Talking to Yourself?

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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My client had a delicate dilemma.

A wealthy and generous man, my client had long supported a charity run by a charismatic leader, his friend "Jonathan." But my client had lost confidence in the charity. Rumors were circulating about service cutbacks, dismissed employees, and unpaid bills. Because of their friendship, my client was reluctant to confront Jonathan directly.

"Could you make some discreet inquiries without revealing who wants to know?" he asked me. A few phone calls later, the truth began to emerge.

Undeniably, Jonathan was enormously gifted. Creative and inspiring, he not only developed bold ideas, but also persuaded people to follow him despite sacrifice and adversity. Even former employees spoke of him kindly, although in voices tinged with regret.

Consumed by his outsized visions, Jonathan had no capacity for administrative detail. He hired staff to help him at the charity, but then refused to give them any genuine control or authority. His dedicated and capable employees eventually grew discouraged and drifted away to other jobs.

Jonathan frantically borrowed money for the charity from supporters, but then cajoled his friends into treating the loans as gifts instead. Services to the community dwindled as his supporters' concerns grew. Eventually the money dried up.

Jonathan never enriched himself, but he sent the charity on a downward spiral from which it never recovered. My client went forth sadder and wiser. The charity limped along for a few more years and then closed. Jonathan moved away.

In retrospect, Jonathan the revered leader was no leader at all, for he lacked the most important characteristic of genuine leadership: Humility.

The writer Richard Foster defines humility as living "as close to the truth as possible: the truth about ourselves, the truth about others, the truth about the world in which we live." It has nothing to do with timidity or self-deprecation.

Accepting the truth about ourselves includes both recognizing our own gifts and fully accepting—without regret or insecurity—our own limitations. A visionary thinker like Jonathan, for example, is unlikely to be a great executive. Saying so neither insults the visionary nor exalts the executive; it is simply a matter of accepting the "truth about the world in which we live" and the way God made each of us.

Far from being a negative experience, recognizing our limits frees us from maintaining the façade of doing everything well. Instead, we can revel in the joy and energy generated by using our gifts to their fullest. Then, we can give that same freedom, joy, and energy to those with whom we work.

Failing to appreciate other people's gifts, ultimately, is both selfish and isolating. People with gifts will not find their full and complementary voices if the leader never stops talking. A leader who can't keep quiet, like Jonathan couldn't, will end up talking to himself.