations to daring to be “disarmingly honest” to working through conflict with a vision of restoration, mentoring others to networking to learning the rhythms of rest, the second half of this fine, small book will help you dig in and start doing new stuff, making a difference right where you are.  I love it.  You should buy a few, ready to hand them out to up and coming folks you may be guiding or leading.

By the way, this is the first book from a very small, indie press that Martel and his wife started out of their Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, home.  Look for a new book from them launching mid October called Unleashing Opportunity: Why Escaping Poverty Requires a Shared Vision of Justice, a passionate and well written study of domestic poverty, the scandal of check-cashing scams and unjust lending practices, and how to help overcome the problems of the poor. It is co-authored by the CEO of the Center for Public Justice, Stephanie Summers, the always-eloquent Washington Post op-ed columnist Michael Gerson, and Katie Thompson of the on-line journal and movement Shared Justice.

Servants and Fools- A Biblical Theology of Leadership.jpgServants and Fools: A Biblical Theology of Leadership Arthur Boers (Abingdon) $19.99 There aren’t many, but maybe a small handful of good books that deconstruct the standard-fare, worldly ways of thinking about leadership, books that move away from power and maneuvering, or technique and control, or benign use of communication skills.  In contrast, there are many books offering to Christians standard fare management stuff with a gloss of religiosity on top, books full of promises about success and influence.  Some are for Christians serving in the work-world, and some are for pastors or church leaders.  Some have even adopted the once-revolutionary phrase “servant leadership” and have tweaked that to be about crass power or manipulation and the metrics of efficiency.  For pastors trying to see more clearly the pretenses and dangers of this, and to discern a more pastoral view of their work, Eugene Peterson has of course been the most significant voice. His quartet of books on “vocational holiness” (at least Under the Unpredictable Plant and Working the Angles) are essential. As in most of his books, he gently but directly exposes how the ways and means of following Christ and leading a God-centered life is quite counter to the ways and means of typical North American life.

One of Eugene Peterson’s (somewhat) younger friends and allies has been the Canadian Mennonite pastor Arthur Boers.  I have read several of Boer’s books (most recently the very generative study blending the critical insights about technology from the Catholic philosopher Albert Borgman and classic spiritual formation practices to come up with a brilliant book called Living Into Focus: Choosing What Matters in an Age of Distraction.) Boer has written on conflict resolution and spirituality and daily discipleship for decades, and is now a professor at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto.  This brand new book opens with a fabulously fascinating foreword by Pastor Peterson where he says “this is by far the best treatment that I have ever come across on this much-discussed feature of church life in changing times.”  And nicely assures us, too, that “Arthur is both generous and discerning, having lived deeply and well what he is writing for us.”

Another passionate prophet against Christian writers accommodating themselves to the customs and assumptions of North American leadership gurus is Marva Dawn (who has also co-written with Peterson.) She says of Boers (not surprisingly, since, although Lutheran, Marva has been influenced by the Mennonite and Anabaptist tradition) “Arthur Boers punctures all pretensions, unveils delightful discoveries, and exhibits perceptive insights. Servants and Fools is the most potent book on Christian leadership!”

Even Will Willimon, who himself has written extensively on leadership says “Arthur Boers has written the book we have sorely needed, a book that is destined to become the main text in my seminary courses in church leadership. Boers underscores the joyful peculiarity of Christian leadership. His book is unique: a biblically-based, christologically-grounded defense of leadership in the name of Christ.”

So there’s that going on.

By which I mean this isn’t a lovely meditation or an encouraging handbook of how to get stuff done. This is serious, upsetting, challenging – and joyfully peculiar – study of power and leadership in the Bible and in Jesus, especially.  

Boers has been working on this for years, and his wide reading and study is evident.  His own work draws much upon those situated on the margins, although the Harvard Business School scholars show up sometimes, too. (As do a few good lyrics from a few good songs of Bruce Cockburn!)

arthur-boers_0.jpgYou see, Boers is aware that much of the Bible, carefully read, is a critique of worldly power. (Just for instance, he cites Daniel Berrigan’s poetic and powerful commentary on Kings who notes “David dies intemperate, transfusing his venom into the veins of his son.”  Of course he cites Walter Brueggemann, including his article “The Prophetic Leadership: Engagement in Counter Imagination” and much more. That most leading characters in the Bible are fraught with moral ambiguity should be better known and acknowledged among us, especially by those who swipe episodes out of context to give us a “Biblical” view of leadership success. It shouldn’t take a Mennonite (but maybe it does) to remind us how uniformly badly the Biblical kings are described, and how Jesus brings us an “upside down kingdom.” This book powerfully explore the meaning of Biblical service and sacrifice, reversing much of what we think leadership is about. He isn’t the first to say this, of course (think Jacques Ellul or William Stringfellow, just for starters) but Boer brings a lot together in fresh ways, making this a truly remarkable, hard-hitting work.

