January 6, 2021: An Unexpected Epiphany
“A leader is a person who must take special responsibility for what’s going on inside him- or herself, inside his or her consciousness, lest the act of leadership create more harm than good.”
Yesterday morning we published a Beyond Words blog post highlighting the beginning of Epiphany—the season of the church year in which we celebrate the showing forth of God’s presence in earthly form. We went on to define epiphany in a more general sense as “a sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something….an intuitive grasp of reality.” We invited God to make this a season of revelation for us.
I am quite sure none of us expected the kind of revelation we got.
Hours later an angry mob, incited by the highest leader in our land, brought violence, destruction and death to our nation’s capital as our elected officials gathered to carry out their constitutional responsibilities. On our own soil and brought on by our own fellow Americans we witnessed an assault on our democracy, a violent attack on public servants inside the historic place in which they serve, a human tragedy in which precious lives were lost, and a public shaming of our country on the world stage.
We also witnessed once again the aching disparity between how white people are treated and how Black people are treated when they gather publicly, when they protest, and even when they walk down the street! There were so many reasons to weep that my tears came and went all day.
A Sudden Manifestation
If that’s all that had happened yesterday, it would be bad enough. But for those who think deeply about leadership, the events of this day were also an unexpected epiphany—“a sudden manifestation” of the essential nature or meaning of leadership. Watching how that day began and how it unfolded, we were faced with the sudden manifestation of undeniable truth.
Leadership matters. Transforming leadership matters. Untransformed leadership is dangerous and destructive in the extreme.
What Lies Beneath
In every Transforming Community of leaders we guide and facilitate, we reflect on this quote from Parker Palmer: “A leader is a person who must take special responsibility for what’s going on inside him- or herself, inside his or her consciousness, lest the act of leadership create more harm than good.”
In the four hours of solitude that follow this teaching, we reflect on the fact that what lies beneath the surface of our lives as leaders really matters. We allow ourselves to be challenged by the fact that the dark side of leadership—whatever it is in our human and psychological development that is left undealt with and unresolved—will find its way to the surface of our leadership no matter how hard we try to keep it outside our consciousness. And the most sobering truth is that others will probably see it before we do—if we’re able to see it at all.
And let’s be clear about another sudden manifestation we saw yesterday, and that is that followership matters, too— who we choose to follow and why and how. Yesterday’s events reflected not only a tragic failure of leadership but also a tragic failure of followership—blind followership of a leader who is not worthy of being followed. Thoughtless followership that relinquishes one’s own inner authority to discern what is right and wrong. Self-serving followership motivated by political alignment and career aspirations.
Thank God we eventually saw leaders who were able to extricate themselves from all that and rise to a higher level— leadership and duty for the sake of others, leadership in service of what is morally, ethically, and constitutionally right. It was right to certify this election no matter how one feels about it personally, no matter whether it benefits one politically. That is what leaders do.
The Highest Call of Leadership
So the quote above came back to me over and over through the afternoon and evening hours as I sat glued to the television. It came to me as I wept and prayed that the highest leader in our land would take responsibility for what was going on inside himself, inside his consciousness, so his leadership could stop bringing harm but instead bring good. It came to me over and over again as I wrestled with dark thoughts and emotions throughout the night.
Then this morning, while still grieving what we all witnessed yesterday, I thought about my own leadership and the leadership of all the earnest leaders who come through our ministry and I had another revelation. It came to me that all of us should be on our faces today begging God to help us see whatever it is in our own leadership that is dangerous or destructive. We need to beseech God to help us see what we can not see. We need to pray God will surround us with followers who are awake and alert and refuse to follow anything that is sinful or damaging or destructive in us.
In the face of this unexpected epiphany, let us embrace once again the truth that the best thing we bring to leadership is our own transforming selves—lest we, too, do more harm than good. Let us see this self-responsibility as our highest call. As we will read in this week’s lectionary Gospel (Mark 1:4-12), even Jesus was driven into the wilderness by the Spirit to wrestle with the most subtle and most dangerous temptations of leadership; and he overcame them by the grace of God and the force of his own character. Surely, this is our calling as well.
©Ruth Haley Barton. 2021. Not to be reproduced without permission.
NOTE FROM OUR DIRECTOR OF COMMUNICATIONS: Thank you all for reading and responding to this blog post. We are closing comments for now because we feel the conversation may be taking a turn that is no longer edifying. Here in the Transforming Center we continue to pray for our president and all our governmental leaders at this time.
As Jesus taught us so we pray:
OUR FATHER IN HEAVEN,
HALLOWED BE YOUR NAME,
YOUR KINGDOM COME, YOUR WILL BE DONE,
ON EARTH AS IN HEAVEN.
GIVE US TODAY OUR DAILY BREAD.
FORGIVE US OUR SINS AS WE FORGIVE THOSE
WHO SIN AGAINST US.
SAVE US FROM THE TIME OF TRIAL,
AND DELIVER US FROM EVIL.
FOR THE KINGDOM, THE POWER, AND THE GLORY
NOW AND FOR EVER.