The Leadership Ellipse

Sharpening our leadership and nurturing our Soul

The wisdom of The Leadership Ellipse is not just to focus on sharpening leadership skills, nor just centre on spiritual formation, but to be shaped by both. Robert Fryling has been a leader of campus ministries and publishing with Inter-Varsity. His ministry has been enriched by reading lots of the leadership literature and many books on spiritual formation, but found the overlap of those two areas not often explored. So he wrote a book to attempt to integrate both agendas – getting things done in the world and being quiet with God, being activist as a leader and contemplative as a pray-er, cultivating outward leadership responsibilities and inward spiritual lives. The Leadership Ellipse argues that leadership is not about going for one clearly focused bullseye but letting our lives be formed by two equally important centres – leadership acumen and spiritual depth. These two foci form an ellipse for leaders to form their souls and guide their actions.

The prayer that inspires Fryling is Carmen DeGasztold’s poem “The Peacock”, who celebrates its beautiful looks and feathers but laments its discordant cry, concluding: “Lord, let a day come, a heavenly day, when my inner and outer selves will be reconciled in perfect harmony.” That is a prayer I echo, a prayer for integrity and a longing to integrate my outer calling as a leader and my inner cultivation of spirituality. The book has encouraged my spiritual walk and my leadership calling together.

Fryling offers four chapters on shaping our inner world, by loving God with our heart, soul, mind and strength; three chapters on shaping our outer world, and engaging with our busy, fractured and lonely outside world; and a final three chapters on shaping our leadership with wholeheartedness, attentiveness and clarity.

Here are some of its highlights for me.

Self-awareness of what drives me

I love this book because it models three critical elements for ministry:

  • self-awareness
  • cultural critique
  • biblical engagement

And, of the three, the greatest of these is self-awareness. Cultural critique and biblical engagement are critical, but I think Fryling is at his best in modelling self-awareness. Good leaders are aware of what drives them, and leaders often sadly come unstuck when they lack self-awareness. So a more appropriate summary as far as what trips leaders up is ‘the weakest of these is self-awareness’. Fryling comments, ‘An insidious threat to our spiritual health … comes not so much from a lack of good desires but from a lack of self-awareness of being driven and controlled by underlying selfish interests’ (p.46). This is a growing edge for me. The more years I spend in ministry, the more I realise how I need to grow in this. The book is incidentally the most formative book I have been reading this year, mainly because of the self-examination it has prompted.

Fryling points the finger at himself, and in the process helps me see my posturing, impatience, control and denial. I have realised that sometimes when I appear at my best, it is just appearance. I have communicated vulnerability as a technique, been enthusiastic as a show to build momentum, performed to get people to like me, built my identity from my role, compulsively strived for significance, avoided service opportunities except where I can be in charge, and made decisions for what is best for my reputation rather than what is best for the people concerned. And what pride am I not aware of now, in showing how self-aware I am? It is easy to get caught up in mental knots, but helpful to exercise self-examination about the tensions that direct us.

I appreciate his quote of Henri Nouwen: “I want to love God but also make a career. I want to be a good Christian but also have my successes as a teacher, preacher or speaker. I want to be a saint but also enjoy the sensations of sinners. I want to be close to Christ but also be popular and liked by people. No wonder that living becomes a tiring enterprise.” I wish I could put struggles in such words as Nouwen’s beautiful writing style. When I posted this comment on Facebook, friends replied “go the sinners”, “they are not mutually incompatible” and “the challenge is living the words as much as writing them.”

Another insightful quote is Oscar Wilde’s: “Be yourself. Everybody else is taken.” A big part of self-awareness for me is realising my strengths and where God is calling me, pursuing that wholeheartedly, and not being pressured by the demands of others or the expectations I put on myself to match up to others.

As a leader, there are days I feel isolated, strung out and misunderstood. I am most vulnerable, I know, when I have succumbed to overwork, either by accepting the demands of others or imposing unrealistic expectations on myself. Fryling suggests from his experience that overwork comes from discontentment and trying to be something other than what we are created to be. He observes: ‘Our busyness not only reflects our frenzied culture, it is also in a counterintuitive way the seedbed for leadership loneliness. Because our work as leaders is never done and because work can be addictive, it is easy to lose boundaries. We then believe that we have to be in the office those extra hours just to be competitive or that we have to get on the plane again to be at that conference or to solve those intractable personnel problems in another city. We morph from being effective in leading others to being exhausted in being led by the demands of others.’ (p.118) Tasks are like photos on a camera’s memory card – if we want to add too many extras, we have to delete some old unwanted ones.

