Sermons That Work

What Do Today’s Business Leaders…, Proper 20 (B) – 2006

September 24, 2006

What do today’s business leaders and the child that Jesus picks up have in common? Let’s consider this question, in the name of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

An interesting book entitled “Deep Change: Discovering the Leader Within” was written by Robert E. Quinn, who teaches organizational behavior and human resource development at the University of Michigan’s Graduate School of Business. In it, Quinn describes three kinds of people: the individual contributor, the manager, and the leader.

First, there is the individual contributor. Several terms apply here: technical competence; technical standards; cynicism; factual communication; conventional behavior; planning in a way that is rational and tactical.

The individual contributor is the sort of person you want to have working on your car, or doing surgery on your heart, or servicing the plane on which you will be a passenger. The individual contributor knows what needs to be known, and does what needs to be done for something technical to work.

The manager is a different sort of creature. The manager functions in a political system rather than a technical one, dealing with people more than things. Instead of technical competence and standards, what concerns the manager are effective transactions and organizational position.

Rather than having a cynical attitude to authority, the manager is responsive. What interests the manager is not facts, but concepts; not professional training, but administrative socialization; not what happens at school, but what happens at the workplace. Yet like the individual contributor, the manager is comprehensible, committed to conventional patterns of behavior.

The manager is the sort of person you want to have as your attorney, or business partner, or boss. The manager knows how to get things done, who to talk to, and what to say for the right transactions to happen.

The individual contributor and the manager are different roles, different kinds of people. But the manager and the individual contributor have this in common: their first objective is their own survival.

Now enters the last of the three. Quinn calls that person the leader.

What the leader inhabits is not a technical system or a political system, but a moral system.

What empowers the leader is not rational competence or effective transactions, but core values.

What makes the leader credible to others are not factual standards or an insider’s position, but behavioral integrity.

The leader communicates through symbols and vivid mental images that provide a general guideline rather than through narrow, specific objectives that are relentlessly clear. The leader’s concern does not center on technique and transaction. What the leader brings about is transformation, deep change. It’s never business as usual with the leader. Instead, the foundations are shaken.

And so the leader comes across as unconventional, difficult to understand, beyond normal expectations, and outside the rules of self-interest. Where the individual contributor and the manager put their own survival first, the leader’s first objective is realizing the vision, regardless of the sacrifice involved. Fear of failure, being fired, or even assassination is not enough to stop a leader. A leader is driven to do the right thing.

People who are leaders can appear in any organization, at any level. They are, as Quinn puts it, “rare but dramatic.” They take risks for the greater good, and they inspire others to do the same.

So much for Robert E. Quinn and the three roles in organizational life he discusses. Let’s take up the story we heard from Mark’s Gospel.

Jesus and his disciples are traveling through Galilee. Jesus spells out to them what awaits him in the future: he’ll be betrayed into human hands and put to death; then three days later, he will rise again.

What Jesus says has the same effect on each disciple: in one ear and out the other. He might as well have been speaking a language unknown to them for all they understand. They do not get it, and they are afraid to ask.

They arrive in Capernaum, a small waterfront town that serves as a home base for Jesus. There Jesus asks his disciples what they were arguing about as they walked along the road. The disciples fall silent. What they had argued about was who was the greatest. They were preoccupied with who among them was number one at the same time Jesus was telling them that what awaited him was the agony of the cross.

Whether the disciples are individual contributors, or managers, or some of both is not what’s important. Here’s what’s important: like managers and individual contributors, like so many of us here this morning, these disciples have their own survival as their first objective. That Jesus is unconcerned with his own survival and focused entirely on realizing his vision of God’s kingdom puts these disciples — and us — to shame.

Jesus does not write a book or design a chart to make his point about what constitutes real leadership. Instead, he lives his vision to the point of dying for it. And neither he nor that vision can ever stay dead. His commitment bears fruit in his resurrection and ascension. The vision still resides in his heart and is realized through his church.

But before he goes to the cross for this vision, he speaks through a symbol, a metaphor, an image that still haunts the imagination. Jesus steps out to the street and returns holding a toddler, an ordinary child from an ordinary family. He places this little one in the midst of the circle of his disciples.

Now remember that in the ancient world, children were especially powerless. They simply didn’t count. They were the last and the least, the bottom of the pile.

“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” This is what Jesus says before he steps outside to fetch the child, the kid from the streets of Capernaum.

It is as if he says: “So you want to be a leader, you want to be first? Fine. But do it the right way. Don’t worry about your own survival. Die to your old self. Get born again. Start over as a child. That’s where the real leadership is — with those who are transformed and who help to transform others.

“Have a child’s purity, simplicity, fearlessness, trust. Get a vision and pursue it for all you’re worth, like a little child running full tilt for daddy or mommy. Be single-minded as you chase your vision, even as I’m single-minded making my way to my Friday death and Sunday resurrection.”

Very likely, the toddler from Capernaum was climbing all over Jesus, stepping here and there, reaching out for his beard, sticking fingers in Jesus’ mouth. The man could probably barely get out his next words: “Anybody who welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and anybody who welcomes me is really welcoming the one who sent me.”

The child represents the new birth, the fresh start necessary to real leadership and real life. To welcome this in someone honors Christ, honors his Father who makes it all possible. Vision, trust, willingness to risk, these qualities appear in a toddler, in Jesus, in every saint, and in the people Quinn calls “transformational leaders.” It’s the same Spirit at work in all of them.

When we catch that Spirit, or allow that Spirit to catch us, we are set free from fear. Our own survival is not the number-one issue. Instead, the vision is what matters. And so the world can change. It does change, starting with us.

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Christopher Sikkema


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