This is part three of a whole series of posts I’m doing on my trip to go hear Rob Bell in February 2014. If you want, you can start at the first post.
The sessions for my 2 Days with Rob Bell were held at a cool event hotel close to the ocean in Laguna Beach. The room was actually out doors, with 4 walls but just a tarp on pulleys if we needed shade. So strange to go from Oregon’s worst snow storm ever to an outdoor event with loads of sunshine.
Rob began talking about some of the issues that only leaders really face. Things like the lack of certainty, fatigue, going through trauma without knowing it was trauma and still carrying it around all beaten up from trauma exposure. What leaders must do is instigate and navigate change, which isn’t always approved of by the mothership – so leadership in the current cultural context can also be a bit about map-making because we (as a culture) are going to places that humanity has never been (and before you say there’s nothing new under the sun, talk to me about Moses’ iPad…). Today, leaders have to build things even when the parts required to build those things haven’t been invented yet; they have to jump off the cliff when no one has ever learned about the landing!
During this start of the day I really thought it was interesting because the things that Rob described as experiences of a leader could be experiences of anybody. The room was filled with people that I didn’t expect to be there. It was about 1/3 leaders, primarily church leaders, especially ones who liked to talk about the controversial books they had read and the beer they drank now that they were emergent. Then 1/3 Rob Bell super fans, who sat in the front with thick rimmed glasses and wondered when Rob got rid of his and started wearing contacts. Then 1/3 people who really needed a therapist and thought Rob would do the trick, which he seemed to enjoy doing for them. All of these people were relating to what Rob was saying about the life of a leader, even if they were only the leaders of their own selves (and that was pending a vote). Isn’t it a totally different experience to lead abnormally large groups? Isn’t there something uniquely suffer-able to giving leadership to dynamic movements?
The major difference I see is the number of people who are going to suffer if you screw it up. For an individual the splash zone for screw-ups is a lot smaller. I can’t imagine the pressure that a leader of a large organization feels when dealing with massive decisions. We can’t empathize with a multi-national CEO when he signs an order to lay off 10% of the work force. We don’t get to pretend we know what it’s like to be criticized by people who don’t know us and never will but have built careers out of dismantling everything we do. We can’t think we know what it’s like to be the president and know the codes for weapons that can wipe countries off the map.
Everyone experiences a lack of certainty – but not everyone experiences that with a large group of people staring at them wondering what the answer is.
Everyone gets fatigued – but not everyone keeps going the next week and the next day just for the benefit of the group that they lead.
We can easily end up swapping stories of how hard-core we all are, but those things always bore me because I know that no matter how big of deal you have propped yourself up to be you’re not the president, you’re not employing tens of thousands of people, you’re not Rick Warren, you’re not Barak Obama, you’re not Justin Beiber (just had to throw that in :). If you need to explain how great of a leader you are, then I don’t think I believe you. Instead, I start looking around wondering why your “followers” aren’t saying the same thing…
Yet, even if you are the leader (even if you are a bad leader) of a very small group – like a family, or a marriage, or a classroom or a workshop – these very issues drain you and cause you to doubt and wonder if you have what it takes to lead these people. And if you quit, it’s not just on you – it’s going to hurt others – and that is the most incredibly terrifying reality.
So, all that to say that leading people is an incredible experience. It’s tough, it’s exhilarating, its terrifying, it’s joyous. It’s reality-altering.
It’s why the presidents are all friends after they are finished running planet earth. They have had a life experience that is completely different and never understood by anyone outside of those who have sat in that chair with that power. They have conversations with each other that they can never have with anyone else.
It’s why athletes who were rivals in the sporting careers become great friends after they retire. It’s why the very best of the best never experience that comradarie. I’m looking at you MJ.
It’s why church planters always seem to be able to find each other at pastors’ meetings. Their experience of jumping full speed off a cliff and hoping that somebody in the group knows how a parachute works is one that the pastor of an established church will miss (and no this doesn’t make them better, everyone is good and your objection is boring me, so go back to your office after your assistant gets you a latte from your personal espresso maker).
Blazing a trail always seems like such an exciting and sexy thing to do. When the road ends and you keep walking, people (and your own self talk) either think you are crazy or genius and the line between the two is blurry. So those who have had the unique experience also have a shared loneliness – that they can only find empathy for among others who have jumped, who have kept walking, who have made maps instead of just following them.