Slowing down my schedule

Fryling’s most astute cultural critique is of the pace of society and the frenzied life that prompts in many of us as leaders. He describes how life becomes frenetic from both external complexities and internal compulsions. He takes counsel from Eugene Peterson who describes a ‘busy pastor’ as a betrayal and Dallas Willard who says “You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.” His helpful prescriptions for a healthier pace include:

  • reflecting on the Lord’s Prayer to align us with God’s purposes
  • being disciplined with sleep, examen, diet, generosity and other helpful rhythms as part of a ‘rule of life’
  • fasting at times from information, meetings and instant availability
  • practising Sabbath as a gift, and not just as one day in seven but as a lifestyle that includes regular time out from compulsive work and electronic and commercial stimulation.

If Fryling, a senior executive of a large ministry with multiple responsibilities, can do this, maybe I can too! The other leader who Fryling quotes as a helpful inspiration is Pope John Paul XXIII. He resigned to God what belongs to God. When presiding over Vatican II, he used to finish the day in prayer with “Jesus, this is your church. I’m going to bed.”

Space for my intellect

The book elevates loving God with our minds as well as our hearts; learning from the desert fathers as well as from what Paul meant by ‘being transformed by the renewal of my mind’. He counsels protecting time for serious reading. ‘Outstanding leadership usually requires outstanding readership’ (p.72). And he shows that intellectual sharpness is to be in the service of ministry to others, quoting Bernard of Clairvaux: “Bernard of Clairvaux: “There are many who seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge: that is curiosity. There are many who desire to know in order that they may be known: that is vanity … But there are those who seek knowledge in order to edify others: that is love.” Study and intellectual pursuits, reading and writing tend to come naturally to me, and I find them life-giving, but it is a helpful reminder to channel them not just for curiosity or vanity but for edifying others. (Good on ya Berny.)

Spirituality for my activism

It is fascinating that everyone doesn’t pick my ways of experiencing God. Yet one of the most life-giving lessons I have been learning over the last year is that different ways of experiencing God are valid. We do not have to fit into someone else’s mould for encountering God, and it is helpful to remind ourselves not to expect everyone in our churches to be close to God through the same ways.

I read The Leadership Ellipse when I was grappling with what spiritual practices are most helpful for me as an extrovert. Many spiritual practices encourage us to be quiet and to shut out the world, but God can be encountered in relationships as well as solitude, mission as well as prayer, outdoors as much as indoors. Nancy Reeves in her book Spirituality for Extroverts has helped me realise this, and Fryling helps reinforce the lessons. They both invite me to action and contemplation, work and prayer, engagement and solitude.

Fryling quotes Robert Capon’s book Bed and Bound (definitely on my “to get” list). Capon describes how a dance and a march are different: “In a [drill] parade, really unequal beings are dressed alike, given guns of identical length, trained to hold them at the same angle, and ordered to keep step with a fixed beat. But it is not the [drill] parade that is true to life; it is the dance. … Nothing is less personal than a parade; nothing more so than a dance.” (p.86) It makes me wonder when has my spirituality been a “dancing heart” experience (with all of its spontaneous freedom), and when has it been a drill-styled march (clearly laid out but perhaps accompanied by its wearying monotony)?

At the risk of confusing the metaphor, a friend Ruth Harrison facebooked a comment about this Capon quote: “I first thought of some other parades that I have seen. Ones where there are many expressions of what people do and where they go for work, play or learning. Some floats are ordered, plain and give information. Others are flamboyant, extreme and difficult to understand. These parades are a beautiful presentation of great diversity in a community all ‘walking the same path’ The comparison between the parades where freedom to journey (down the street) is given and the parades where all are ‘conforming’ to one persons idea is stark.” That’s why I added ‘drill’ to Capon’s quote, to make sense of it as a drill parade, not the colourful Mardi Gras styled parade which has its own dance variations. It is the non-conforming nature of spirituality as a dance or a colourful parade that grabs my imagination.

One growing edge for my walk with God is learning meditation and contemplation, learning to be still and quiet. Those qualities and practices and helpful correctives and balances for my busy lifestyle. Practising Sabbath has been probably the most helpful practice to slow me down and remind me the world does not revolve around me. I can learn so much from brothers and sisters who practice a quiet and contemplative spirituality. The desert fathers and mothers used to retreat to the desert and use isolation to draw close to God ands remove themselves from the world to cultivate their inner life. I can learn from them (desert contemplative types), but like Fryling I don’t want to become one and ignore my active self (cf. pp.18-19). Relationships, groups, activism, outdoors, conversations, even dancing are contexts in which I can discover and enjoy God. Praise God says my extroverted and activist soul.

