Fuller

Tempered Resilience: How Leaders are Formed in the Crucible of Change

by Tod Bolsinger
Senior Fellow
Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership

© Copyright 2020 De Pree Center. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

Part 1: The True Test of Leadership
Part 2: Resisting a Failure of Heart
Part 3: Grounded for Good
Part 4: Why Lead at All? Grounded for Good

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Part 1: The True Test of Leadership

Scripture – Exodus 16:2-3 (NRSV)

The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

Focus

Leadership is hard.  Always.  But the real test of leadership is not the challenges that we face outside our organizations, but the resistance to the changes necessary to face that challenge inside the organization.  And often, that resistance comes from the very people who invited you to lead them. How do we find the resilience we need in the face of resistance? In this first of four devotions, we find that resilience is formed (not found) and that formation begins in the most unlikely place.

Today’s devotion is part of the series Tempered Resilience: How Leaders are Formed in the Crucible of Change.

Devotion

Six weeks.

That’s how long it took for the brilliance of the miracle to wear off.  Six weeks.

As you read this, think back six weeks.  Maybe even take a peek at your calendar, if you need to, and ask yourself what you were doing six weeks ago. Not that long ago, really; it would be easy to forget what you were doing six weeks ago (especially in a pandemic where everything feels like “groundhog day,” huh?)   But what if six weeks ago was the single event that was the highlight of your life.  What if six weeks ago you personally witnessed one of the greatest events ever?  What is six weeks ago, you personally experienced one of the greatest miracles ever? Do you think you’d still be inspired?

Six weeks after the Israelites walked through the parted Red Sea on dry ground and then watched the most powerful army in the world get swept away as the waters rushed back in—
Six weeks after they stood safely on the shores on the far bank of the Sea, rescued from their enslavers—
Six weeks after they had personally experienced the greatest miracle the Bible would tell until the Resurrection of Jesus himself–
Six weeks after they had sung their lungs out in praise to the God who had “triumphed gloriously throwing horse and rider into the sea!”:
The Lord is my strength and my might,
and he has become my salvation;
this is my God, and I will praise him,
my father’s God, and I will exalt him! (Exodus 15:1-3).

Six weeks later… we read, “The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness.”

The people who were once enslaved for ten generations have now been freed and have begun their long walk to the Promised Land.  And they have grown hungry.  In fact, they have become very “hangry” (that is angry with hunger). And they are blaming their leaders who brought them here.  They very ones whom they had looked to for deliverance from their oppressed condition and from the chariots of Pharaoh’s army—the very ones they looked to with gratitude and trust (“Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses” [Exodus 14:31]), they now sneered at in anger and judgement. Their rumbling stomachs had sapped not only their strength, but their courage—and their faith.

If you have ever led even the smallest project, you know what this is like.  For rabbi and organizational systems expert Ed Friedman, this is the true test of leadership: How do you endure the resistance and even sabotage of the very people who once asked you to lead them in an important endeavor?

In my work with leaders around the world—especially in 2020, this most unprecedented year of pandemics, economic recession, social unrest, and political division—I have found that Rabbi Friedman’s words could not be truer.  The real challenge of leadership is not the Red Sea, the Wilderness, or Pharaoh’s army in front of us, it is, as Friedman calls it, “the failure of nerve” within us. The greatest challenge that the leader faces is not the external challenge but the internal resistance of the very people that she is called to lead.  And developing the resilience to wisely, calmly act in the face of that resistance is the most necessary quality for leaders who are going to bring genuine transformation.

So where do we find such resilience?  Is it all just a matter of sheer determination and grit?  In subsequent devotionals we will explore this more deeply and learn the formational practices that produce leadership resilience, but for now, here is the first critical point:

Leaders are formed in leading. 

Resilience is formed in the crucible of resistance. Leaders are formed when they take up the hard, but necessary work of bringing change.  You can’t develop resilience from reading a book; you can’t become a leader who can calmly lead a people who are calling for your job from the safety of a classroom.  Leadership formation and especially resilience is only developed as you enter into the heat of conflict and find your soul strengthened by one act of calm, convicted courage after another.

