Transformational Leadership and the Art of Renewal
In rare times of reflection, nearly every good leader dreams of making a difference: of changing lives and improving organizations. Transformational leaders, over a span of time, actually change lives and strengthen organizations, through how they live and how they engage their roles.
Such leadership is rare and difficult for a host of reasons. One reason is that it requires the leader to personally transform, to model growth and renewal for his or her followers. This kind of leadership is also the most fulfilling, because it facilitates growth and maturity in others. And seeing people and teams grow before your eyes yields some of the sweetest fruit found in ministry.
The leaders I work with as a Christian leadership coach often yearn to lead in this way. They want to see real change, to truly please God with their lives. And, like most Christian leaders, they pour their hearts into their vocation, giving it their all. Inevitably, they feel pulled to overextend, often downplaying their own needs. This eventually creates a real struggle: “How do I honor my own needs for renewal and growth, when there is so much to do? And some wonder: “How do I really expect others to grow and mature in the Lord, and for my congregation or organization to grow in maturity, when I struggle with it so much myself?” These issues need to be successfully addressed to lead in transformational ways.
Tom Johnson is a Christian leader, committed to growing professionally and personally. Tom (his name and personal details have been changed to protect his identity) has successfully led in substantial leadership positions for over 15 years. Early in our coaching work a few years ago, it became clear that Tom had a chronic history of overextending, rarely taking time for renewal. His overextending and deep desire to succeed were driving him way past his limit. This pattern took a real toll on his body and mind. One day he guardedly admitted to me, “At times I get so exhausted I wish God would take me home early, even if it means a car crash.” Saying that out loud to another person was a real wake-up call for Tom. He knew he had to find a better approach to living and leading.
Tom’s experience raises another weighty issue that nearly every committed Christian leader faces at some point: “How can I possibly finish well when I’m so exhausted now?” For more reflective leaders, they can wonder: “How is my example impacting the lives of those I serve?”
A New Vision
With Tom, the first issue was to reverse the trend toward exhaustion. Next was to help him develop a compelling vision of himself around retirement, actually flourishing. That included seeing himself engaged in a rhythm of renewal that strengthened his soul, and modeled transformation for his followers. Further, seeing himself glowing as he retired (having cared well for his soul), replaced the default image of collapsing in a heap after his retirement dinner! As Tom savored these new images, his heart began to lighten.
The Vital Role of Renewal
Tom was realizing in a deeper way that to finish well, he would have to embrace renewal. Taking time consistently to restore and strengthen his soul would be crucial to realizing his leadership dreams.
In that vein, Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz, in their book The Power of Full Engagement, underscore the vital role of renewal if long-term effectiveness and fulfillment are to be achieved. They state: “Spiritual energy is sustained by balancing a commitment to others with adequate self-care. Put another way, the capacity to live by our deepest values depends on regularly renewing our spirit—seeking ways to rest and rejuvenate and reconnect with the values we find most inspiring and meaningful.” p. 11o, (emphasis added)
The Essence of Renewal
The heart of renewal is really about what restores, nourishes and strengthens your soul. (This includes but goes beyond a daily devotion.) The particulars of renewal vary across individuals, and it takes reflecting on certain questions to discover your own answers. I encourage you to reflect on these questions: “What brings life to your heart, making it feel lighter and hopeful? What makes you feel glad to be alive, and actually allows you to anticipate re-engaging your most important tasks from a place of strength and optimism?” For most people this include things like rest, solitude, play, retreats, and rich connections with healthy friends.
Enemies of Renewal
As a leader, you likely resonate with these ideas. You also probably have a nagging thought of, “Yes, I know I need to pursue renewal more.” At this critical junction, many leaders are defeated by all too familiar demons. For most of us, the power of fear is at the core of the struggle to honor our needs for renewal and growth. We worry about disappointing others if we say “no.” We fear facing conflict if we worked at a more sustainable pace. ( Andy Stanley’s book Cheat the Church is a great resource for dealing with these fears.) Yet, these enemies truly are not all-powerful, and to become the leader you’re invited to be, you need strategies to defeat them
Supporting a Renewal Mindset
Perhaps the most critical issue regarding renewal is how to frame it. How do we look at renewal, in order to justify honoring our souls? Once that framework is really clear, we have greater chances of succeeding. Here are some ideas, drawing on some of today’s top leadership thinkers, and then the ultimate source, God’s Word.
Arthur Friedman, in his classic work Generation to Generation, says it is the leader’s ability to continue to grow and develop (to differentiate) and stay in touch with the followers, that creates the best climate for congregational growth.
Supporting this notion, Peter Senge’s bestseller, The Fifth Discipline, maintains a leader’s most effective way to facilitate growth and transformation in an organization is for the leader to model it.
