I’m going to sharpen my focus for this column. Each week, I will zero in on one of three themes: Leadership, Creativity, or Spirituality. These are my three grand obsessions. They are the large prisms through which I refract the world. Virtually everything I muse on has some touch point in one of these three areas – leadership, creativity, or spirituality – or in all three of them. Indeed, these three things are not separate, not in my head anyway: for me, they braid together so tightly that each intimately touches on the others. But I will, for the sake of clarity and brevity, focus on just one each week.
I was talking with someone recently who said that their boss typically gets them to do tasks he’s too afraid to do himself: correct fellow employees, confront exploitative clients, clean up messes.
There’s another word for someone like that: Coward.
This person’s verdict: “I like my boss. I just have zero respect for him.”
Every leader should pay attention here. All who have been given responsibility toward and influence over others – bosses, parents, pastors, teachers, etc. – must steward that responsibility and influence with utmost integrity, humility, industry, and courage. By all means, seek to be liked. But even more, earn respect. Nothing guts influence faster than forfeiting respect.
As I thought about this person’s boss, it struck me that he had committed the fatal error of abdicating responsibility rather than delegating it. The difference is subtle in practice but glaring in effect. It’s the difference between dumping a task on someone because you’re too proud, lazy, or cowardly to do it yourself, versus empowering someone to do a task because, well, they’ll probably do it better than you would anyhow. And it’s your job to help them be great.
No leader worth his or her salt should ever ask anyone to do something they are not willing to do themselves. That is so axiomatic it needs no further argument or defense.
But every leader worth his or her salt must ask people, and often, to do things they best not do themselves. Here’s a short list of such things:
- Ask someone to do what you don’t have time or energy for – you could do it and would do it, but it would demand more time or energy than you have.
- Ask someone to do what you lack sufficient skill for – you could do it (or maybe not) and would do it, but you’d do it poorly, maybe disastrously.
- Ask someone to do what you hired or recruited them to do – you could do it and would do it, but that’s what you brought them to the table for.
- Ask someone to do what releases their potential – you could do it and would do it, but it over-extends you and under-develops them.
What would you add to this list?
Joshua Foer’s brilliant quirky book Moonwalking with Einstein documents his year of becoming a prodigy of memory. It was a pursuit he stumbled into. As a journalist researching a piece for Slate magazine on the USA Memory Championship, he decided to take a shot at it himself. On the way, he met some of the world’s greatest (and geekiest) memorizers – Ben Pridmore, for instance, who can recall fifty thousand digits of pi, and recite the precise order of any deck of playing cards after flipping through them for 32 seconds. And he met “the most forgetful man in the world” – simply identified as EP , whose frontal brains lobes were cored like an apple by a virus, and who now forgets everything 10 seconds after it’s happened, though all his other faculties remain sharp.
It all makes for, well, memorable reading. Two overall impressions emerged for me: that too much remembering is a bad thing, and too much forgetting is as well.
One of Foer’s discoveries is that people who train their memories to accomplish prodigious feats (and it is training, not innate capacity, that does it) are no smarter than the rest of us, and in some striking instances less so. These people are mnemonic superheroes – they can memorize entire phone books, recall the exact sequence of 5 decks of randomly shuffled cards, identify the precise location of any given word in a 300 page book, and so on. But none of them navigates life more wisely or deftly than rest of us. In some cases, glaringly worse.
Brilliance is not wisdom. Mastering long random strings of numbers provides no aid to mastering life. An enlarged cranium does not make for a bigger heart. A vast memory is not the same thing as a deep soul.
But forgetting is no better. EP – the amnesiac – greets his wife each day as though he’s meeting her for the first time. “A meaningful relationship between two people,” Foer observes, “cannot sustain itself only in the present tense.” But EP is stuck there, “trapped in this limbo of an eternal present, between a past he can’t remember and a future he can’t contemplate.”
In some ways, the Christian faith is built on a resolve to both remember and forget. We remember all God has done. We learn to recall and recite his deeds, his words, his character. The central acts of our life together – word, worship, communion – are acts of remembering. “Do this,” Jesus said, “in remembrance of me.”