So, if you find yourself facing people whom you love and are called to lead with their eyes looking at you in disappointment and their words breathing fire, be assured.  This is the very place that God has you to form you for the challenges ahead.

Reflect

When in your life have you faced resistance to your leadership?  Remember it with as much detail as possible. What feelings do the memories evoke?

What did the experience of facing resistance do to you? How did it affect you?

What did you need from God then, and what do you think you’ll need from God the next time you face resistance to your leadership?

Act

Take time to revisit the experience of facing resistance by either writing in a journal or re-telling the story to a trusted friend. Pay attention to the feelings that are triggered by the experience and then ask yourself this question, “How has God used this and other experiences of resistance like this to form me for following Christ and for being a leader in his name?”

Pray

Oh Lord, even revisiting the memories of facing resistance is hard to do.  I didn’t always understand it and I know that I didn’t always handle it perfectly.  But Lord, show me how you were using that painful leadership moment to form me.  Show me, please, how you will never waste the crises we face and how you are present to us in the middle of those most challenging moments.  Give all who will exercise leadership today hope that you are always at work in every circumstance, for your will and for our good.  Let us trust your work in us even when we are not sure you are working through us, we pray. Amen.

This devotional was adapted from Tod Bolsinger’s Tempered Resilience: How Leaders are Formed in the Crucible of Change (IVP, 2020).


Part 2: Resisting a Failure of Heart

Scripture – Numbers 11:4-6, 10-15 (NRSV)

The rabble among them had a strong craving; and the Israelites also wept again, and said, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic;  but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at…”

Moses heard the people weeping throughout their families, all at the entrances of their tents. Then the Lord became very angry, and Moses was displeased. So Moses said to the Lord, “Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me?… I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me. If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once….”

Focus

Leadership is hard. Actually, what is really hard—we are learning—is leading people in times of uncertainty. People, the very people we are called to lead and to love, can be the very ones who make the life of a leader so discouraging. Oh yes, there are beautiful, blissful, meaningful moments.  But every now and then, we feel like Moses, when he said to God, “If this is the people you want me to lead, kill me now.”  And learning how to face that crisis—without losing heart—is one of the most important lessons of being a leader.

Today’s devotion is part of the series Tempered Resilience: How Leaders are Formed in the Crucible of Change.

Devotion

Moses is losing his patience.  His people are grumbling. Again.  They used to grumble when they were hungry.  Now they are grumbling because they have grown tired of the miracle that God performs for them every day to keep them fed.

The first time they grumbled Moses met the challenge with faith. The second time, he needs to face the challenge with a resilient faith. In Exodus 16, he faced Israel’s food shortage with creativity, faith, and conviction; hearing his people grumble now because they are tired of the miraculous manna that God has been providing them every day is too much. And he faces a leadership crisis—an internal leadership crisis. While the people have struggled with what one expert calls a “failure of nerve,” that is, succumbing to fear and wanting to turn back to slavery, Moses is now struggling with what I call a “failure of heart.” In this passage we will likely recognize ourselves; and how often we become disappointed, discouraged and eventually disconnected from the very people we are called to lead and the very purpose for that calling.

(Have you ever felt that way as a leader? Have you ever felt like saying to God: If this is the lot you want me to lead, just kill me now! Or maybe, “God just let me do anything else besides be a leader!”)

In 1963, in front of the Lincoln Memorial, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke what may be the most famous phrase from any speech in the 20th century. “I have a dream,” he cried. And invoking the hope of a world made right in Isaiah 40, King painted a picture of justice and racial equity for all of God’s children in a world that has been deeply divided by race. It was soaring, beautiful, and profoundly inspiring.