A new PD

I rely on models of ministry to shape how I view myself and what I do. And Fryling offers me a beauty – a fresh model of ministry or revised Position Description title, that of ORGANIZATIONAL ECOLOGIST. The basis of healthy leadership implied in being an organizational ecologist is being attentive to what God is doing and cultivating space in relationships and the organisation for God’s purposes to flourish.

Attentiveness is a key perspective. I loved the invitation to focus afresh on what Jesuit Jena-Pierre de Caussade described as “the sacrament of the present moment”. Elizabeth Barrett Browning poetically writes, “Earth is crammed with heaven, and every common bush is on fire with God; but only he who sees takes off his shoes; the rest sit round and pluck blackberries.” CS Lewis said “there are no ordinary people” and that our neighbours are holy sacraments for us. Leighton Ford comments, “Paying attention is not a way by which we make something happen but a way to see what is already given to us.” These classical writers remind me to ask what is “of God” and “life-giving” and growing organically in and around me and the organisations I serve?

In practical terms, Fryling says an organizational ecologist exercises three practices:

  • staying involved with people through listening and loving and learning (like Moses being curious enough to notice the burning bush)
  • investing in people through time, touch and teaching (which means not overplanning my schedule so I have marginal time for unexpected needs and conversations)
  • inspiring people through vision-casting and encouragement (letting people know what we are doing, why we are doing it and where we are headed.)

Thinking of myself as an organizational ecologist urges me to attentiveness. It reminds me to look for and cultivate what God is growing in myself and my community and church tribe.

Reminding me where I belong

“Where do I belong?” is one of the great existential questions we live and grapple with. In a world of ambition, to be content can be considered wimpy. In a world of consumerism, to be satisfied is a rare occasion. In a lonely world, finding a community to belong to is a gift. Robert Fryling suggests that a critical question of leadership is where we belong ourselves as leaders.

Fryling’s rich invitation is to indwell the prayer of Jesus in John 17 to belong in three directions.

Firstly, we belong to God and what God has made us to be. As a pastor I do not belong primarily to my church, as a worker I do not belong primarily to my role, but I belong to God. Fryling reflects: ‘This deep sense of belonging to God is essential for an effective presence in the world. When we don’t have that security, we are either scared to be in the world and shyly avoid conflict over faith issues or we are arrogant in our self-importance and have very little to say that others want to hear.’ (p.124)

Secondly, we belong to each other. I regularly tell my church that I am glad I do not serve God alone but in community with them. As the church we belong to one another, in all our multicultural, multi-age, multi-faith-stage diversity.

Thirdly, we belong to the world. It is not that the world owns or controls us, as we have a primary loyalty elsewhere. But we have been sent into our world, community, neighbourhood, street, family and workplace. Fryling reminds me of my local sense of belonging in the place God has placed me. John Perkins said, “Only God so loved the world. Our responsibility is to love those around us’ (p.131). And for me, as I introduce myself on my Facebook page, that mirror into my identity and places of belonging, I ‘love [my] family, Auburn, places to jog & swim, friends to share life with, diverse cafes, Indonesian restaurants, work and God, and [am] glad they are all in the same neighbourhood’.

It is a tension to consider the extent of my belonging to the world, ‘to live purposefully in the world without the world’s purposes living in us’ (p.122). CS Lewis wrote “Because we love something else more than this world, we love even this world better than those who know no other.” And Fryling quotes E B White, “If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning, torn between a desire to save the world and to savor the world. That makes it hard to plan the day.” (p.123)

We belong to God, to each other and to the world. Those three places of belonging give us integrity in our outer world and centredness in our inner world.

And it is helpful to remember what belongs to God, and thus what we do not need to carry on our shoulders. I appreciated the wonderful resignation to God of what belongs to God, as with the already mentioned Pope John Paul XXIII’s post-Vatican II discussion evening prayer, “Jesus, this is your church. I’m going to bed.”

The book has helped not just stretch my mind but change my heart, reminding me that I belong firstly to God and church belongs to God.

This was originally reviewed by Darren Cronshaw, in Witness: The Voice of Victorian Baptists, Vol.90, No.10 (December 2010), 22.