Nurturing the Call to Leadership

Published on: March 1, 2011

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Some years ago, I facilitated a weekend Callings retreat for a nonprofit environmental organization in New England. As I was unpacking my car on that Friday afternoon, a fellow pulled into the parking lot, got out, and motioned me over. He told me that he had taken one of my workshops a year or two before, and wanted to share with me the passion that had emerged for him as a result of taking that workshop.

“I’m going to start my car,” he said, “and I want you to bend down and smell the exhaust.”

It was certainly among the stranger requests I’ve had in my time, but the exhaust that came out of the back of his car smelled like … a McDonald’s. And he explained that he had recently invented a process capable of turning used french-fry oil into non-polluting fuel for automobiles. He called it “McFuel.” And said he was about to embark on a one-year pilgrimage driving that car across the country to drum up media attention for what was, needless to say, an abundant and renewable resource.

The encounter reminded me, for one thing, that the depth of people’s passion and ingenuity when they’re sufficiently motivated is amazing. It also reminded me that you never know who’s watching you. One person following his or her own passion can have a profound effect on the unfolding of another person’s passion in the world, without the first person even being aware of it. It thus matters greatly that we’re each out there doing our proverbial thing, being in sync with who we really are, acting on our passions, responding to our callings—interconnectedness being what it is, the mechanics of inspiration being what they are.

In other words, we’re all potential leaders and role models, inspiring (or dispiriting) others just by how we show up in the world and how aligned or misaligned we are with our own selves. What goes for the individual goes for “the company you keep.”

Deeper Truth in Myths

There’s a reason some of the world’s great myths and fairy tales, like Sleeping Beauty and the Grail King, in cultures the world over, speak to the idea that when the king sleeps, those around him also sleep, and the kingdom goes to sleep. When the queen sleeps, those around her also sleep, and the kingdom goes dormant. But when the king and queen awaken, those around them also awaken, and the kingdom flowers.

This idea is built very deeply into the mythologies, psychologies, philosophies and religions of the world. It’s an archetypal truth, an age-old truth, and the point is: our individual work is the work of the world. When we awaken, we help the kingdom to awaken. Furthermore, the small steps are the big picture. I saw a bumper sticker recently that said, “Maybe the Hokey Pokey is what it’s all about.”
This is especially true for those in more official positions of leadership and stewardship, anything from a minister to a manager, a mentor, a teacher, a lay leader, a parent, a coach, a counselor, a CEO, or a politician. As leaders and stewards, part of the job description is understanding and activating the deep motivations in other people, their callings and sense of mission, what they want to accomplish and contribute. It starts with yourself. (Knowing yourself is as important to good leadership and stewardship as knowing your constituents and knowing your craft.)

Part of the job is modeling integrity, not just morally but psychologically—as in knowing who you are, what you’re here to do, and what you stand for (and thus of course what you won’t stand for).

Part of the job is having a feel for what wants to emerge or happen in any given moment, situation, relationship or enterprise. Again, start in your own backyard.

And part of the job is servant-leadership in which you give priority to the needs of those you serve. One of the foremost duties of a servant leader is the same as what theologian Paul Tillich considers the first duty of love, and that is to listen! To the degree you love your work, love the humanity of the people you work with and on behalf of, and love your own life, you listen.

It’s also the most expedient way to nurture any kind of call: listen for it and respond to it. The psychologist James Hillman says that the making of consciousness happens by keeping things in conversation, and that unconsciousness happens by letting things fall out of conversation.

Creating a passionate and compassionate ministry and world begins with the individual, with the corpus (i.e., the body) that defines the corporation (i.e., a collection of bodies). For the individual, especially those willing to examine the core of personal authenticity that’s at the heart of effective and inspiring leadership, it begins with the pick-and-shovel work of self-reflection. It encompasses listening for your own passions and sense of purpose and service, recognizing the deep values vs. the advertised values, and finding a fit between who you are and what you do. As author Frederick Buechner puts it, “the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger.”

Gregg Levoy
Gregg Levoy is the author of Vital Signs: The Nature and Nurture of Passion, and Callings: Finding and Following An Authentic Life.

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