Three and half years later, in 1967, Dr. King was asked by an NBC news correspondent about the famous “dream” had invoked in front of the Lincoln Memorial.  He responded:

“I must confess that that dream that I had that day has in many points turned into a nightmare. Now I’m not one to lose hope. I keep on hoping. I still have faith in the future…I’ve gone through a lot of soul-searching and agonizing moments. And I’ve come to see that we have many more difficulties ahead and some of the old optimism was a little superficial and now it must be tempered with a solid realism.”

“Solid realism,” Dr. King says; “tempered” solid realism is critical to a leader who is called to overcome the long, discouraging days when those who answered the call to work to complete a mission or fulfill a dream fall back into grumbling, lose faith in the cause, or look to other less-faithful ways of achieving their aims. Tempered resilience is the antidote to the leader’s failure of nerve and failure of heart. A tempered, resilient leader doesn’t give in to the group’s “failure of nerve” by abandoning the dream. And a tempered leader does not fall prey to one’s own “failure of heart” becoming brittle and cynical, or discouraged and disconnected when the people flail or falter.

In the Lincoln Memorial address, Dr. King pointed the way, to the tempered resilience that he and so many other leaders who are working for genuine transformation have had to develop:

“This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”

Did you see that phrase in the middle of that stirring passage? “We will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”

How do we become a tool that can “hew,” a tool that can “transform”?  Like a soft piece of metal that must be shaped into a chisel to hew a hard granite slab, the leader has to be formed and worked. Like the steel that has to be transformed—forged and formed and tempered—so that it becomes strong and flexible enough to, in the words of Dr. King, “hew stones of hope out of a mountain of despair,” the leader must be formed, over time—deliberately and intentionally—into someone with the strength and resilience, the adaptability and tenacity, to “hew hope from despair.”

Dr. King ends that sobering interview in 1967 with reiterating a call to nonviolence and a commitment “to get rid of this hate and injustice and all these other things that continue the long night of man’s inhumanity to man.” (See Martin Luther King Jr., “King in 1967: My Dream Has ‘Turned into a Nightmare,’” interview by Sander Vanocur, NBC News, May 8, 1967).  He reaffirms the vision that he cast in front of the Lincoln Memorial and calls his followers to endure, resiliently, in “the long arc” of history that bends toward justice. In the wilderness of the Exodus, the streets of the marches of the Civil Rights era, and today as leaders commit themselves to the vision of God’s love and justice being revealed in the world by the transformed lives of people of faith, Dr. King’s words in front of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 words call us to a way of tempered resilience—a path of personal formation.

Are you willing to become a tool that can hew? Are you willing to become a leader who can bring hope from despair, transformation from discord?

Reflect

Consider the attributes that you need in your life to resist a “failure of heart.”  What do you need God to continue giving you or doing in your life to keep you from cynicism when you are discouraged?

What is one spiritual practice that you can add to your life to help you be more tempered and resilient when you are facing resistance and opposition?

Act

Resilient leaders are those who know that they can’t maintain the focus, courage, and empathy needed to lead change all alone. Like Moses needed Aaron, Jethro, and Miriam, they know that they need partners, mentors, and friends to support them in times of challenge. Who are your partners, mentors, and friends?  Could you set up a regular time to meet with one or more of them to give you support as you lead?

Pray

Oh Lord, you know my heart.  You know how often I am eager to lead when things are going well, and how I get discouraged when things are not. You know that I can grow weary and then in my weariness, cynical. Protect my heart, O God. Protect it by making me more open to your Spirit.  Transform my heart, O God.  Transform me, so that I am may better participate in your transformation of the world. Amen.

This devotional was adapted from Tod Bolsinger’s Tempered Resilience: How Leaders are Formed in the Crucible of Change (IVP, 2020).

Part 3: Grounded for Good

Scripture – Mark 1:9-11 (MSG)

At this time, Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. The moment he came out of the water, he saw the sky split open and God’s Spirit, looking like a dove, come down on him. Along with the Spirit, a voice: “You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.

Focus

Leadership is hard.  And because it’s hard, sometimes we are particularly hard on ourselves when things don’t go well.  Sometimes we face hard days, sometimes we have to admit hard truths, and sometimes we get discouraged.  When that happens, let the voice that echoes in your mind be something different than your own voice of self-accusation.  Let it be the voice of God speaking over you with the same words that resounded in the ears of Jesus.

