Leadership Wisdom – Performance

By Uli Chi

October 25, 2023

Scripture — Matthew 6:1 (NIV)

Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

Focus

What motivates your performance as a leader?

Devotion

Red Vineyard near Arles by Vincent Van Gogh (1888) - Wikipedia

Red Vineyard near Arles by Vincent Van Gogh (1888) – Wikipedia

Jesus’ favorite description of God in the Sermon on the Mount is “your Father.” He paints a picture of “your Father in heaven” that underscores the incomparable love God has for all human beings. Grasping the width and length and height and depth of God’s love is one of the greatest challenges of being human (Ephesians 3:18). Consequently, in today’s text – and in much of the Sermon that follows – Jesus focuses our attention on our relationship with the God who is our Father. 

But our relationship with God is neither straightforward nor without challenges. To begin with, we are confronted with the paradox that, despite God’s remarkable care for us, God is regularly experienced as hidden or absent. In Jesus’ wonderfully evocative language, God is “your Father who is in secret” (Matthew 6:6 NRSV). Further, his words suggest more than God’s hiddenness and absence. They point to at least two other surprising aspects of our relationship with God.

First, God is present in the ordinary and the everyday, not just in the dramatic and spectacular. While Jesus' life and ministry showed occasions of miraculous healing and demonstrations of power, much of his life did not. And particularly in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spotlights God’s presence and work in the ordinary and everyday. As the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote:

Earth’s crammed with heaven,

And every common bush afire with God,

But only he who sees, takes off his shoes.

We are easily seduced and distracted by religious spectacle. Jesus himself was tempted to use the miraculous as a way to prove his divine credentials and build a large following (Matthew 4:5-7). But the spectacular does not sustain us. Jesus knew what the Hebrew prophet Elijah discovered much earlier in Jewish history. The great prophet finally found God, not in a powerful demonstration of wind, earthquake, or fire, but in “a gentle whisper” (1 Kings 19:11-12). And that seemingly insignificant and ordinary encounter sustained Elijah for the rest of his work.

Second, “your Father who is in secret” suggests that God works from the inside out. Previously in the Sermon, Jesus underscored the importance of our interior life and how it relates to our outward behavior. He warned against anger that develops into murder and lust that leads to adultery. In other words, we need to pay attention to what’s going on inside of us, not just to our actions. In Jesus’ teachings, the human heart matters a great deal. And the “heart” involves more than just our feelings but includes all our interior capacity to consider and to choose. As the wise sage counsels in the Hebrew Book of Proverbs: “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it” (Proverbs 4:23). That’s an important reminder for those of us who tend to focus exclusively on external results. Real results begin with our interior life. And that’s where Jesus draws our attention when he talks about God being and seeing in secret.

As leaders, it’s easy to become preoccupied with our external performance. Of course, performance—in the sense of accomplishing our goals—is important. But our performance needs to be congruent with who we really are. Otherwise, we become (to use Eugene Peterson’s phrase) “playactors.” We wind up merely building a following and playing to the crowd. Being fully human means living a coherent life. Otherwise, it’s possible to just put on a good show. As Peterson’s Message version insightfully translates the second half of our text: “It might be good theater, but the God who made you won’t be applauding.”

Still, our external performance (or “righteousness,” to use Jesus’ language) does matter. As he said earlier in the Sermon, “You are the light of the world … let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16). Jesus isn’t only interested in an inner goodness that has no public expression. As he humorously put it, we are not meant to “light a lamp and put it under a bowl”!

By referencing “your Father in heaven,” Jesus argues that our performance must be fundamentally rooted in a relationship of love. Great leaders inspire great performance because of their relationship with their followers. That includes many things, such as articulating clearly and compellingly the mission, vision, and values of their work, as well as demonstrating that in the leaders’ own lives and work. But it’s possible to do all that and still miss something crucial. 

Great leaders love. Great leaders love the people who follow them. Great leaders love the work they’ve been given to do. And great leaders love the world in which they do their work. That’s the distinctive character of the God whom Jesus describes as your Father in heaven. And that’s the way Jesus lived his life and did his work.

For those of us who are leaders and who seek to lead the way Jesus did, love is the ultimate measuring stick for our performance. 

Reflect

How does love shape the way you lead? In what way does love inform the way you work, the way you interact with those you lead, and how you show up in the world? 

Act

Today, find one way to show your love for those who are your followers.

Prayer

Father in heaven,

We are grateful for your great love for us, for the work we’ve been given to do, and for the world in which we live. Enable both our inner lives and our outer actions to be rooted in that love.

Help us to live coherent lives where our performance is an expression of who we really are. And shape who we are to be more like you.

We ask in your name,

Amen.

Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the High Calling archive, hosted by the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: When You Don’t Know How to Pray.


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Uli Chi

Vice Chair, Senior Fellow

Dr. Uli Chi’s career is a testament to his unique approach to leadership. He has navigated the realms of for-profit businesses, nonprofit organizations, the theological academy, and the local church, gleaning a wealth of wisdom from each. As an award-winning technological entrepreneur, h...

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