Finally, Daniel Goleman, in Primal Leadership, states that the fundamental driver of outstanding organizational performance is the leader’s mood. In other words, if you are chronically over-extended, even if you aren’t complaining, your mood is leaking, and is a drain and strain to your followers. However, if you are honoring the needs of others, and your own, (through time for renewal) you are much more likely to authentically convey a mood that somehow provides the vital link to realizing the most important goals of your organization.
These ideas add greater credibility to how important it is for your followers to see you growing and taking care of yourself, and leading from a healthy place spiritually and emotionally. As is likely very clear by now, the best way for that to happen is by pursuing regular and meaningful “doses of life” for your soul. Ironically, for Christian leaders, sometimes framing renewal as something we do for others can give us greater permission to do it.
Biblical Inspiration Supporting Renewal
For more foundational support, Paul, God’s primary early Church builder, provides two significant insights on transformational leadership and renewal. First, he asks his followers several times to imitate him (1 Cor. 4:16, 11:1; 1 Thess. 1:5b), and his practices (Phil. 3:17, 4:9) to become strong disciples. How you live your life, and in particular how you arrange your life for to grow as a disciple and leader, is crucial to the ultimate effectiveness or fruitfulness of your ministry.
Secondly, Paul highlights the powerful construct of fullness in shaping our ideas of what we are invited to become, and embody for our followers. In Ephesians 3 and 4, Paul emphasizes fullness twice at peak moments in his writing. First, when he sees the culmination of us being so completely rooted and transformed in God’s love, that we might “be filled to measure of all the fullness of God. (3:19) Second, when he states that after all of our faithful efforts of working together to build the Body of Christ, and to grow in him, that we ultimately “become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (4:13).
To enjoy and embody fullness, where we are overflowing with goodness and grace and strength, means that there needs to be time for renewal, for soaking in God’s love and enjoying the good gifts he has given to us.
Our ultimate inspiration, Jesus, lived and modeled a perfect life (e.g., Hebrews 7:16) and embodied fullness (e.g., Col 1:19, 2:9). He was led to take time away to receive from God, his Father, to strengthen and renew his soul, (e.g., the Temptation in the Desert, the Mount of Transfiguration, vitalizing night or early morning prayer), to be who he needed to be in order to fulfill his calling.
In short, Jesus, Paul, and leadership gurus are asking you to set appropriate limits and order your life to grow and renew as a transformational leader. You are invited, perhaps even mandated, to create time for growth and renewal. I do not believe God is interested in chronically exhausting his servants for his cause; that would be at cross-purposes with love. Instead, he is invested in his leaders’ transformation, as he cares for their souls, and so they can be a compelling model for others. So, as Paul says, led and inspired partially by your example, “the whole body…grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” (Eph. 4:16b).
Steps Toward Renewal
With some new “ammunition” for pursuing renewal, here are some ways to re-engage or deepen renewal in your life:
Write out those things that restore and renew your soul. Share them with a good friend or spouse to help you incorporate them into your life.
Plan your vacations and retreats for the entire next year, before annual planning for ministry activities. Advance scheduling provides a greater chance of honoring those times and a sense of peace and anticipation throughout the year.
Take one day a month (or at least quarterly) for a silent retreat, to be still before God and renew your
soul. (These should be considered work days.) Leave work agendas behind and simply pursue what restores your connection with God.
Take a 10-15 minute break every 90 minutes or so, to give your body and mind a break to rest and renew.
Develop the discipline of deliberately disengaging your mind from work worries on your breaks and time away. Give those worries to the Lord when they pop up. (This takes practice!)
If the “enemies of renewal” seem insurmountable, work with a good coach to gain the extra support, clarity and accountability you need.
Through the course of working on leadership and renewal during our coaching relationship, Tom has made rewarding progress. He is much more comfortable taking down time after a demanding stretch. He takes a day of solitude at least quarterly, and fasts weekly (excluding vacations) to reconnect with God, to renew, and strengthen his sense of calling. He takes three or four day getaways with his wife, to strengthen his marriage. A significant accomplishment on the renewal front this past year was a long and enjoyable vacation with his wife, which renewed him and provided new perspectives on his demanding role.
Tom readily acknowledges still having ups and downs, and moving in and out of balance; that is how life is. But, Tom no longer has a dark wish for an early escape. He is much more focused on how he can develop leaders around him and transform his organization. He is more grounded in his role, and is modeling transformation. His staff is now engaging renewal activities, and morale is strong as they make progress toward their most important goals.
Leaders who want to facilitate transformation in organizations are required to undergo a rigorous journey of personal transformation. This a gradual process. It requires leaders to create time for renewal and growth. While well-intentioned, ignoring renewal curtails transformation, sells God short, and unwittingly promotes a shallow view of the Christian life.
Foundationally, you are invited to become an expert on renewing and growing your soul. Undeniably, this is the road less traveled—yet done well, it strengthens and deepens you as a leader, brings greater health to your teams and system, and equips you to be a much-needed model for those seeking fullness of life.
Transformational Leadership and the Art of Renewal
Nick Howard, Psy.D.