Today’s devotion is part of the series Tempered Resilience: How leaders are Formed in the Crucible of Change.

Devotion

The speaker at a dinner I once attended was a Catholic nun, and the only reason that this was unusual was that the dinner was a gathering of triathletes at Ironman Canada in 2006. The nun, Sister Madonna Buder, was not there to give a trite invocation before the meal but was a veteran participant asked to say a few words of encouragement to her fellow competitors. Nicknamed “Iron Nun,” Sister Madonna would become in 2012 the world record holder in her age group and the oldest person, at eighty-two, to complete the 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, and 26.2-mile run that makes up the Ironman Triathlon.

That evening her message was simple, “Tomorrow, when things get tough out there, remember, you were loved into existence. If you get discouraged and want to quit, if you get injured and can’t finish, if things don’t go the way you hope even though you have trained for this day for months or even years, even then remember: You were loved into existence.”

A competitor herself with several age-group world records in several running events to her name, she wanted to remind that group of dedicated performers that the most important thing about them was true about them before they had performed at all.

Which was also true about Jesus.

Before there was a single miracle, there was a voice. Before there was a single act of world transformation, there was an affirmation. Before Jesus had done anything for anyone, something was done to and for him. He was baptized in the Jordan River and this word was spoken over him: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).

While commentators affirm this passage as a kind of inauguration of the work that Jesus is about to undertake as Messiah, it’s a subtle but crucial point worth pausing on as we consider what it takes to lead change well: before he had done anything, Jesus was already known, already loved, and already pleased his Father.

This is important, not only because it is true and wondrous, and gives us great comfort, but also because it affirms a critical truth that leaders need to know: Resilient leaders are grounded in something other than their success as a leader. Resilient leaders have a grounded identity. Their sense of self is not dependent upon the affirmation of those who celebrate them for their successes or laud them for their accolades. Truly resilient leaders are grounded in the reality that they are already known and already loved, and are secure in that reality even when their circumstances are most unpredictable.

The good news of God is that we are loved before we have accomplished anything. God is well-pleased in us before we have done anything to please him. We are loved into existence. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, and—even if we fail in our leadership efforts, as we surely may—God’s love for us never fails. God will complete God’s own work in us, and someday the justice will roll down and the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdoms of our God and of his Christ and he shall reign forever.

Let this truth transform you. Let this deep truth deepen you. Let the love of God ground you.

Reflect

Think back to a time when you felt that your identity was challenged because of a setback or personal misstep.  What helped you to get re-grounded?  What do you need at moments of insecurity to help you feel secure again?

Act

For five consecutive days, spend some time praying about and reading—in different Bible translations, if you can—the following passages:  Matthew 3:17, Mark 1:11, Luke 3:22.  (Note that all the passages are based on the same event.)  Substitute your own name for the word “son” in the passages and write a brief journal response each day.

Pray

O Father, you call me beloved.  You claim me as your child. You speak words over me of blessing, affirmation, acceptance, and love.  You proclaim your delight in me, your fatherly pride in me, your affection for me.  Some days, I can hardly believe it sometimes.  O God, thank you for your love for me before I do anything to earn it. It’s such amazing grace, O God; please help me believe it.  Help my believing it change the way I follow you and serve others.  Amen.

This devotional was adapted from Tod Bolsinger’s Tempered Resilience: How Leaders are Formed in the Crucible of Change (IVP, 2020).

Part 4: Why Lead at All?

Scripture – Matthew 22:34-40 (NRSV)

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Focus

Leadership is hard.  But finding the motivation for enduring when it is particularly challenging is a key to forming resilience.  Having a clear reason for leading—a  “Big Why”—is not only good strategy, but a critical component for forming the kind of tempered resilience that is able to wisely, faithfully, and tenaciously enduring when resistance sets in.

