This post is part of our Easter series on the Seven Joys of Mary. What is the recipe for effective leadership? In this reflection by Lisa, she shares some of her early experiences of servant leadership, and reflects on what it means to follow God’s lead in leading others.
What a journey it has been, and continues to be, in learning how to bear fruit through servant leadership. As a child, I learned from my parents and those both within and without my Catholic faith community how to love and serve others, even if I did not yet understand service. Just being who I was and doing what I was taught, I was surprised by the first “recognition” I recall receiving right before my sixth-grade graduation from elementary school.
Discomfort in Leadership As a Youth
Every year, a committee of teachers at my school picked two sixth graders, a boy and a girl, for a citizenship award named in honor of a former student, Connie Powell. In May of 1974, Connie died in a tragic pedestrian accident. Recognized by students and teachers as an outstanding student and citizen, the school established Connie’s commemorative award in 1975 out of a desire to motivate other students by her example. Although I now live on the other side of the States, I know my school back in Michigan continues to add names annually to the plaque in the media center. The qualities that they base the annual award on are kindness, good sportsmanship, gentleness, trustworthiness, helpfulness, getting along with others, a positive attitude, tolerance of others, dependability, initiative, desire to learn, involvement, and pride in the school.
In 1989, my distinguished classmate, Kevin, and I were chosen. However, I did not equate being recognized for good things as always a good thing. The “spotlight” brought attention and reaction, and not always the kind I desired or knew how to handle. Just as they can be honest and kind, we all know people can be jealous and cruel, and especially kids, lacking in maturity and filters. In fifth grade, my struggle with my had weight commenced. My body was changing, which was noticed and became a source of running negative commentary by many.
I grew up in a family who loves food, with loving parents who struggled to maintain a healthy body weight and image. They ate well but not clean and did not regularly exercise nor regulate their weight until it was necessary due to health issues. Between my weight gain and an unfortunate haircut miscommunication by my well-intended mother, I was a chubby 4-ft-something girl with boy-short, awkwardly growing out hair. “You look just like your mom,” people would exclaim. FYI: The goal of any kid is not to resemble their 42-year-old (or whatever age) parent. Ugh!
Growth from Discomfort: Cultivating Self-Expression
I doubt that any of my teachers knew how relentless the ridicule was that several schoolboys regularly inflicted on me, nor that I quit the school band (I played a righteous saxophone even before Lisa Simpson!) on account of the scary-angry teacher; because my trauma taught me to keep my mouth shut. Gifted yet struggling with confidence, I tried to stay under the radar. Yet at the same time, I had some amazing examples of leadership in those early years as I was discovering to express myself through art and writing. Had my voice through the arts not been recognized and fostered, I have no idea who I would be today.
Along with my spiritual development through a community of people striving to live out the Catholic faith, artistic outlets cultivated my self-expression and gave me a necessary outlet at a critical time of child development. As you see through my art and storytelling here, these are the mediums in which I still best express myself and encourage others to do the same! I loved my elementary art teacher, and years later, I even brought her to my high school awards banquet when we had to choose a teacher to honor the impact they’d had on us. Little did I know how all of these things, the good and the bad, were shaping and forming me—not just my faith, personality, and character, but my view of fruitful leadership.
Learning to Lead As a Teenager
The next leadership opportunity that left a mark was through high school team sports. With three older brothers and a neighborhood group of active kids, I grew up a tomboy who loved playing outside. Just playing “pickle,” or street ball, I did not play organized sports until high school, so had some catching up to do with the others who had been involved. My freshman volleyball coach was also the athletic director, and she commented that I had a good arm and that I should try out for softball, which she also coached. So, in the Spring, I tried out, and made the Junior Varsity Team. I played third base for a few years and grew in my abilities. During my senior year, my coach asked me to be one of the captains for our varsity soft ball team.
Team sports teaches so many valuable lessons, especially to young people. My approach was to try and work hard and have fun while doing that, to learn to work together work as a team, to improve myself in whatever ways my coach guided or I thought were necessary, and to keep up morale through positivity, encouragement, laughter and learning from where things went wrong. Learning to lead also meant growing to work well with others (regardless of skill level, age, whether I liked them or not, etc.), communicating effectively, and—as an over-achiever—beginning to grow through not just achievements, but more importantly, failures. Anyone can excel when they are winning, but it takes a determined, growth-oriented person to take a loss as well as win, not just in terms of sportsmanship, but to use that to become a smarter, stronger player and team.
One softball memory that stands out was when I was not yet the team captain. Our public-school team made it to the district championship tournament that year, which hadn’t happened in I can’t remember how many years. I think it may have been our second game, and our opponents were a Catholic high school team renowned for softball. Their pitcher was a strike-out machine, and they seemed bigger, badder, and better than us in a few ways. After several strikeouts of our players, I headed into the batter box. As I did, I held an awareness that most of my team’s issue was mindset. How many of us were already “psyching ourselves out” when we went up to bat because the pitcher was one of the best? And with every strikeout, it became worse.
Preparing myself physically in the batter box, my mental preparation proceeded by playing one of my favorite songs in my head, “The Power” by SNAP! A popular 90’s dance song, the strong female voice of the refrain interjects between rap sequences throughout the song, “I’ve got the power!” I had an inclination that I if could just get a hit, that would rally the team. If they could see that it was possible, that would help get us back in the game. And while I stood and swung at my pitches, I finally caught a piece! It was a foul, but a piece, nonetheless. Then I got a hit! It got me on first base. And from there, sure enough, our team actually began hitting balls.
