Timothy Willard: C.S. Lewis and the imaginative leader
C.S. Lewis warns leaders not to be someone they are not, says a Christian author. Imaginative leadership springs from men and women who understand the power of 'being yourself.'
As leaders, we can easily overdevelop our praxis and undervalue our selves. “Who am I?” however, proves infinitely more important than “How do I …?” If I am comfortable in my role as my self, then I will not pattern myself after the popular leader paradigm.
Instead, I will work in the confidence of my “baptized imagination” -- a phrase C.S. Lewis used to describe his imagination post-conversion.
Lewis saw the world anew, a capacity he attributed to his Christian faith. And it was from that baptized imagination that great original works poured forth. Lewis said it was when he stopped striving to be a famous poet and started writing from a place of pure imaginative wonder that his work found success.
It is in the great works of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” “The Screwtape Letters,” “Perelandra” and “Till We Have Faces” that we find an unhinged Lewis, an author writing from a place of pure delight, an author comfortable in his own skin.
On Dec. 14, 1944, Lewis gave the annual Commemoration Oration at King’s College, University of London. Lewis advised students to eschew the ambition to be in the “Inner Ring,” that exclusive circle of folks representing social and professional success.
Lewis warned that the lust for the “delicious sense of secret intimacy” will not satisfy. Eventually we will move on, desiring yet another “Inner Ring.”
He instead urged his audience of young students to become craftsmen -- to put their heads down and concentrate on what they did best. The craftsman should surround himself with like-minded craftsmen, each given to the work as the final goal.
In doing so, the craftsman finds distinction among other craftsmen -- the only circle that matters.
“This group,” said Lewis, “will by no means coincide with the Inner Ring or the Important People or the People in the Know.”
But the craftsman or artisan will enjoy the fruit that comes from doing good work within a particular profession. Suddenly, she will find herself on the inside of something quite extraordinary. She will be herself, doing what she does best because she has trusted in her ability unhindered by the expectations of the popular crowd.
The Inner Ring represents a status symbol many of us desire, but too often we sacrifice our true selves to gain entry. It’s this ambition to be someone we are not that Lewis was warning against.
Imaginative leadership, then, is leadership that springs from men and women who understand the power of “being yourself.”
Painting our faces
Imaginative leadership demands originality in the leader -- a leader’s true quiddity, or essence.
L’École is a theater school led by the French master clown Philippe Gaulier. Gaulier instructs his students to stop playing roles and to discover the beauty found in playing -- comfortably -- their true selves.
Comfort with our true selves seems foundational to leadership, yet so many of us suffocate beneath a cultural veneer.
It takes a master clown to see through the clowning leader, because he understands that to lead imaginatively, we must find the confidence to be who we are.
Mimetic leadership is redundant leadership. The truly creative leader will lead with no one around, in the quiet of the focused self. Rayona Sharpnack, the founder and CEO of the Institute for Women’s Leadership, approaches leadership from the angle of self-discovery.
“It’s the being aspect of leadership,” says Sharpnack, “that enables breakthroughs in what people do and what they learn.”
Do not think that I am promoting egoism as a pathway to imaginative leadership. On the contrary, I am aiming at discovery -- leading from the realized comfort of our true selves, a place where the “selfness,” as Lewis called it, so troublesome for the Christian leader, dies, and a holy and revived uniqueness springs up.
In the final scene of “Perelandra,” Lewis’ second book in his Space Trilogy, the hero, Ransom, witnesses the “Great Dance,” a scene dripping with cosmic beauty in which five beings give speeches that explain the meaning of creation. Near the end of the sequence, one speaker says, “When He died in the Wounded World He died not for men, but for each man. If each man had been the only man made, He would have done no less.”
The distinction of God’s dying for each man, as opposed to all men, reveals each person’s infinite worth. Lewis goes on to describe the wonderful paradox that God “has immeasurable use for each thing that is made” yet “has no need at all of anything that is made,” such that God’s love is “born neither of your need nor of my deserving, but a plain bounty.”
It is within the confidence of God’s “plain bounty” that the leader finds her imaginative footing. There, she plays no roles, nor does she seek inclusion in the social Inner Rings of leadership thought and practice. Rather, she operates from the strength of her worth and relies on her innate inventiveness.
If we seek to be better leaders, more imaginative leaders, then we should not look for entry into the “Imaginative Leader Ring.” We should instead be on the lookout for a more open country -- the kind of country Lewis found when he abandoned his pursuit of poetical greatness. It was a land teeming with witches and fauns, floating islands and demon letters, hidden beauty and resurrecting lions.
We should be looking for the bounty of an imagination reserved by God for the seeker of the true self.