But just as critically, we learn to forget. “Forget the former things.” Isaiah commands. “Do not dwell on the past.” The Apostle Paul describes discipleship as “forgetting what is behind” and pressing on toward what is ahead. God himself forgives our sins, and “remembers them no more.”
Remembering and forgetting is so central to the Christian faith that most of what stalls our growth is getting it backwards: remembering what we should forget, and forgetting what we must remember.
Foer has inspired me, but not to become a prodigy of memory. He’s inspired me to practice both sacred memory and holy amnesia, to remember well and forget well.
This coming Sunday, I return to New Life Church after a nearly a 6-month absence. Here’s the letter I sent to the congregation in anticipation of that.
Hello. My name is Mark, and I’m one of the pastors at New Life.
It’s been awhile – five and half months, to be exact – since I last said that. I will resume saying it this Sunday (God willing). My sense of privilege and gratitude for that is huge.
Some of you never knew I was away. Some of you are shocked I’m back so soon. Some of you are shocked I’ve been gone so long. Some of you thought I was gone for good. Some of you have no idea who I am.
Whichever it is, this Sunday I get to introduce myself as one of your pastors, and I can hardly wait.
These past few months have been extraordinary. I’ve documented some of that in my blog (markbuchanan.net), and won’t bore you by rehashing any of it. At this point, I just hope that the gift of rest you bestowed on me and my family would benefit all of us. I am certainly coming back refreshed. I doubt I’m a better preacher or leader for my time away. But I’m hopeful I’m a better man. More whole. Better able to live in and live out the shalom of God. Freer to say with greater conviction, “Apart from Christ I can do nothing, but in him I can do all things.”
Let me share one insight God gave me (slowly) during my time away. We were able to attend a vast range of churches – from a high church service, conducted in French, at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris to a free-for-all charismatic service, parts of it in tongues, in a renovated theatre in Bath, and almost every conceivable variation between. It was an ecclesiastical kaleidoscope.
But no matter how different each church was from any other, in every one we sensed God at work. Sometimes, in truth, it took some work to discern how or where. But in every single faith community we took part in, we sensed at least some whisper of the Spirit. All over the world, God is being lifted high, the gospel is being preached, lives are being restored, good is overcoming evil, truth is triumphing over deceit, and light is conquering darkness.
It’s not to say there aren’t problems. Equally, all over the world, things are messy and broken and difficult. But the overall impression I’ve come away with is that the church of Jesus Christ, struggling though it may be, is alive in every corner of the globe, and is the hope of the world.
And God does not have a plan B.
My name is Mark, and I am one of your pastors.
I can hardly believe my good luck.
I’ve been back in Duncan nearly a week, sorting mail, plucking weeds, resuming routines, trying to remember the whereabouts of keys and files, catching up with friends and neighbours. And, of course, riding my motorcycle. It makes me feel especially welcome home that summer held fire until this moment, wearing sackcloth and ashes right up to the day we got back and then pulling out all its regalia, its full pageantry.
In my first blog from Wales, I compared it to Narnia – an impression that deepened the longer we stayed. There were times, at dusk, I swear I saw a talking bear bound through the glade or a Centaur stride across the field. Coming home, then, was like stepping back through the wardrobe: picking up where we left off after living a lifetime elsewhere. The most common remark I’ve heard: “Oh, you’re back already. That went fast.”
I get that. We all notice presence more than absence – the person who’s there, not the person who’s missing – and so I never expected anyone to wake up daily and ache for my return. And the remark is an unsolicited tribute to the team who carried the load at the church while I was away: they made my absence irrelevant. I think that’s brilliant. I applaud them and thank them.
But the strangeness for me is that the time away shaped me profoundly, and I neither have the right words, nor does anyone have sufficient time, to explain it. The closest I can come is either the Narnia analogy, or to compare it with a movie I saw years ago, Castaway. In that, a man ends up absent from his life, not four months, but four years, alone on a desert island. When he finally returns to the world he left, it’s hurtled on without him and yet remained virtually the same. But not him. For him, everything stopped, and everything changed.
I’m being melodramatic, but that’s a bit of a taste of what I’m feeling. In Wales, my days unfolded with exquisite slowness, filled with gentle serendipities, hidden treasures, small epiphanies. I started breathing differently. I listened better. I played more. I laughed harder.
And now the real test: Can I be and can I do all these things here?