Prince Raney Rivers: Wrestling with an angel

Self-understanding is difficult to come by. But excellent leadership demands serious inner work.

Measuring a person’s leadership performance can be a vague business, often veering near the ridiculous, much like overwrought evaluations of wine by connoisseurs: bold, but lacking sophistication; tart, yet without staying power; spicy, with a hint of charm. What exactly are we measuring when we measure leadership performance?

Leadership is often evaluated by the mastery of certain core competencies -- how well we organize, administrate, motivate -- or the net result of our efforts -- the growth of the financial bottom line or the expansion of an organization. We shouldn’t discard these important metrics, but we all know from our own experience that leadership is too complex to be reduced to boxes checked off on an evaluation form.

Excellent leadership demands serious inner work.

I began thinking about this after a Gateway retreat I attended in September through the Center for Courage and Renewal. CCR grew out of the work that Parker Palmer and his colleagues started with educators more than twenty years ago. After the retreat I started re-reading Palmer’s “The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life” -- a must-read for all of the educators in your life.

The premise of the book is simply stated on the dust jacket: good teaching cannot be reduced to technique but is rooted in the identity and integrity of the teacher. As I read “The Courage to Teach,” I took the liberty of substituting the word “teach” with “lead.”

One of Parker’s central claims is that teachers teach who they are. “Teaching, like any truly human activity, emerges from one’s own inwardness, for better or worse. As I teach, I project the condition of my soul onto my students, my subject and our way of being together…teaching holds a mirror to the soul.”

Think about that for a moment -- leadership holds a mirror to the soul.

As the organizations we lead thrive and grow, the temptation may be to think that what we need most to move to the next level can be reduced to a set of skills or a body of knowledge. If Parker is correct, we need the skills, the knowledge and so much more because what we do is an extension of who we are. Good leadership is cultivated in the soil of self-understanding.

My childhood pastor gave me words of wisdom when I entered the ministry that sounded so simplistic they frustrated me. He told me to be true to myself. “This is the best you’ve got after a few decades in ministry,” I thought. Of course, I did not know then what I know now. Self-understanding is difficult to come by. The process can be a bit like wrestling with an angel.

I am still not certain how to measure self-understanding on a performance evaluation, although I have personally benefited from 360 degree leadership assessments. I do agree with Palmer: we get closer to our true self when we are compelled to encounter painful truths about ourselves, open our self-protective heart up to another person’s joy or suffering, and when despair confronts us, we choose life, not death.

Be true to yourself. Those words once sounded like saccharin-coated, new-age fluff. Today, they are food for my soul.

Prince Raney Rivers is pastor of United Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.