Parker Palmer says it best when he says, “Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.” I think what every wise teacher knows is that you can only take people as far as you yourself have gone. For many, the appeal of leadership impels people to try to lead others where they themselves cannot go or have not yet gone. This type of leadership is always immature, because it is not familiar with the path on which it is trying to lead others. But, when we have ourselves have journeyed far and wide, we know the road we can lead others on. We can travel through the waters with far less trepidation because we know the waves will not drown us. We may suffer in watching others in the current, but we know that the shore is ahead and we are prepared to take them there.
Despite my deeply held appreciation and love for the work of Gandhi, I believe he was wrong when he said that people should be the change they wish to see. I believe that the apostle Paul said it with more wisdom, “When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things.” The reason why I say this is because Paul understood that you can only give children the guidance that a child needs. What every good psychologist will tell you is the loss in development of the child when they’re expected to behave as adults prematurely. When kids have to mature faster than they’re supposed to, when their parents fail to give them what they need or expose them to the world of adults, the child loses out on an elemental piece for their development (And, we still wonder why people like Lindsay Lohan or Miley Cyrus are so screwed up).
What every good parent, what every good leader knows, is that in order for them to be a good leader, they must have radical discernment for the people they lead. Great leaders must travel to places that most people cannot go. Leaders must know and remember their own steps so they can lead people where they are. They cannot be the change they want to see, because they know they have to be able to push people into the water before they can tell them to hold their breath for the times when it appears that the waves are going to come crashing down on them. Leaders must themselves know the valleys of the shadows of death and the already present kingdom of God. They must know the stages, periods, and trials that life has to offer. Leaders must conquer much to convince others that they too can endure these stages, periods, and trials. They can lead people into their crucifixion because they know the threshold that is required to find the resurrection. As Thomas Merton once said, “We do not change so we can be loved by God. God loves us so we can be changed.” So as leaders, as God does, we must love people where they are, not where we want them to be. Sometimes people don’t need to know where you are in your journey, they only need you to help them to have the courage to take the next step.
“You don’t think yourself into a new kind of living, you live yourself into a new kind of thinking.”-Henri Nouwen