10 July 2008

leading from behind

I’ve been back from Africa for almost 4 months. And I have to confess that I am still wrestling with the anxiety of finding where exactly I fit in this place.

I imagine myself to be something of a leader and I guess Africa had something to do with that. I taught and preached and lead very visibly – all from the front of the line. To use an analogy from nature, I was the mother duck with any number of baby ducks waddling behind me.

Today, in America, the landscape for me as a leader looks very different. The group at church that I led is now being masterfully and lovingly cared for by another. A smaller group that used to meet regularly has largely fizzled out. And I went from the top of the totem poll at my job in Africa to the bottom of the corporate ladder here in America.

Still, I find myself yearning to be a difference-maker. I am starting to learn that it may still be possible, even from the back of the line. You see, the duck analogy is adequate. But that doesn’t mean that there cannot be a different model to apply.

The shepherd often leads the flock from behind, driving his sheep in the way they must go. Scripture points to a loving rabbi who walked through life with those he loved, finding lessons in the everyday occurrences around him. He led from within the flock, often allowing his disciples to stumble over truth. If nothing else, he teaches that impact need not be conspicuous.

Leading from the rear can mean protecting the flock the most vulnerable area of attack. It can mean enabling and empowering the most nimble and agile to run ahead, finding their own spirit and voice. It can mean embracing the African idea of ubuntu, explained here by Desmond Tutu:

A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.

Perhaps leading from behind is a calling in and of itself. Someone must watch the back of the gifted frontrunners. And we must all be responsible to offer comfort and encouragement to those who might otherwise be left behind. Someone must be willing to bear a quiet load, carrying the lame or broken. And we are all part of one larger body – a greater whole – which needs all of its members to be convinced of the fact that all parts of the whole are honorable, whether they be the eyes, the mouth, the shoulders, or the feet.

Maybe I am trying to convince myself of all of this. I don’t really know. I do know that the idea is gaining traction within me. I sense a growing resonance, a growing acceptance, of the position in which I find myself.

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