Building better leaders: Hold Your Expectations Loosely

Building Better Leaders is a three-part series of articles from Dr. Andrew Johnston, in which he shares strategic principles of effective leadership based on Biblical principles. In this final article, Dr. Johnston gives Christian leaders valuable thoughts on responding to God’s nudging during our own “well-laid plans.”

The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.—Proverbs 16:9 (ESV)

The most successful leaders I know are good planners. They often have good “radar”– a knack for anticipating the future and positioning themselves to meet challenges or make the most of the opportunities before they arise. This ability alone does not make them good planners. It’s the discipline to hold on to their predictions loosely as they advance that’s the real secret of their success.

They use their “radar” to anticipate the future, but they maintain only fragile confidence that what they anticipate will occur. These leaders stay vigilant for things to change as they move forward and keep their eyes open and their radar running even as they put their plans in motion. This posture enables them to move assertively toward their goals but flexes appropriately to take advantage of unexpected opportunities or address emergent needs. As I’ve thought more about this, I’ve realized this kind of vigilant posture is especially important for Christian leaders because it allows us to recognize and respond to God’s nudging during our own “well-laid plans.”

When we are committed to a mission, it’s easy to take aim and march determinedly towards our goals with little regard for things that aren’t on our pre-determined course. This feels purposeful and determined, like we’re avoiding the pitfalls that threaten to distract us from our purpose. Sometimes this kind of hard focus is what keeps us on track, it can also be the thing that keeps us from hearing God’s voice or preferring His priorities while we myopically pursue our own. In my own experiences, I’ve learned that if I truly want God to “direct my steps,” I need to be vigilant and willing for him to nudge me off the course I’ve predetermined. If I’m not actively anticipating His “divine detours,” I mistake them for distractions or wrong turns, and I resist His priorities in the pursuit of my progress.

I’ve learned that if I truly want God to “direct my steps,” I need to be vigilant and willing for him to nudge me off the course I’ve predetermined.

I’m not suggesting it’s wrong to set goals or to pursue them diligently. I’m clarifying that for Christ-followers, the ultimate goal is serving Him and His purposes. In pursuing that ultimate goal, it’s essential to recognize divine course corrections when they present themselves. This is where the priest and the Levite went wrong in Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10). They had laudable goals, and they were hurrying toward them, but they failed to set them aside when the Lord presented a task that wasn’t already on their to-do-lists. With their eyes fixed on their goals, they viewed the injured traveler as an interruption that would sidetrack them from their mission, so they stepped over him to continue on their path. Jesus’ story reveals that caring for the injured man was the mission, and they missed it when they failed to diverge from their plan.

That’s the nettling thing about the things God would have us do and the people he would have us serve– they’re often off the plan and pop up in unexpected ways we can easily miss if we’re too focused on the goals we’ve already set. I think this is part of what Jesus was warning the disciples about when He told them the opportunities to serve Him were often off-script, unimpressive, and inconvenient. He told them that serving one of these easily-dismissed people in one of these inauspicious moments was the same as serving Him, and I’m sure it changed their idea of goal-setting forever. After all, if this was true, it means that the God of Creation and Master of All has a penchant for presenting Himself to His followers in unimpressive ways, in moments that seem like anything other than encounters with the divine – like an injured traveler in the ditch, or, a newborn baby in a manger. God’s purposes and plans have little regard for our own, and being serious about following Him requires us to loosen our grip on our goals.

That’s a transformative realization, and I’m sure it was as challenging for the disciples to model in the first century as it is for us in the twenty-first. They were fired up from Pentecost and focused on the mission to take the Gospel to the uttermost parts of the earth (Acts 2, Matthew 28:16-20). With that kind of focus and devotion, they must’ve been ready to charge down the path with their eyes on the prize. It must’ve been challenging to chart a firm course and then stay poised to step off it when the Spirit moved, but that’s a good model of planning for a Christian leader. As leaders of people and programs, we need to use our radar and chart a course for success; but as followers of Christ, we should hold our plans loosely and watch for his intervention and redirection en route.

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