Today’s devotion is part of the series Tempered Resilience: How leaders are Formed in the Crucible of Change.

Devotion

Simon Sinek has made a name for himself making one point: “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” His TED Talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” has been viewed over 45 million times. Sinek lays out his view that the key to bringing change is to “start with ‘why.’” While his premise has given rise to a chicken-egg debate, what is clear is that inner motivation or purpose is directly linked to motivating others to buy-in to a plan.

In the talk he draws a diagram of three circles; the center circle is labeled “why” and two outer rings are labeled “what” and “how.” “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it,” he says. The motivation for changing behavior and bringing change to the world is not in the strategies (the what) or the tactics (the how) but in the motivation (the why). For Sinek the driver of change is to find those people who share at the center of their being your same central beliefs and motivations and engage them in joining you.

Christian leadership is fundamentally about gathering people together to become a community to grow in order to accomplish something that needs to be done in the name of Christ. That mission is focused on a need or pain point that if addressed would further the redemptive purposes of God in the world. It is the desire to be a tangible, particular, and contextual answer to the prayer of Jesus, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth . . .” And it is that prayer amidst that “pain point” that give us our Big Why.

Each congregation (and indeed every Christian!) is to be both the answer to Jesus’ prayer and the fulfillment of Jesus’ command to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Indeed, for followers of Jesus, who have committed to “Love the Lord your God” as generations of the people of God have going back to Deuteronomy, the command to love neighbor is the most radical and distinctive mark of our faith.  We who believe that the greatest command is to love God with all our being are told by that God to love our neighbors with equal vigor and intention.  The love of neighbor is the motivation for mission and the love of neighbor is the “why” of our leadership.

In this way, leadership is born not of the desire to lead but—at the center of our being—out of a call to service in light of the painful realities of the world. It flows not from a desire to achieve, succeed, or accomplish, but to serve at the point of real need and experiencing that need as one’s own calling.

For most of us this is straightforward enough. Indeed, those of us called to leadership are motivated by words like transformation and mission. We are eager to make a difference, meet a need, and, if we are people of Christian faith, see God’s reign made manifest in our towns, churches, and organizations. Leadership is called into action when there is a problem outside of the organization that needs to be addressed and the organization needs to change in order to take on that challenge.

One of the genuine crises of Christian leadership today is how inward focused it is. A movement founded on the salvation and transformation of the world often becomes consumed with helping a congregation, an organization, or educational institution survive, stay together, or deal with rampant anxiety (often all at the same time). It’s not enough to turn around a declining church, resolve conflict, restore a sense of community, regain a business’s market share, return an organization to sustainability, or even “save the company.” The question before any leader of an organization is to “save the company for what?”

One day sitting with a group of leaders in Silicon Valley who were teaching me how create a “start-up” project for my seminary, one of them challenged me, “Tod nobody cares whether your institution survives.  They only care whether your organization cares about them.”

Resilient leaders endure through resistance because of the deep care they have for people in pain in the world and the deep belief that their organization, institution, or congregation is meant to meet that need. The Big Why is both critical for an effective missional strategy, and vital for forming the resilience to see it through.

Reflect

How would you describe your personal “Big Why”? What is your deepest reason for life and service? What is your motivation for developing resilience as a leader?

How does your Big Why help you face the challenges that come from leading and serving other people?

Act

Try to write a personal mission statement in 8 words or less.  Make sure that it helps you articulate your “Big Why.”  Put that on a post-it note and put it someplace to motivate you every day.

Pray

O Lord, loving and serving you is my most heartfelt motivation for living.  Help me love and serve my neighbor with the same energy and determination.  Help me, O God, to listen deeply enough to my neighbor to know where I can offer my love and service to their need, where I can accompany and befriend, show care and compassion, encourage and help others endure.  Let my deepest motivation be to lead others to find your love, meeting them in their places of pain because your people lived out the love you lavished on us.  Amen.

This devotional was adapted from Tod Bolsinger’s Tempered Resilience: How Leaders are Formed in the Crucible of Change (IVP, 2020).


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