Jason Byassee: MaryKate Morse on leading with our bodies

Where and how you sit in a meeting reflects your Christology. Or it should anyway.

In response to a post I wrote last summer on posture and leadership, Andy Crouch challenged me to read MaryKate Morse’s “Making Room for Leadership.” He couldn’t have been more right -- Morse addresses the same subject in rich and theologically textured detail. The thing that “makes room,” as her title says, is the leader’s body. How is our leadership “embodied” in our interaction with others, for good or ill?

Morse begins with frustration over how oblivious some leaders are about how they use their bodies -- to bully rather than to bless. But she goes farther, defining leadership as what “happens when we use our bodies to influence others.” She’s not content to describe leadership or power without saying the J-word: “Christians bear the light of Christ, but how will others see Jesus if no one notices you? How will they see him if your light is so dazzling it overshadows the image of Christ?”

For Morse, power is not a free-floating, individual characteristic. It is rather granted by a group; bestowed by a community. The community grants power so that, in turn, the one wielding it can bless others. The good of power is “to bring the powerless into a grace-filled space where both the powerful and powerless experience transformation.” For example, in the story of Jesus, Simon and the sinful woman in Luke 7, Simon wields his power by refusing to recognize Jesus with a kiss or a washing of feet, and naturally refuses to acknowledge the sinful woman. Jesus uses his power to recognize the woman, to bring her into his circle, and give her space to be the teacher of righteousness.

Morse’s book most directly challenges those who lead and are led in meetings. Lots of meetings. How do we posture ourselves physically in such spaces? This is no minor matter: “In the long run, how the group gets along in the meeting room is more important than how they get along in public.” She suggests leaders engage in a sort of bean-counting that we might not be used to: stewardship of our gestures, eye contact, invitations offered, and so on. To those of us who are led she suggests sitting across from, not beside, the one in charge of a meeting. That’s the ideal place for eye contact and feedback. She suggests sitting beside someone whose opinion differs from ours and even going out of our way to initiate conversation about matters of conviction, both within and outside meetings. This may all seem trivial and less-than-theological until we think of how Jesus physically embodied his leadership: sitting with sinners, the beloved disciple who sat beside him and leaned on his breast, recognizing the sinful woman and pulling her into the radiance of his open posture.

I’m not sure why, but Morse made me think about the physical posture of physicians. Perhaps because these are the real high priests in our culture, with the power to heal, curse, bankrupt or bless. I remember bumping into one high school friend in the halls of Duke hospital, cell phone planted in ear, almost sprinting. We hadn’t seen one another in 15 years. She paused, “I’m busy now. I’ll email you.” I’ll let you guess whether she ever did. A profile of the great writer-physician Atul Gawande describes the way he arrives precisely on time for meetings. Not early, since he’s busy; not late, since he respects the group. A now-retired family doctor was a mentor to my dad, a psychologist. Dad was impressed with the way this physician always had time for him. He was even more impressed with the way the doctor filled the pockets of his lab coat with little scraps of paper, hastily scribbled reminders from his day, a practice born of a less technological age. At the end of the day, he’d empty his pockets, gather up the scraps, and write them down in one place so he could be sure not to lose any observation his brain made while going through unrelated tasks.

That should be us, shouldn’t it? Our pockets (physical, electronic or otherwise) should be filled with prayer requests, observations, things we think of while doing something else and need to remember so can make time later to act on. It’s a sign that we are available to others, even when we’re not physically with them.

That’s only possible if we’re been available mentally and spiritually when we’re in another’s presence physically. Morse’s book is a primer in how to do just that, for the sake of God’s reign.