Dan G. Blazer: Denying the self as a pathway to leading from the soul

How can Christian leaders develop the healthy and confident sense of self necessary to lead effectively while at the same time denying themselves? asks the former dean of medical education at Duke University.

As a psychiatrist, I spend my time attempting to put selves back together again -- saving selves from themselves. In my work, I rarely if ever move patients toward self-emptying, self-denial or self-sacrifice. Yet I believe that the soul must encompass denying the self as well as saving the self.

This is particularly important for Christians, as we see in Mark 8:34-36: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. … For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” (NRSV).

Therein lies the tension: How can Christian leaders develop the healthy and confident sense of self necessary to lead effectively while at the same time denying themselves?

Self is that continuing identity connected with history and some sense of permanence even though every molecule in our bodies may have been transformed over time. This is much as the old boat that’s still named the Mary Jane after every plank, rivet and metal fitting has been replaced.

Like psychiatrists who undergo therapy before treating others, leaders too must be concerned with first knowing and securing themselves.

How can leaders instill confidence if they are not self-confident? How can leaders develop strategic plans if they are not self-directed? How can leaders evaluate others’ performance if they cannot be self-reflective? How can leaders hold followers to task if they themselves are not self-disciplined?

Yet for Christian leaders, a healthy sense of self is a paradox. To grow as a Christian is to grow toward self-emptying and total obedience to another.

What are the characteristics of healthy -- yet self-denying -- leadership? In my experience, the practices of followership, courage, transition, flow, prayer and meditation, and solitude are foundational to leading from the soul.

Followership

Submitting to those over whom we have authority is a pathway to true followership.

An example: A subordinate becomes excited about an idea for a new project. As the leader, I am skeptical, yet I agree to give the project a try. If it succeeds, credit goes to the subordinate; if it fails, I do not castigate the subordinate but jointly own the failure. Either way, I deny myself.

Followership requires discernment as well as self-sacrifice. When do I as a leader choose to follow, knowing that temporary failure will ultimately benefit the organization? The good leader asks this question continually, just as the good shepherd permits the sheep to wander within certain boundaries.

Courage

Every day, all of us face decisions that call for some degree of courage. Courage does not require us to carry the banner of bold certitude at every juncture.

Courage is in part the willingness to display what we don’t know as well as what we know. When we struggle openly with a decision or course of action, we challenge our sense of self-control.

Yet courage transcends simple decision making as leaders. Courage is the willingness to step forward in risky situations and give it a try. I suggest that practicing courage in relatively small acts of leadership, such as hiring a risky candidate for a job, prepares us for future, more significant acts of courage.

Transition

Some transitions are self-denying in that they are conscious decisions to give up something of value. To travel through these transitions takes practice.

As I move into retirement, for example, each step has been a mixed blessing, as I’ve turned loose of positions and responsibilities I have held vigorously for decades.

Despite the fact that I do not feel my age, I do notice changes, changes difficult for me to accept, changes I wish I could deny. My decline in energy is very real and progressive (I study aging, so I know the data!). I am called on to deny my former vigor and energy as a leader, a central characteristic of my identity, which is a denial of my former self.

You might ask, “What does any of this giving up have to do with leading from the soul? It would seem that you are simply withdrawing.” I disagree.

Leading from the soul in transitions occurs through example. Good leaders provide examples through the entire life cycle of leadership.

Flow

I have a good friend, a retired engineer at IBM, who accumulated many patents. Yet this success is not, in my view, what set him apart. He was often so engrossed in his work that his wife would have to call him at 10 p.m. saying, “Jeff, it’s time to come home.” He would often miss tennis matches -- which he thoroughly enjoyed -- because he had become lost in his work.

Psychologists have identified this characteristic of becoming totally absorbed in a task as “flow,” and it is one of the cornerstones of the emerging field of positive psychology.

I see this in leaders who have become so focused upon a goal that they are immune to naysayers and to obstacles. What sets them apart from narcissistic or hypomanic leaders is that their state of flow encompasses not only the project but also those with whom they work.

The process of moving jointly toward a goal is as important as the eventual product, and these individuals take delight in leading a team. They love life as leaders and give themselves wholly, soulfully to their task and to their team.

Prayer and meditation

Prayer and meditation are natural practices of Christian leaders. Nothing new here.

Within the Eastern Orthodox tradition, a short, repeated prayer has been prevalent for centuries. It’s called the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

The prayer is recited continually as part of a personal ascetic practice. Such repetitive prayers are not so popular today, in our era of spontaneity and originality. We even argue that such prayers can lose meaning if ritual replaces deep and personal communication with God through Christ.

I suggest, however, that short and often-repeated prayers can form a necessary balance, actually ballast, for the spiritual lives of leaders. I’d suggest the prayer of Jesus in the garden: “Not my will but thine.”

Leadership explicitly encourages “my will.” Imagine, however, how our leadership might be influenced if we repeated regularly throughout the day and meditated, even for a few seconds, on the words “Not my will but thine.”

Consciously bowing to the will of God every step of the way is leading from the soul by denying the self. Jesus made the ultimate denial on the cross. We must keep that image before us as we lead.

Solitude

Denying the self begins with confronting the self -- its good, its bad and its ugly. We find many ways to avoid confronting the self. We seek self-affirming, often superficial relationships, where our true selves are not nakedly visible. And if we find ourselves alone, we automatically turn on the television, text someone or make a phone call.

Yet I suggest that we must seek periods of solitude, much as Jesus escaped from the crowds into the wilderness. Most of our leadership opportunities do not readily provide a wilderness in which to wander.

I have a friend who is an excellent leader, and I have participated in multiple meetings with him. I noticed early on that he disappeared at lunch instead of heading to his computer, as the rest of us did. I asked him where he went.

His answer: “Just needed to clear my head, so I took a walk in the park across the street.”

Getting away for an hour to confront ourselves in the midst of a leadership challenge is one simple practice that enables us to lead from the soul.

Leading from the soul is counterintuitive to what we find in most leadership manuals and seminars. Yet this simple set of self-denying practices can both improve our ability to lead and propel us forward in our own spiritual journeys.