A curious thing about roots is how they both cultivate and constrain a leader. Your identity is who you are, and your unique identity opens up wonderful possibilities while also closing out other possibilities.
I often coach leaders who want the nourishment of his or her roots, but who resist the restrictions that come along with this rootedness. We humans don’t like being told we cannot do or be something. And one of the great and prevailing myths circulating these days is that you can be and do anything you set your mind to. As Christians, we sometimes baptize this humanistic sentiment by immersing it in Philippians 4:13 (“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”).
It’s true that through our relationship with Christ we have a new and abundant identity. It’s not true that we can now be and do anything we set our minds to.
What’s the harm in resisting the restraints of our rootedness? I see three negative outcomes.
First of all, living out of someone else’s identity is miserable.
I recall being a doctoral student in the late 1990’s and simply hating the whole experience. I had worked hard and gotten a full ride plus a healthy stipend to study American Church History at a prestigious seminary. Every day I went to my study carrel and read for six to eight brutal hours. In general, I don’t mind reading, but not that much. All around me I saw men and women who were fully alive as they devoured book after book and journal article after journal article. Meanwhile, I was dying – mostly of boredom. It was tough to tell whether I needed to buckle down and push me way through it or take my misery as a sign that I was living someone else’s dream and my nightmare.
So I asked a trusted mentor for advice. He told me to stick with it and get through it, because once I did I would have my PhD and I’d be able to get a great faculty position somewhere. As I considered his advice, it occurred to me that life as a professor would look a lot like life as a doctoral student. So I thanked God for giving me the opportunity to be in such a great program and then I quit, trusting that if God wanted me to teach then He’d open opportunities that did not require me to fake it or live with the misery of being someone I clearly am not.
Not all difficult paths belong to someone else. Often it’s not easy to distinguish a path that is challenging but true from a false path that is challenging because it’s someone else’s story you’re trying to live. My take is that if the misery is causing you to become a stronger version of yourself, then stick with it. If your misery is pushing you to become someone else, then prayerfully consider another path.
Second, when you try to live out of someone else’s identity the world misses out on what only you can offer. Your relationships (aka “story”), values (aka “passion”), and heroes combine to grow a truly unique set of possibilities. But if you seek to live into someone else’s story, you will fail to bear the fruit that only you can bear.
For a few years I have worked with a denominational leader who refuses to follow the same old patterns in her denomination. When she became the executive for a middle judicatory in her denomination, she was given the “this is how you do it” speech from a colleague. She bristled at the speech and responded that she was ill prepared to lead in that way. Instead, she would lead in the unique way and from the unique perspective that God had given her. By allowing her identity to inform her leadership, she created a whole new set of possibilities for her entire denomination and created a new approach that is breathing fresh life into her region and others.
It’s marvelous to see a leader own up to his or her true potential. It’s disheartening to witness the opposite.
Lack of Gratitude
Third, when we try to live and lead like someone else, we demonstrate an ugly lack of gratitude to the God who made us who we are and gave us the roots we have.
I fear that too many of us are a combination of the unwise steward in Jesus’ parable of the talents (Matthew 25) and a thankless child who doesn’t like what is served for dinner.
When you are grateful for being the person God made you to be, you give thanks to your Creator and you strive to be a good steward of what is entrusted to you. But when you fail to be grateful, you scoff at the goodness inherent in being created by a wise and loving Creator, plus you fail to make the most of the opportunity that is your life.
It is so tempting to look at others and to wish you had been sprouted from the roots they have so you can live and lead like they do. But giving into this temptation is unwise, unfaithful, and unfruitful.
In the coming weeks, we will shift our attention from leadership rootedness to leadership strength. But for now, I want to encourage you to give thanks for being in the story that is your life and for being the person you are. May you bring much glory to your Creator as you live the peculiar life that is yours.
NOTE: Thanks Arthur F. Miller for his succinct book title (Why You Can’t Be Anything You Want to Be, Zondervan, 1999), which I borrowed as the subtitle for this post.