At the Mennonite Church USA convention in Kansas City, Mo., we will use the Emmaus road story as the biblical teaching for our fellowship and discernment. I hope we marvel at the surprising ways the Spirit of God is made known to us as we gather. There has been much preparation and posturing. Perhaps we will all be surprised by how God appears among us. The Emmaus road story is about a surprise. But it’s about other things as well.
Since I interact with institutional leaders across the church and well beyond the Anabaptist community of faith, I read the Emmaus road story with my heart inclined to what it can teach us about leadership.
Let me reframe this compelling story. Jesus, the prophet, teacher, healer and sage, has been crucified a few days before. Cleopas and at least one other despondent friend are walking along the road to Emmaus. A stranger comes upon them. He asks, “Why are you so despondent?”
They tell him they are sad because the one they believed in was crucified in Jerusalem a few days before. These folks walk together on the road, and only later, over an evening meal, do they realize the stranger is indeed Jesus. He was with them again. And they didn’t perceive it.
How can the story speak to us about the character of leadership? A lot.
But it’s about the Risen Christ as leader. It’s about the folks on the road. Let me explain.
It’s been said that in the matter of organizational development, culture trumps strategy. Said another way, culture eats strategy for lunch. I realize that for a religious publication this is rather direct. However, the point is that this euphemism suggests the strategy or plan can fail if the underlying culture, values and habits don’t support the implementation of the strategy. The same can be said of leadership. Character trumps or eats competence for lunch.
To be sure, effective leadership requires measures of competence. Good people, people of high moral character, without some competence (tools in the tool bag) won’t lead very effectively. They can even be well-intentioned but dangerous.
But the opposite is even truer.
Competence without character can lead to incredibly unhealthy and destructive ends. Think about the moral failures of some high-profile national leaders and the demise of some well-respected religious leaders—some within our own community of faith. This is why Barton, Bennis, Blanchard, Bordas, Greenleaf, Kantor, Kouses and Posner, Maxwell, Palmer and others say that at the heart of wise leadership is the heart of the leader.
The story of the Emmaus road can teach us.
Let me suggest four simple takeaways.
1. Those on the road were despondent, broken, at a loss for what to do. Jesus met them and revealed himself to them. In time, these same individuals became powerful leaders in the life of the early church. God took the broken ones and empowered them to lead. Years ago, Henri Nouwen said there is a mystery in how God uses our woundedness in the healing of others. He invited us to embrace the idea of the wounded healer. Perhaps the Emmaus road story invites us to embrace the fact that we don’t need to be perfect. We are, in fact, “wounded leaders.”
2. The friends who were walking grew tired as the day got longer. They rested. They even invited their new friend to join them for a meal. Had they not paused to rest, had they done fast-food at the drive-through, would they have even encountered the Risen One? Slowing down, resting, nourishing the body and soul may be critical for us to even perceive the presence of Christ.
3. For these friends, the encounter with Jesus literally turned them around. They returned to Jerusalem. Are we willing to “turn around,” let go of our plan and go a different direction?
4. Finally, the followers praised God and gave thanks. Max DuPree, a well-known executive and author on leadership, suggests that wise leadership begins with a sense of thanksgiving—thanks that we have colleagues, that colleagues are leaning in and that we even have followers. He says that wise leadership begins and ends with a sense of thanksgiving. We are indeed debtors.
Character trumps competence.
May we understand that it is in our woundedness that God’s presence is known. May we take enough time to rest and stay attentive that our hearts and minds are shaped by the power of God. May we look out for the surprising ways God’s presence is real in the challenges we are facing. Perhaps we will need to turn around and go in a different direction. But in all things we give thanks.
Rick Stiffney is president/CEO of Mennonite Health Services Alliance and a member of Southside Mennonite Fellowship in Elkhart, Ind. This ran as a column in the July issue. Click here for the full issue.