August 27, 2023 • Life for Leaders
Scripture — Isaiah 40:10-11 (NRSV)
See, the Lord GOD comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him
and his recompense before him.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms
and carry them in his bosom
and gently lead the mother sheep.
Isaiah 40 portrays both the power of God and the tenderness of God. This portrait encourages us to consider our own leadership. When we exercise our power or authority, do we do it with tenderness? With compassion? With grace?
In last Wednesday’s Life for Leaders devotion, we saw God’s power and tender care. Yes, God has a mighty arm, which God sometimes uses to judge the guilty. But, in Isaiah 40:10-11, God’s mighty arm is used when “he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom.” Yes, God is strong, stronger than anything we can imagine. Yet God is also tender, tender in ways for which our hearts yearn.
As I reflect on this picture of God’s power and tenderness, I wonder if I am faithfully imitating God’s example in my leadership. Of course, my power pales in comparison to the Lord’s. But, still, I have been given a modest measure of power and authority in my work. Throughout my career, for example, I’ve had many people report to me as the boss. These days, my authority is more as a teacher and mentor.
So, yes, I have some power and am expected to steward this power wisely and well. But, I ask myself, am I also tender? Do I show appropriate compassion to those with whom I work or whom I influence through my writings? Are there times when I get so engaged in my work that I fail to show compassion for my colleagues and constituents?
It isn’t easy to combine power with tenderness, especially in difficult situations. I think of times in my professional life when I have had an employee consistently underperform. As a faithful steward of the authority given to me, there have been times when I’ve needed to let such an employee go, assuming that efforts for improvement consistently failed. I needed to use my power to fire somebody, to put it bluntly. Yet, was that merciful? Gracious? I wonder if it’s possible to fire somebody with tenderness? Or does tenderness mean that I should keep on my staff somebody who is not able to do the necessary work?
Years ago, I was a teaching fellow in an undergraduate course at Harvard, where I was doing my doctoral work. A student of mine was notorious for his absences, tardiness, and the poor quality of his work. I knew I had to exercise my power to admonish him and try to get him to do better work. I arranged a meeting with him and prepared to lower the boom. Before I did, I asked a tough but appropriate question: “Jake, is there some reason your work in this course is sub-standard?”
As I prepared to hear some shallow excuse, I looked into Jake’s eyes and saw tears. I wondered if he was trying to play on my emotions. He said in a shaky voice, “Yes, Mr. Roberts, there is a reason. My mom is dying of cancer and I go home as often as I can. I’m falling behind in all of my classes and I don’t know what to do.”
I could sense that Jake was telling me the truth. I felt a powerful wave of compassion because my own father had also been struggling with serious cancer. I was able to cast away my planned rebuke and care for this student with tenderness. (Indeed, his mother did die during that semester. Jake had to withdraw from a couple of his classes, but I was able to help him complete mine.)
I have thought back to that incident many times in my life. I thank God that I didn’t just blast away at poor Jake before hearing his story. I wonder, though, how many times I have exercised power without compassion. I’ve asked, and I continue to ask the Lord for his guidance in my professional relationships, for wisdom to see what’s true and for a heart that is tender to the people entrusted to my care.
As you think about your leadership, how do you combine strength with tenderness?
In what situations do you find it difficult to balance the two, or to decide which is needed most at the moment?
Can you think of people you have known who are both strong and tender?
In your work this week, look for an opportunity to be tender with someone who needs an extra bit of grace.
Gracious God, we praise you today for your unique strength. And we praise you as well for your unique tenderness. Thank you, dear Lord, for picking us up in your strong arms, for embracing us close to your heart.
Lord, please help me to learn from you, to imitate your example in my work. May I be a leader who stewards well the power entrusted to me. And, may I also treat with tenderness those who have been given to my care. Amen.
Banner image by Elisabeth Wales on Unsplash.
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: The Lord Remembers We Are Only Dust.
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Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders, and the founder of the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative. Previously, Mark was the Executive Director of the De Pree Center, the lead pastor of a church in Southern California, and the Senior Director of Laity Lodge in Texas. He has written eight books, dozens of articles, and over 2,500 devotions that help people discover the difference God makes in their daily life and leadership. With a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard, Mark teaches at Fuller Seminary, most recently in his D.Min. cohort on “Faith, Work, Economics, and Vocation.” Mark is married to Linda, a marriage and family counselor, spiritual director, and executive coach. Their two grown children are educators on the high school and college level.