January 15, 2024 • Article, De Pree Journal, Marketplace Leaders
Have you ever had a boss that wanted the best for you? A leader who took the blame for a big mistake? Or one who shouted your praise when you did something great? Someone who went to battle for your raise or spoke to you in a way that helped you uncover your superpower?
Unfortunately, these kinds of bosses are not the norm. It makes sense. The world is, well, a lot, and burned-out people don’t make good bosses. People who haven’t dealt with their trauma usually project it onto others. People who haven’t been intentionally developed don’t know how to develop others. And, when achievements or notoriety define who we are, it’s hard to make room for the success of others.
I’ve been on all sides of this. I’ve been a not-so-good boss and a good boss. I’ve had good bosses, and I’ve had not-so-good ones. Sometimes bosses are a bit of both. Of course, sometimes people are truly unfit for leadership. Their behavior is toxic or abusive and needs to be dealt with. If you’ve been on the receiving side of this, you know just how painful it is. But then, there’s a whole category of people who aren’t perpetually toxic but could be a whole lot better at leading people.
If we want to get better at leading, we have to make intentional choices. Max De Pree himself wrote, “People are at the heart and spirit of all that counts. Without people, there is no need for leaders.” This means if we aren’t consciously, actively, and tangibly seeking the best for the people entrusted to our care, we’ve lost our way.
Leaders Do the Inner Work
Now, not all leaders are structural ones. And not all people who use the hashtag #boss spend their days working with others. Plus, there’s a long debate about the difference between managers and leaders, which I won’t get into here. Only to say that, like Max said, people are at the heart and soul of what counts. So much so, that here at a center named in his honor, we imagine a world in which leaders across industries and seasons of life seek the very best for the people and systems entrusted to their care. And, through our research, we think we’ve uncovered a key piece of enacting this future. Here it is:
Good leaders do their inner work—especially in seasons of difficulty.
That’s right. Chances are the bosses you’ve loved the most or the ones who made you feel like you could fly have learned from and during their own darkest moments. Not only that, but they plan to keep growing as the toughest parts of life and work naturally unfold.
What our data doesn’t say is that great leaders are perfect. They make mistakes. They hurt people. But they are not mastered or measured by their pain. They do not fear falling on their face because they know challenges, crises, and crucibles are incubators for growth. Oriented by the hope of Christ, great leaders have learned that so much of growth is paradoxical in that we must go down to go up.
To seek the best for others, we must seek the best for ourselves. If there’s a part of you that worries this is selfish, consider the greatest commandment that tells us to love God with everything we have and also to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27, NRSV).
We cannot love others without loving ourselves. This includes dealing with the toughest parts of ourselves, our pain, and our shadow side. We have to pursue what Parker Palmer calls a hidden wholeness. He writes, “Good leadership comes from people who have penetrated their own inner darkness and arrived at the place where we are at one with one another, people who can lead the rest of us to a place of ‘hidden wholeness’ because they have been there and know the way.” The leaders who have shown you the way have likely learned that wisdom the hard way, in large part by doing their inner work.
In an upcoming book I co-authored with Lisa Pratt Slayton, we describe inner work as “the work we undertake over time to become more wholly the people we’re uniquely intended to be.” It’s part identity work. Part spiritual formation. And ultimately, transformation work. Inner work is the kind of growth that no one else can do for us, but can never be done alone.
I won’t pretend that inner work is a phrase that I or anyone at De Pree Center made up. But I will say that we’ve been using it internally for years now as a way to orient our goals for you and measure the success of our resources. We’ve seen so many people learn to lean into tough things, which has caused us to double down on our trust that God’s Spirit really does guide us in the process of transformation, which little by little equips us to live more integrally and authentically as we seek to join God at work at the world (Col 3:3-5, NRSV).
