James’s Blog: Experiences of Leadership

My post last week got me thinking about some of my own experiences in leadership. Sometimes a leader needs to be a good negotiator, a good speaker, a good manager, or a good accountant. Sometimes there are things that can only be done by a good person.

We’d been at Canowindra for three years when the Cornerstone leadership asked the Dean of the campus to lead a new team in Orange. They asked me to become the new Dean. I said yes. I would be leading some of the best men and women I had ever met, but it had been hard work and we were already fragile. I really believed that we could get better and succeed, and that I could be a part of that. It turned out that the damage that had been done was worse than I’d thought, and it ran deeper than I think any of us had known. I don’t remember when I first realised that the staff at Canowindra were carrying a mortal wound – possibly early on in my second year as Dean – but we struggled on, because we were doing good things and we were good people and we had hope.

One day I was at the poplars (my Australian Thin Place) and was interrogating God as to what was going on, and why he’d put me in this situation. I felt like God said to me, “Who else could do it? Who else could survive?” It made me laugh, the thought that God had put me at the helm not because of my ability and leadership skills, but because my faith was robust enough to survive the inevitable crash. It was like He was saying, “You can’t fix this, James. You haven’t got the skills or experience to save this, but you have one redeeming feature. When it all goes belly-up, I at least know that you’re not going to throw your toys out of the pram and walk away from your faith.”

So, after three years of struggling along, we – as a team – reached a point where we couldn’t go on. They replaced us with younger and more enthusiastic people. My original team, We Happy Few, limped away to the four corners of the globe, battered and bruised. For all of us it seemed like a good point at which to re-evaluate our relationship with Cornerstone. Ruth and I seriously considered staying on as part of a different community, but eventually concluded that it was time to come home.

And God was right. I was broken, but not destroyed. I still walk with a limp, but at least I’m still walking. I gladly forgave, my relationship with God was strengthened, and I have nothing but love and gratitude for Cornerstone and the men and women I served with and under. I don’t think that I did a particularly good job, but I did the job, and that was all that was asked of me, I think. I’m sure that my “Well done, good and faithful servant” is in the pipeline.

The other day I watched a Kevin Costner film about coastguard rescue swimmers, The Guardian. A recurring question in that film was, “What do you do when you can’t save them all?” It’s like being a leader. You can’t solve all the problems. There will be situations that you just can’t fix or turn around. Some of them might even be fatal. At that point, you’d better hope that you’re being led by a good person, because it takes a strong character to fail well.

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