Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Leader or Manager?

So, Kyle and I have been reading "Don't Waste Your Life," and the chapter we discussed last night had to do with taking risks for God to glorify Jesus Christ. I must admit that often I find it difficult to wade through the religious language of Piper's book (even, perhaps especially, as a theologically trained person) because I so value speaking in language that communicates with people not theologians. But I digress. In the opening salvo of our discussion I asserted that there are at least two kinds of risks in life: (a) appropriate risks, because someone (Someone?) beyond ourself is benefited and (b) questionable risks, because it's really all about us.

In question was a particular issue: is it ok for, say, a college student who is romantically involved with another student at another campus to visit them and spend the night with them in their dorm room, even if "nothing is going to happen"? As you might guess, this was more than a hypothetical question up for discussion between the two of us.

I launched into a passionate defense of virtue, moral character and the need to follow the biblical admonition to "avoid the appearance of all evil." My son's response was less than open-minded. In the fray I was indicted as a legalistic, hypocritical religious bigot who couldn't trust his motives or intentions. Try as I might, I couldn't convince him that my issue was less with his intentions (which I believe to be honorable and appropriate) and more with the appearance he would give to others in such a situation. I went on to say a few more uncharitable things intended more to provoke his thinking than to impugn his integrity, but I confess to having gone overboard.

By the time we arrived at the theater (remember ... we discuss the book and then I pay for a movie), neither of us were in any mood to watch anything together. We stalked into the theater, I purchased the tickets in silence and we sat in the darkened theater to watch "The Skeleton Key." There were no words expressed during the movie, no shared moments of surprise or laughter. It was a pretty good movie but a dismal interpersonal interaction.

Walking back to the car I broke the silence by asking, "What did you think?" "Pretty good" was the nearly monosyllabic response. "You?" "Same" I responded. I decided to wait a few minutes, but I didn't have to wait long.

"I just want to say, Dad, that I said some things I didn't really mean. It's just that when you give me an ultimatum, my natural instinct is to defy it and argue to win. I'm not sure why I said all the stuff I said, because if [my girlfriend] visited me at [my Christian college] she wouldn't be able to stay with me in my room either." I responded with an apology of my own and then asked, "So do you really think I'm a legalistic religious bigot?"

"Well," he responded slowly, "It does seem like you think yourself better than others sometimes." "And what do you mean by that, Kyle?" I asked. "If you mean that I think myself better than the guy in town who gets drunk every night, beats his children and cheats on his wife, yeah, I think I'm better than that." "That's not what I mean," my son said.

Doing my best to maintain a non-anxious presence, I invited Kyle to say more. "Well, you do make some people at church mad because of the changes you make happen, even though I do agree with those changes." And thus opened the door to a conversation about the nature of leadership and risk-taking that my earlier rant had interrupted.

In the ensuing moments we had an opportunity talk about the nature of leadership, and of Christian leadership in particular. There is a difference between a manager and leader. A manager's goal is to foster an environment where people are just "one big happy family." Managers seek to minimize conflict, promote harmony and create a fragile peace. I was able to explain how Christian leaders sense God's movement to something beyond the status quo and the norm to a new place, a place that allows people previously forgotten or left out, to experience God's enveloping love. I owned the accusation that leaders have to have an ego that allows them to be clear about direction, even when there are those who may not be able to own it. And we were able to talk about how those kind of risks are what distinguish committed, faithful disciples of Jesus Christ from those who are risk-takers for their own self-interest. It was a blessed moment of clarification, the emotional distance was bridged and the impassioned air calmed.

Mark this down as yet another reason why parenting (and adoptive parenting in particular) matters. I'm really going to miss these conversations when Kyle returns to college in a few days.

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