Becoming is at the heart of what it means to be a follower of Christ—that in Christ, everything old has passed away and new things come into being and that it’s all made possible by the redemptive grace of Jesus, which is more than sufficient for us (2 Cor 5:17, 12:9, NRSV; Rom 3:24, NRSV). And, that core to the paradox of growth for Christian leaders is that we are counted as followers before we ever aspire to lead (Matt 20:25, NRSV).
All this to say that if we want to be the kind of leaders who seek the best for others, the kind that others want to work for and with, we have to bravely and lovingly face that which lies within. By taking loving responsibility for the shadowy parts of ourselves, and by welcoming God into our deepest challenges, crises, and crucibles we grow in love and capacity to care for others (1 John 4:18, NRSV).
I’ve learned the hard way (remember, I’ve been on all sides of the good boss, bad boss situation) that whether or not we attend to that which lies within has weighty repercussions on how we show up for those we lead.
When I ran a creative agency, there was a time early on when I publicly blamed a graphic designer for a major failure with a client. I was so caught up in self-protecting that I prioritized how others viewed me over how they viewed him. Fifteen years later, I still wish I could redo this moment. It cost me my relationship with him. And, my choice made me look worse to the client, not better.
Palmer goes on to suggest that,
A leader is someone with the power to project either shadow or light onto some part of the world and onto the lives of the people who dwell there. A leader shapes the ethos in which others must live, an ethos as light-filled as heaven or as shadowy as hell. A good leader is intensely aware of the interplay of inner shadow and light, lest the act of leadership do more harm than good. 
So, if we want to become better leaders, the kind who project light (Matt 5:14, NRSV) and whom people both want to work with and benefit from, we will need to tune into and deal with what’s happening inside. Otherwise, we’ll do more harm than good. And, if we’re willing to look at challenges, crises, and crucibles in a new light, our research suggests we’ll experience mental, emotional, and spiritual renewal that’ll enable us to grow in Christ and seek the best for others, no matter the context we find ourselves in.
Resources to Kickstart Your Inner Work
As I said, equipping you for your inner work is at the heart of nearly everything we create here at De Pree Center. We have endless resources for you. Here are a few recent ones that people have found especially helpful:
 Max De Pree, Leadership is an Art (New York: Penguin, 2004), 13.
 Scott Cormode, “A People Entrusted to Your Care,” De Pree Journal, August 2020. https://depree.org/a-people-entrusted-to-your-care/
 This sentence reflects a working document our De Pree Center team developed on what inner work is and how it connects to our “Healthy Marketplace Leaders” research.
 Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011), Kindle loc 356.
 I have been particularly formed by the passage of the Good Samaritan. It was the foundational text for my first book, Make Work Matter (Baker Books, 2021). In recent years, I have found Jasmine Bellamy’s work through Love 101 Ministries, http://love101ministries.com, instructive for leading with love as well as Dr. Yulee Lee’s Change Leadership Institute, https://www.changeleadershipinstitute.org, for thinking about love as the way to lead change.
 Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000), 80-81.
 Michaela O’Donnell and Lisa Pratt Slayton, Life in Flux (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2024).
 In our book, Lisa and I take up a whole list of things that we have to let go of in order to do this sort of inner work. Michaela O’Donnell and Lisa Pratt Slayton, Life in Flux (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2024).
 Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000), 78.
Banner image by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash.
Dr. Michaela O’Donnell is the executive director of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership where she oversees the center’s vision, strategy, program, and team, all with the goal of helping leaders like you respond faithfully to God in all seasons of your life and leadership.
Michaela is the author of Make Work Matter: Your Guide to Meaningful Work in a Changing World. It’s gotten rave reviews from folks such as Dave Evans, Mark Labberton, Missy Wallace, Luke Bobo, Dee Ann Tuner, Kara Powell, and more. This book is a reflection of Michaela’s heart as both an entrepreneur and a practical theologian. Drawn to the real life working out of big issues, it is a how to for anyone walking the road of calling in a changing world.
Click here to view Michaela’s profile.