I’ve been working on the Fruit of the Spirit with my kids, and admittedly one of the most challenging for me is Gentleness. It hits me as a gut check for the way in which I speak, and the words that I use to communicate a point. And like so many other indications of growing in Christ-likeness, it must be rooted in humility. It’s taken me 30+ years to get some healthy clarity on this, but as I’ve grown in emotional intelligence and self-awareness I’ve accepted that I have to grow in this area, because my natural tendencies are too abrasive, revealing the prideful bent of my heart. Not only will that abrasiveness cost me dearly in relationships, but it can seriously weaken my effectiveness as a leader. Specifically, at times when God calls me to “lead up.”
Jon Maxwell explains a leader who leads up as one who is adding value, supporting the leader above them, and setting themselves apart. In roles of strategic communication leadership I’ve had opportunities to lead up. Like all aspects of leadership, this is a stewardship. Not only of the influence, but of the other person’s heart. When given the opportunity to lead up, we can strengthen the heart or damage the heart. If I was damaging too often I need to determine why. So, part of understanding my often abrasive nature was examining its root. Yes, it was pride, but that pride was manifesting itself through an intolerance for perceived incompetency – things that I was too quick to point out in a not so gentle way when the door opened. It took God humbling my heart in a pretty serious way, to reveal my own incompetencies and soften my rough edges. But that allowed me to have the context I needed to approach new opportunities to lead up, in a different way.
See, here’s the thing. At the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter how strong you are as a leader – the top spot is always, always, difficult. People constantly want more of you, someone (often lots of someones) is always unhappy with you, and you are ultimately responsible for more than anyone else in the organization. The burden of leadership is heavy. In most cases, the leader above me already knows the mistakes they wish they could correct, the gaps that need to be filled, and their personal shortcomings. What they need from me is to come alongside and lighten the load with insight, care, and clarity shared in gentleness. Isn’t that what we would all want from a leader on our team?
When you’re like me however, adopting a spirit of gentleness is almost a complete 180 to your natural wiring. It’s a heavy process of learning and refining, and walking in the Spirit for wisdom. It’s a practice of laying down my pride, and seeking to truly minister to those I’m following. Growing in gentleness is teaching me how to speak truth, while affirming the heart, and building trust. And it’s totally worth it. Speaking and acting in gentleness has fostered better working relationships, healthier culture, and better focus on what really matters – the relationship, not being right. So next time, before you speak up to lead up, remember – gentleness.
Side note: I would be remiss if I didn’t also acknowledge that being married to one of the most gentle, but effective leaders I know, has helped tremendously. I’ve seen the way people gain influence with him when they are not only correct, but gentle. And I’ve seen him consistently lead up, (and as a result be given more and more influence) and even disarm difficult clients, by carefully and gently guiding them towards the correct course of action. Don’t get me wrong – he can be firm and direct, but he’s able to make and keep good relationships easily because of his approach. He’s way better at gentle leadership than me – grateful I get to learn from him!