Updated: May 7, 2021
I have been discussing some “axioms of leadership and faith”. I came up with these axioms because I kept encountering the same kinds of issues as we lead and discipled others.
Maybe you have had this experience too, where relationships stop working, where people start talking past each other, and there’s a lot of frustration and alarm. You get into these situations and it hurts. You end up reflecting for what feels like years, trying to name things the things that can't be seen, but that are impacting all our lives.
These axioms emerge from being hurt, running into the walls, realizing we all have assumptions when conflict happens, and you have to discern and name what’s happening here. They are about helping people actually lead with purpose, based on an understanding of how we are designed to relate to each other.
How we learn.
And one of those assumptions I keep running into, is about how we learn.
We hold onto the idea that if I can increase the information I put into my mind, this will somehow filter my emotional responses. We think we can control our lives through thinking more, memorizing more, taking more in, reading another book, letting it all percolate together, and then growing up magically happens.
For example, I just finished preparing our personal tax, and there are these rules that allow you to make different deductions. You need to learn and understand these rules so you know how to fill out the tax form. For certain disciplines you will learn primarily by accessing your cognitive mind.
It’s not that the mind or cognition is unimportant for learning how to love, how to be in relationships. That’s part of it, but alone it’s insufficient.
The other part I think we would all agree, is we don’t learn how to be in a relationship, how to love by listening to sermons about it, but we learn by actually participating in it.
We have to participate to learn.
Jane, a mother in Richmond BC wrote about this very challenge of learning on the job as a parent. One of Jane’s daughters who was 4 years old at the time, was washing herself in the bathtub. The daughter asked her mum if she was brown or white. Since her father is brown and Jane was white, they had expected the question but never really sorted out what they would say. Suddenly caught out, Jane said, “Well, Honey, I guess you are kind of brown like your dad and kind of white like me.”
“Hmm,” the daughter said, taking this in for a minute. Then, pointing to the rack by the tub, she asked, “But what color face cloth am I, the brown one or the white one?”
Wrong answer, Jane thought to herself. You just introduced your four-year-old to a way to separate herself from you. You did not point out a way you are the same, which is what she thought she was doing.
I think in our expertise command-and-control world, where leaders have to execute and perform, failure is not an option. Failure in this context proves that you aren't qualified to be leader.
Yes there are times, every week it seems, when we read about different leaders in our world and in our churches, who are failing in ways that does call into question their fitness for leading. There is abuse of power and so on.
But I think when maturation is out goal in the context of love, our relationship to failure in our everyday lives’ changes. We have to get in and try things and experiment we have to learn our limits, and fail. Then we have to be restored.
This is not a cognitive process at all, but an emotional one. This process is incredibly vulnerable and although this adaptive process is innate, we don’t all learn from our mistakes. This process can go missing very early in life.
Failure is necessary.
Not only is failure okay, it is necessary. There is no other way for us to understand what we need to know, what we need to learn next.
If we look at the story where Jesus’ disciple Peter disowns Him three times, did Peter’s failure exclude him from Christ’s plans? No, not at all. When Peter realizes what he’s done he breaks down and weeps. Peter then goes on to become the leader of the disciples, preaching the first evangelical message.
Failure builds character, it builds resiliency and perseverance. We are built with the capacity to develop there these things, but they develop as a result of encounters with making mistakes, with failing.
If we look at learning to play piano, or become excellent at hockey, even to become proficient at something like driving, it takes practice. We all understand it takes participation in the activity that we want to perfect.
Leading through failure.
How does this then relate to leadership? How does this translate into the practice of discipleship?
I think Paul gets at this in 1 Corinthians 4. He is talking to the Corinthians because they had a sort of celebrity culture, were they flocked to the latest greatest celebrity. Paul says to them, you don't need another celebrity or great speaker. You have all these people talking, filling your head with stuff, you don't need this.
When I came to Corinth, my strategy wasn't to compete in the marketplace of ideas. I came with a message of love and embodied it, I lived it out with you. You didn't need me to preach amazing sermons about this, rather I became your father in the faith, so that you would learn how Jesus lead. And because I fathered Timothy, he’s going to father you now.
What we need is more fathers. A father then doesn't just teach, but he comes along side and trains. A leader comes along side and trains.
What’s the difference between teaching and training?
Teaching uses the premise that, if we can conceptually grasp the information, then we can apply it to our lives. In fact, inductive Bible study is interpret, understand it, and you take that concept and you apply it. Where in charge of our cognitive processes.
But we are much more complicated than that. We don’t just imagine playing the piano, or dribbling the basketball and be able to do it. We also have to practice our way into a new skill, or live your way into a new way of relating. We learn by giving just enough information to get us engaged in some participative, experiential life experience.
A leader says, we have to try it out, and then when you fail, I will come alongside you and help. That's training.
Training is having an environment were trying something new and failing are safe. When you fail, you don't become a failure, the relationship is not at risk.
This then becomes out eight axiom, the way we learn is through a safe enough invitation and participation.
As we participate, we also grow in capacity for more.
It then follows, as we participate our capacity for more knowledge also increases. For example, the more you love others, the more you know about love. Your love now has surpassed the knowledge you used to have. This sort of knowledge it the type that doesn't puff up, it builds up.
Jesus sending out the disciples was an illustration of this. He showed them how to demonstrating the presence of the kingdom through works of power, and they went out and did the same. In this case through their success.
In another example, the disciples also learned through failure. When Jesus comes down off the mount of transfiguration, and finds some of the disciples arguing with the Pharisees, and they can't cast out the demon. But it is not who has the best theology that gives a leader their authority, rather it is in relationship, in this case prayer.
Jesus could have had a class where He explained praying and arguing are different. I can then imagine the disciples taking notes and thinking this was great. Learning doesn’t happen like that. We don’t go back to our notes in the midst of the next argument. We learn by failing and then being moved by that failure.
Training then turns failure from the thing that disqualifies, to a thing that refines and grows and shapes us, so we have to have safe spaces in our leading for people to fail.
The context in which training happens.
These days, our two main vehicles for leadership training or discipleship are classes and discussion groups. Here we’re primarily trafficking in information and there's no experimentation happening. There is no real-life engagement. There is only talking infinitum about life. We’re talking about something that were not actually doing in the moment.
Growing up instead happens in everyday life. We get off work, come home, and our patients with our family evaporates in two minutes after walking through the door.
So, if I'm frustrated with my family, if I lose my patience. Is my goal then for me to try to stop being frustrated? Do I say to myself “I shouldn’t be like this!” and so we set up all these elaborate schemes of accountability. This is the money jar, and I have to put in a dollar every time I yell.
No, this is where we come alongside and say, “This is very frustrating, I would be frustrated too. What is it that you want?” There is something that I want that my kids, or my wife threatens or inhibits. Maybe it’s just peace and quiet when I get home. It could be one of a million things. What we do is ask questions to see what's really going on.
If you discover what you really want, you will find a breakthrough. The people who argue, who what to justify themselves, who play it safe, they miss out.
We need the safe context of a relationship with a leader to do this. This leader then lets us know when we fail, we are not a failure. The relationship is not at risk. The leader could be a boss, a parent, a mentor, a teacher, a therapist, a close friend, or a spouse.
In this safe place, we then learn and grow by hearing and doing, by participating in life.