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Leadership Burdens (Part II)

April 24, 2021 • Life for Leaders

Scripture – Galatians 6:2, 5 (NIV)

Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.

Each one should carry their own load.

Focus

How might we as leaders learn to carry the burdens of others?

Devotion

Leadership is about relationships. What complicates leadership relationships is that leaders require something of their followers. Implicit or explicit in the relationship is some responsibility that the follower accepts from the leader. This is true whether we are talking about employee-employer, student-teacher, or volunteer-volunteer leader relationships, to name just a few.

The fifth Station of the Cross where Simon of Cyrene assists Jesus in carrying the cross

The fifth Station of the Cross where Simon of Cyrene assists Jesus in carrying the cross

As leaders in those contexts, we face a dual challenge. How are we to deal with the tension of carrying our own responsibilities and of carrying the responsibility for those we lead? Or, to use the language of our biblical texts for today, how are we to carry “each other’s burdens” and our “own load” at the same time? We focused yesterday on some of the distinctive aspects of the burden of leadership, ones that leaders uniquely must carry for themselves. Today, we will focus on the questions of how we are to help carry the burdens of those we lead.

So, how might we as leaders learn to carry the burdens of others?

I grew up with the business leadership maxim, “It’s not personal, it’s business.”  Having run my own business, I find that dichotomy unhelpful. Of course, business (and leadership more generally) is personal. After all, businesses consist of people and relationships. Nevertheless, the maxim has a ring of truth in it since business (and leadership) can become too personal. It is possible to carry other people’s burdens in an unhelpful way.

There has been much written recently about the importance of empathy and vulnerability in leadership. It’s worth noting that these qualities are deeply rooted in the character of God as demonstrated in Jesus Christ. Learning to care about others, and not to just treat them as a means to accomplish what we want, is distinctively God-like leadership, whether one acknowledges that or not. At the same time, there is a considerable body of modern psychological literature about the importance of developing personal boundaries and learning to “differentiate” ourselves from other people. Again, while not always acknowledged, it is worth noting that these insights also have their roots in the Christian tradition. An early example of that is found in our texts today.

As leaders, learning to carry other people’s burdens involves a balance of empathy and detachment, of entering into their burden without feeling the obligation to solve people’s problems for them. In many ways, that is more difficult than either taking over people’s burdens or ignoring them entirely. I often find it’s easier to “check out” rather than to remain engaged with the issues others face. But part of carrying my “own load” as a leader is neither to be indifferent towards nor to over-manage those I lead. That too is part of the art of leadership.

But what about the burdens that we as leaders put on others?

Max De Pree said that the responsibility of leaders is to carry pain rather than to inflict pain. It has struck me as odd that some Christian leaders and some Christian organizations seem to impose a burden on others that they themselves seem unwilling to bear. Much like the Pharisees that Jesus confronted about their leadership practice, it is possible for us to “load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and (we ourselves) will not lift one finger to help them” (Luke 11:46b).

As a practical example, we can confuse delegation with abdication. While we can delegate authority and responsibility, we can’t as leaders abdicate our ultimate accountability. For me that means that we must not only delegate to but also empower and equip people whom we serve to be able to “carry their own load.” Of course, in a fallen world, there will be situations when people can’t or won’t do what is needed. Nevertheless, one of our fundamental tasks as leaders is – to the best of our abilities – to makes sure they are set up for success.

In that regard, I find it intriguing that Jesus characterized the burden that he places on his follower as being “light” (Matthew 11:30). From one point of view, given Jesus’ picture of discipleship as being a journey to a Roman cross, that seems incongruous. But perhaps, it reminds us that Jesus empowers and equips us for our discipleship, and, more importantly, shares that load with and in us. And it reminds me that leadership doesn’t shrink from challenging others (and ourselves!) by setting high expectations. Certainly, nothing could be higher than the one Jesus himself set for all his followers.

Still, it’s easy for us to make things unnecessarily burdensome for those who follow us, as people have done throughout Church history. Thankfully, there is a wonderful example of how to lead well from the earliest days recorded in the book of Acts. In that account, the Jerusalem church met to consider what practices the Gentile followers of Christ would be obligated to follow. After much debate, they said this: “It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials…” (Acts 15:28 NRSV, emphasis mine).

No further burden than these essentials.” That’s a helpful way to think about what burdens we ask those we lead to carry. May we go and do likewise.

Reflect

How do you handle the balance between empathy and detachment in your leadership relationships?

What do you think of Max De Pree’s quote that leaders are not to impose pain but to carry pain? How have you seen that done well? How have you seen that done badly?

Act

Review your leadership relationships for ways where you are carrying burdens that you should not be carrying, and for those that you should be carrying but are not. Practice doing it differently in this coming week.

Pray

Lord Jesus Christ,

We are grateful that you entered into our lives and work in such a way that you both share in our burdens and give us the dignity of carrying our own load. Help us to learn from the way you lead and serve us, so that we might serve those we lead in the same way.

We ask in your name, Amen.


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Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. Commentary on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Leadership and Decision Making in the Christian Community (Acts 15)


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