Three Things I’ve Learned, Unlearned, and Continue to Learn About Leadership

Shobana Vetrivel   |   April 24, 2020 

My first brush with leadership was in 11th grade. My class teacher called me to her table and told me that she was going to nominate me to stand for the school cabinet elections next year. The student leadership body was modelled after the Indian Parliament with all democratically elected “ministers”. I remember clearly telling my teacher that I had no leadership qualities whatsoever and it would be better to nominate someone who did. I was quiet, shy, introverted and my understanding of a leader was someone confident and outspoken, who could take visible charge of any situation. I was reasonably good at studies and felt that in no way qualified me for leadership. She didn’t push me and I happily walked back to my seat with a sigh of relief.

Reluctance is OK, maybe even more than OK

That first encounter pretty much sums up my continued experience with leadership. One word undergirds it all: reluctance. Even though my understanding of leadership has changed now (I know it’s not dependent on personality, for one thing) and I’ve been involved in leadership in various contexts, my response to any leadership role has been reluctance. I wish I could say it’s because I’m deeply humble . . . but that’s not true. It’s a mix of fear of failure, anxiety about how people will perceive me, uncertainty about how it will all turn out, and wondering when it will just all blow up in my face. Pair that with all the messiness leadership unavoidably entails – relationship conflicts, flawed decisions, resource deficiencies, criticism – and it is more than enough to make me run the other way.

Initially, I kept my reluctance quiet. It seemed to me that everyone else in leadership was a willing and eager participant. But slowly, as I began to be honest about what I was going through, I found so many others were reluctant too. Then I stumbled upon a book on leadership by Dan Allender, “Leading with a Limp” that spoke to my heart like no other book on leadership has.

It focuses on reluctant leaders and how God seems to choose as leaders the very ones who don’t want to serve. It's not what is expected of professional leaders today. But reluctance does not disqualify us; on the contrary, reluctance is the vehicle God uses to expose our weaknesses and to reveal His glory and His goodness. What I saw as a sign that I wasn’t supposed to be in leadership was a gracious avenue for me to depend on God rather than focusing on my own inhibitions and struggles.

I’ve learned to value the reluctance now and the posture it inevitably brings me to – flat on my face before God, seeking His presence and power through the highs and lows of leadership. I love how Dan Allender puts it -

With all the suffering and struggle involved in leading others, why would we not bolt? For one reason: God pours out enough of his presence to keep us hooked. And God allures us to the point we want to know how the next episode of the story will turn out. God is playing out his plot, and reluctant and limping servants, while being humbled as leaders, are lifted up to see his glory.

Failure is OK too

I am extremely risk-averse and didn't want to be associated with anything remotely close to failing. I used to have two back-up plans and do everything I could to control situations so that everything went smoothly. The only cost I would count in saying yes to something was how likely it was to succeed or my assessment of the competence of others on the team. My idol was approval and I felt that if I was part of the leadership team, my reputation was at stake.

Then, in my mid-thirties, something strange happened. At the start of a would-be sabbatical, I said yes to joining three brand new ventures one after another. There was no guarantee any of it would turn out well. The only saving grace was that I was in good company. All the people involved in each venture were as open about their fears and weaknesses as about their hopes and dreams. Looking back, I can call it was it was: they were comfortable with failure.

Slowly but surely, my focus shifted from worrying about success and what looks like success on the outside. I dove deep into the process, rather than agonising about the end result. The conversations, the prayers, the tears, the losses, the joys, the day to day lessons and being a witness to God’s provision, faithfulness, discipline and unfailing love became more precious than the stamp of approval and reputation I craved.

In the end, one of the ventures shut down. But I wouldn’t call it a failure and I’m learning to be comfortable with “failure” either way. Nothing is ever a failure in God’s economy. We have great assurances in Scripture that our labour is not in vain.

All things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)

Playing the blame game is not OK

When things go wrong, especially in a team effort, the first thing on my mind is to identify the person responsible. Culturally, we are so quick to point fingers and throw someone under the bus. It is almost an expectation that leaders identify who is to blame and call them out publicly. Throughout school, university and in almost all my work situations this was the norm. Teachers, team leaders, and heads of organisations were experts at fixing blame and perpetuated a culture where hardly anyone owned up to mistakes.

Someone once said this in a workshop I attended and it has been imprinted on my brain ever since:

You know what leadership is? It’s taking the blame when things go wrong!

For a leader to take responsibility when things go wrong, especially when they are not directly involved, is counter-cultural and counter-intuitive. The few leaders who have exemplified this with their lives are leaders who have created safe spaces for people to admit their mistakes and generated environments of trust and loyalty where people take more risks. It’s been one of the hardest things for me to implement in my own leadership but I know now it’s the most Christlike thing to do.

Leadership does not hold any glamour for me but it is true that there is a glory that kind of sneaks up on you. Brief moments where you begin to feel great about yourself, your accomplishments, the fruit that you are bearing, and the flattery than can so quickly deceive your heart. What grace it is then - when the weaknesses that cause my reluctance lead me to find strength in my Saviour, when the idol of approval exposed by failure leads me to my only source of true security, when the self preservation that wars against taking responsibility leads me to the One who loved me and graciously gave himself up for me.

Here is God’s leadership model: he chooses fools to live foolishly in order to reveal the economy of heaven, which reverses and inverts the wisdom of this world. He calls us to brokenness, not performance; to relationships, not commotion; to grace, not success. (Dan Allender)



Photo by Mel on Unsplash

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Shobana Vetrivel

Shobana Vetrivel enjoys the hustle and bustle of city life and the adventure of living in New Delhi. She has an educational background in social development and theology and has worked in both development and ministry settings. She currently works with Delhi School of Theology and is pursuing a PhD in Practical Theology. Books, travelling, theology, coffee and deep conversations are a few of her favourite things.  
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2 comments on “Three Things I’ve Learned, Unlearned, and Continue to Learn About Leadership”

  1. Great post, Shobi! Grateful I got to bear witness to some of these things you are talking about. I too tend to look at the end of something as a failure, but my husband is always quick to remind me of the goodness that can come when we just show up and try our best. In the end, things may stop or close down, but it didn't mean it was all for nothing. I remind myself of this all the time... and even now as I'm on the cusp of something new again 😉

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