This isn’t the movie Rudy, where I’m the underdog who fulfilled my sports dreams and thwarted my foes. I never pursued sports beyond intramurals, and my team lost that tournament. The point is that it taught me something valuable, the direct result from a phrase my coach drilled into us: “There’s no ‘I’ in team.” As high schoolers, we’d secretly laugh and say there was a ‘me’ in team, but we all knew it was true. The core of teamwork derives from moving a group of us together to achieve a common goal, and the leadership is meant to support that journey. If any one of us decided to make it about ourselves, we did so at the expense of our team. And on the flip side, while our opponents’ pitcher was good, the entire team had to work together to win that game – the pitcher alone couldn’t have carried them.
Leadership As an Adult
I’ve had several other leadership opportunities throughout college and my time in the work force, have worked for numerous bosses and clients, and every situation has revealed more to me about poor and effective leadership. Now, as the founder and leader of this group, I’ve taken all these experiences to inform my approach. The individuals who make up the team, and their willingness and ability to move in a united formation to accomplish goals, is what drives the outcomes; and the leader, by definition, is the one to move the individuals or group to get there. If effective leadership is lacking, the group will struggle. Even if the strategy is nonexistent to poor, a unified team with good guidance can achieve great things.
But just as the sum cannot be greater than its parts, the leader is not greater than the team members. Each member of the team holds a vital role, and the successes and failures of that team relies upon each person doing or not doing his or her part to serve the mission, goals, and needs of that particular team in their endeavors. People crave purpose, they want good leadership, and to be a part of something greater than themselves. In ministry, the greater purpose is evident. So to be fruitful, what does it need?
2 of the Main Ingredients for Fruitful Leadership
1) Prayer. The primary thing for a ministry to bear fruit is prayer. A lot of prayer is required to do any form of apostolate, and it is needed by each individual, by the team, as well as from outside intercessors. Prayer is communication with God, and if you’re not communicating with God, you won’t be able to hear him direct, correct, call forward, change the course, encourage, or any of the vital communications needed by the head honcho of the operation. We minister with God, not for Him, and so we need to listen and speak with Him to accomplish His calling.
2) Willingness to do something new. Beyond that, there are many other vital components of good leadership that yield fruitfulness in terms of teamwork and yielding a harvest for the Lord. My mentor, Bob McCarty, has been a leader in the Church in various capacities for years, and even teaches a class on leadership. Bob shared one of his presentations with me, which is chocked full of inspiration and wisdom. There are the practical issues such as establishing effective communication, strategy, conflict management, shared decision making and problem solving, ownership and empowerment, etc. But a quote from one of the later slides struck me.
“Acts of leadership must move people beyond familiar settings into unknown territory of greater complexity, requiring new learning and new behaviors.”– Sharon Dolaz Parks, Leadership Can Be Taught
While words like ‘unknown’ and requiring ‘new learning’ and ‘new behaviors’ are challenging for some, all of my “training” invites me to embrace them. New is necessary, but people still fear the unknown and the possibility of change. The uncertainty of those things creates a lack of security and discomfort, and humans (myself included of course) love to be comfortable. But to move into any unknown territory requires a loss of control and doing things one may have no familiarity with or desire to do, which will bring up an assortment of responses. In one way or another, conflict, chaos, challenges, and obstacles arise—often even within the leadership or team itself. How the team moves through those things effectively, not perfectly, is what reveals the strengths and deficiencies of the group.
Christ as the Definitive Model of Fruitful Leadership
Hailing back to my elementary days, I’ve always loved to learn new things. And for years, through my mental health studies and pursuit of my own therapy (particularly EMDR), spiritual direction, mentoring, and healing through the sacraments and the various ways I’ve been ministered to, I’ve continued to work on cultivating a new mindset and behaviors. I’ve recently blogged about how I’ve been learning to step better into the unknown. Of everything I’ve learned, no better servant-leader model exists than Jesus Christ. Centuries later, His leadership is not only fruitful, but also transformative. It is also the most challenging.
Servant leadership calls you forward, to put aside your own needs and desires in the interest of what is best to serve the team and community while achieving the joint mission. As you strive to do that, there will be times of discomfort and opposition. Any worthwhile pursuit will include moving you out of your comfort zone to do things you perhaps never imagined you could, do not feel qualified or prepared for, or sometimes even things you despise on the journey. But there also will be incredible experiences, breakthroughs, important relationships formed, and achievements you may have only dreamed of accomplished.
When we as leaders realize and embrace Christ’s model in our own way, it’s a gamechanger. Jesus was prayerful, intentional, candid, merciful, corrected when necessary, and while He relentlessly persevered in His mission, it was all done in submission to God and not at the expense of but for the good of others. He showed us that nothing is done by our own strength, success or whatever we’re chasing to find worth or meaning are not things we are owed, but all is a gift by God’s grace. Our detachment, humble mindset to serve, and confidence in God working in and through us will cultivate good fruit. While the goal, or destination that drives us, is important, how we love and serve while we journey together is what ultimately determines fruitfulness. And that fruit comes from our willingness to embrace all parts of the journey—learning, growing, and adapting to become better servants, teammates, leaders, and always followers of Christ.