The first part of this mature book is called “Christians and Contemporary Leadership Fascinations.” You can see why Peterson commends it. The second part is “Reflecting Biblically on Leadership” and is the heart of the book – there is lots of close reading and provocative interpretation, well worth spending time with, whether you are particularly interested in leadership or not. In the important third section of four chapters, Boers offers “Constructive Suggestions toward a Contemporary Theology of Leadership.”  I jumped ahead to the last chapter where he provocatively asks if we “want to be in that number” and if that means extolling “heroes or saints”?   You can guess his important answer.

Servants and Fools: A Biblical Theology of Leadership really is a remarkable study, drawing on significant Biblical scholarship, Jewish and Christian, classic and contemporary, and he writes with both prophetic fire and a bit of wit.  (One chapter title on Jesus playfully alludes to Peterson’s most famous book, which was drawing on Nietzsche: “A Long Rebuke in the Same Direction.”)

David Gill, Professor of Workplace Theology and Business Ethics at Gordon-Conwell says “Servants and Fools is brilliant and essential…. I can’t imagine ever teaching another class on leadership without assigning and discussing this book.”


H3 Leadership- Be Humble, Stay Hungry, Always Hustle.jpgH3 Leadership: Be Humble, Stay Hungry, Always Hustle Brad Lomenick (Thomas Nelson) $24.99  Well, this could be, at first glance, an example of some of what Art Boers finds so troubling, a rather glitzy and upbeat view of leadership, with language of going on a noble quest, pushing boundaries, being passionate and such, but not related to the Bible much, let alone the subversive and counter-cultural ways of Jesus. It is marketed, as is his legendary Catalyst conferences, with whiz and bang — I love the cool, striking hardback design sans cover.  

So, hmm. I was inclined to be skeptical.  

As with his last book (The Catalyst Leader: 8 Essentials for Becoming a Change Maker) Lomenick won me over with his raw honesty, his serious experience, and his clear passion for teaching us what he has learned in ways that are exciting, clear, and actionable.  I appreciated that he started H3 with his own story of nearly burning out, needing to take a break, of being hungry for something different — something more — in his life.  (Ahh, if only we all had the opportunities and freedom to take a sabbatical and come up with big plans!)

Lomenick had developed quite a team of young and creative leaders in his Catalyst movement, and that in itself speaks volume — he had friends and associates and teammates and could create an exit strategy knowing good folks were in line to carry on the work he had poured his life in to. His time of discontent proved fruitful, and he eventually found himself pondering these three mantras, around these three words: humble, hungry, hustle.  

And he had to start with one of the big ones: identity.  Most leaders, he tells us, are mission focused and eager to get things done.  Such driven people can soon forget who they themselves are (and their projects or organizations become “ships without a captain” running like ghost ships.) His world and style are very different then my own, but I was deeply, deeply moved by this portion, and it drew me in.

Under each of his three major mantras he listed the most important habits that embody and deepen those traits.  He ended up with twenty key habits and they “reestablished for me my core leadership foundation. These are habits that will provide the practical playbook for the next thirty years of my leadership journey. Ironically, these are habits that all great leaders have in common.”

I like books that find patterns in things, that see how these characteristics work together to form traits and habits. Of course, I am mostly drawn to the sort Boer wrote, more philosophical and foundational, but when I find a more application and real-time guidebook, I sometimes can get very excited. This book not only examines and explores the key habits, but he challenges us to do something to make these things work for us.  He is passionate about passing on this information, and on almost every page you can feel it.  Don’t read this book of you want an armchair rumination or abstract treatise.  Do read it if you want some Good to Great author Jim Collins says on the back cover “There is no better path to social improvement then deploying legions of exceptional leaders into the teeth of our most-pressing problems.”  

The other endorsements on the back of H3 Leadership are pretty remarkable, all glowing tributes about Lomenick and his work, offered by some of the most recognizable names in this field.  Blake Mycoski (TOMS Shoes), Seth Godin, Jim Collins, John Maxwell, Dave Ramsey, TV guy Mark Burnett.  Broadcast journalist, producer and philanthropist Soledad O’Brien says “H3 Leadership makes a case for every leader, at every level,” in ways that will “make leadership better and last longer.”  As you can tell, these are not pastors or churchy types, but social entrepreneurs and cultural creatives and people doing good work which is not ministry as such.

I am a fan of Brad Lomenick’s first book, and I am sure I will be a fan of this one. But here’s the thing: it doesn’t do anything at all what Art Boers does in Servants and Fools.  Read them in tandem, I’d say.

Read more books about leading with humility on the next page!

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