Jason Byassee: Invisible, sticky leaders

Behind the scenes of every successful organization is someone who does the dirty work and doesn’t mind not getting the credit. Such “glue people” are a little like the Holy Spirit as she works in the church.

Athletes, coaches, and fans of all sports know that not every player on a team can be a superstar. No matter how many scorers you have on a basketball team, there’s only one ball. Someone has to play defense, rebound and dive to the floor to keep the thing from going out of bounds.

To stay with basketball for a moment -- and go local -- no one outside of Duke Nation is likely to remember David McClure, a player who graduated last spring. He never showed up on Sportscenter with thunderous dunks or dagger-in-the-heart three-pointers. Reporters rarely gave him the honor of being the post-game interviewee; television commentators seldom or never named him MVP. He did score a game-winning shot once as a junior against Clemson -- but even then, appropriately, the credit went to the player who threw him the dazzling pass (and a certain controversy with the clock that we Dukies choose to forget).

All McClure did most of the time was guard the other team’s best player, rebound like a fiend and do the dirty work to set up his teammates to shine. In short, his play was largely invisible, except to his coaches and teammates and their counterparts on the other bench who knew he helped Duke win. Don’t be surprised if Duke is a worse team this year without him -- nor if the commentators struggle to explain why.

McClure was a “glue guy.” He held the team together by grit and tenacity without being noticed for his own sake. To continue the metaphor, he was sticky, getting his hands on loose balls he shouldn’t have and binding his teammates to one another. He was a leader who was barely noticed even as he led.

To risk blasphemy, he was a bit like the Holy Spirit. The patristics scholar Joseph Lienhard wrote an essay years ago about St. Augustine’s interest in the odd biblical word “glue.” When Augustine hears the word in the psalter (they mostly read Scripture aloud in the ancient world rather than read it silently), he thinks immediately of the Holy Spirit. In Augustine’s theology, the Spirit is the glue, or the love, between the Father and the Son. Likewise the Spirit is the One who glues us creatures to the Son and so to the Father.

This glue work is not easy. Augustine argues against what we might call “charismatic” opponents who think salvation does not require participation in the church: “For charity itself, which holds people together in a knot of unity, would not have a means of infusing souls and almost mixing them together if people could teach nothing to people.” The very difficulty of arguing over the meaning of Scripture in church becomes, by God’s grace, the glue that binds us together, the pitch and tar that seal us to one another as surely as the glue in Augustine’s world. We need glue because of the brokenness between us in this age of human sin and frailty, and thanks be to God that the Spirit glues the shards of our life back together even as we sinners go on smashing things.

Glue people are leaders. Even if we cannot see them lead most of the time. The Eastern Orthodox theological tradition speaks of the Spirit as the shy member of the Trinity -- she points not to herself but to Christ. David McClure, and the glue people in all of our organizations, could not agree more.

Jason Byassee is an executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.