January 2004
Uncertain Times

Leaders Bear the Burdens

In May 2002 I packed my bags in Manhattan for the West Coast in order to lead a retreat for clergy of the Diocese of Northern California. The theme for the weekend was 9-11, and the tumultuous but life-changing eight months since that stunning day for many, like myself, whose lives had been connected to Ground Zero and Trinity Church’s St. Paul’s Chapel. 

In New York the trees in St. Paul’s churchyard were beginning to show signs of new life, but the scars of trauma were not proving so quickly or easily healed. The topic of suffering was certainly top of mind. 

Andre Delbecq, an expert on the spirituality of leadership, and former dean of the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University had been chosen to respond to our presentations. And what he honed in on was the topic of suffering, and the vital need for an understanding of suffering by those who lead.

According to Delbecq, this is the role of the leader: not to deal with the solvable problems, but with the knotty complex ones that are not immediately or easily resolvable. Paradoxically, leaders are called to be the bearers of burdens: of bad news, of brokenness, our powerlessness, and the toxic aspects of life in community — just to name a few. Leadership is by its very nature self-sacrificing. It is impossible to be a leader, a true leader, without experiencing many types of sacrificial suffering in service to the organization and the people one is leading.

Strangely, however, Delbecq points out, we live with a widely accepted fallacy in our culture that says when one has “arrived” as a leader, suffering ceases, and instead one will enter into an era of life full of success and triumph. This myth does us a great disservice, not least to the leader him or herself.

An opportunity for spiritual growth
This kind of suffering — the mysterious suffering that comes upon us — provides a great opportunity for spiritual growth. The challenge is to become present and open to the suffering within oneself, in order to draw closer to the suffering of others. That means embracing a “thin place” where the mysterious power of our vulnerability is unlocked. 

As is witnessed in the life stories of great leaders, situations of pain are often the ones where people begin their journeys to develop profound integrity and even heroism. These can be times of emergent creativity, for acknowledged pain can be a great incentive to reach for creative humanitarian responses we never would have been inspired to bring to birth otherwise.

Pain forges strength
Joan Chittister, author of Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope, has traversed similar ground as Delbecq. Both advise us similarly on the subject of suffering, in order that we might come to know how pain potentially forges great human strengths and capacities much needed in this world. The challenge is to become present and open to the suffering within oneself, in order to draw closer to the suffering of others. 

I have come to treasure the following steps which she suggests. All proved life-giving in the context of St. Paul’s as we attempted to adapt gracefully and wisely, and would prove valuable for leaders living through other types of unpredictable or uncontrollable congregational change as well.

Acknowledge the reality of the suffering rather than displacing it through neurosis, scapegoating, withdrawal or projection. 

Accept that sometimes change we are powerless to control is visited upon us, and seek the gifts born of that vulnerable reality: gentleness, a kinder tongue, a broader vision of the human condition, compassion. 

Try to see that change is calling us to conversion; be open to surprise, to pain, to hurt, to difference, in order that we may become new again and again.

Gather. Resist the forces of isolation which accompany pain, knowing that suffering is the place we are all likely to feel least known, least seen, most alone. 

Let go. Before suffering we normally live with the illusion we are in control. When our desired outcomes are thwarted, we have an opportunity to learn detachment — openness to the many manifestations of God’s will in our lives, not just the ones we’ve desired. 

Meditate on God’s faithfulness in the depths of the heart — a place where God’s presence can never be extinguished. 

Insist on being present to your own fear. Fear denied is the enemy of the creative solutions and innovations that can bring a better world out of tragedy. 

Let fear catalyze courage: what you do to embrace and enact change regardless of criticism when your heart is ready.

Courtney Cowart, the former grants officer for spirituality and development at Trinity, Wall Street, assisted in the ministry of St. Paul’s Chapel following the events of September 11. An adjunct professor for the Center for Christian Spirituality at General Seminary in New York, she is writing a spiritual history of the Civil War for Alfred A. Knopf
This article is part of the January 2004 Vestry Papers issue on Uncertain Times