Regardless of how confident any of us would like to represent ourselves to others, we’re all prone to wrestle with some level of insecurity. That’s because we are finite people who at some point inevitably bump up against our limitations – an experience that is rarely pleasant because of how it exposes our weak spots, both to ourselves as well as to others.
But what if instead of living out of fear of such exposure we might rather claim the strengths that every one of us also has? Granted, some of us might have to scratch down more deeply into our souls first to discover and then to display those strengths; but if we are willing to do that heavy work, we can no doubt emerge more secure and more productive. Such is the thesis of Stedman Graham’s excellent book on leadership titled, Identity Leadership: To Lead Others You Must First Lead Yourself.
I had decided several years back to forgo reading any more books on leadership. My reasoning was that I had spent an inordinately huge part of my ministry devouring works on that subject matter and with the time remaining in my active ministry I preferred to spend my time on other topics that might prove equally beneficial and, frankly, more interesting. But sabbatical leaves have a way of bringing to the surface the more important aspects of one’s work, and little did I realize that Graham’s thoughts would combine leadership lessons with personal development in such a seamless way.
The thesis of Identity Leadership is that none of us can inspire and move others unless we have first come to grips with who we are, good and bad. Regardless of where we are in life, the temptation is always to imitate someone else we think has it all together. While we can certainly glean insights and develop good habits from others around us, we can only maximize our effectiveness by serving out of our own strengths. Simply put, our most important work is to be faithful to the person God created us to be.
I remember reading a sermon years ago that inspired me along these lines. I don’t remember the preacher, but I do remember the interpretation he gave of Jesus’ famous teaching on self-denial. “If anyone wishes to be my disciple, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” The teaching is so paramount in the Bible in terms of what it means to follow after Jesus that three of the Gospel writers were inspired to include it in their Jesus stories (Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23).
Growing up, I had always been taught that this teaching meant that one must engage in critical personal reflection in order to rid oneself of any selfish motivation in following Jesus. But I remember this sermon inviting me to posit the path of “disillusionment” along with critical reflection so that the task of discipleship might also involve a renunciation of embracing anything other than the person Jesus is redeeming me to be. In other words, I deny my “false self” so that I can become the “true one” that best represents what it looks like for me to be fully in Christ.
The end result is that none of us can do anything without living into the identity we have through our faith in Jesus Christ. We can’t lead anyone until we have first learned to lead ourselves and we certainly cannot follow Jesus until we have come to peace with who we are as sinners saved by his grace.
So, I plan to return to my work in the coming weeks even more committed to this transforming truth and I invite you to join me in that oft ignored task of discipleship. After all, God has seen fit to bless us with exactly what we need to be faithful to His calling for us; and when all of us show such resolve in renouncing our false selves in order to claim our true ones, there is no limit to what we can accomplish for the cause of Christ. Indeed, with faith as strong as that, not even the gates of Hell will prevail against us.
“But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace to me was not without effect” (1 Corinthians 15:10a).