If you are going to be an effective leader, you must be able to enter into your followers’ world. In fact, if you are going to influence anyone for anything—whether it is your boss, your employees, a client, your spouse, or even your kids—you are going to have to get really good at incarnational leadership.
This leadership principle is based on the Christian teaching that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14a). Imagine that: God entered into our world in order to bring us back to Himself.
Similarly, when Jesus chose his disciples, he didn’t enroll them in a workshop. He didn’t ask them to read a stack of books. He didn’t even ask them to sit down and listen to him preach. Instead, “He appointed twelve, that they might be with Him” (Mark 3:14a, emphasis mine).
The Apostle Paul employed this same kind of incarnational leadership. He wrote to his followers:
But we were gentle among you, just as a nursing mother cherishes her own children. So, affectionately longing for you, we were well pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God, but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us.” (1 Thessalonians 2:7, 8, emphasis mine)
This leadership principle is very basic, but, sadly, one I forgot in one of my most important relationships.
Several weeks ago, I took my mentoring group on a retreat. In preparation, I had them ask their wives, “What bugs you about me? Specifically, what are the three things that cause you to be uncomfortable or irritated with me?” It is a powerful question, but one that is also potentially dangerous.
Consequently, I gave them four guidelines:
- Be sincere and listen.
- Don’t be defensive.
- Don’t make any promises.
- Take detailed notes.
As the leader of the group, I also had to do the exercise. However, since Gail and I had been married for thirty-two years, I was hoping she would have nothing substantive to share with me. Boy, was I wrong.
I first asked her the question about two weeks before the retreat. She didn’t respond, but promised to think about it. After a few days, I asked again. She said that still wasn’t sure. A few days later, I emailed her. Still, nothing.
I begin to think, Maybe I’m such a good husband that there’s just nothing I do to annoy her. I patted myself on the back and then, as a final effort, text-messaged her the day of the retreat. A few hours before I left the office for the retreat, she finally emailed me.
She shared three things that annoyed her about me:
- You tend to nag me. You ask for something to be done—like provide the answer to this exercise!—and then you keep asking if I’m done yet. You are important to me, but I have other items on my to-do list.
- Your recreational activities tend to be solo. You love to write, tinker with your blog, run, etc. But I can’t participate in any of these activities. In order for me to join you, I have to engage in a solo activity next to you. But this isn’t the same as being with you. It is unfulfilling to me because I don’t work or play like you do.
- You usually decide what we do together. Because I tend to be the more deliberate and you tend to be more decisive, your decisions usually win out. You beat me to the punch. As a result, I end up deferring to what you want to do. I feel that I am losing myself in the process. Sometimes I wish that you would just slow down and enter into my world, considering what I might want to do for a change.
Ouch. Here three points really hit home. It was a sober reminder that loving someone well—leading someone well—means entering into their world. Sadly, I had completely missed this with Gail. I had completely forgotten the incarnational principle of leadership.
Since that time, I have been deliberate about entering into her world and doing the things she enjoys. I still have a long way to go, but I am learning (I think).
During our vacation, for example, we spent time hiking. This is not something I ordinarily would have chosen, but it something that is important to Gail. The really interesting thing is that I have loved doing this with her. It has taken our relationship to another level.
I am so grateful that Gail had the courage to tell me the truth. Because of it, I am beginning to understand that incarnational leadership—entering into someone else’s world—is the first and most important aspect of leadership. It can make a huge difference: for your followers, for your relationship to them, and even for your own growth and development.
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