Leadership Lessons from Isaiah
Rev. Elder Dr. Mona West
“He shall sense the truth by his reverence for the Lord:
He shall not judge by what his eyes behold,
nor decide by what his ears perceive.”
Jewish Publication Society, TANAK Translation
The passages read from Isaiah during the season of Advent articulate a longing and a promise of an ideal leader who will bring peace to warring nations, justice to the poor and needy, and righteousness to all creation. The longing still exists today for leaders who are authentic and have integrity — leaders who are motivated by the common good rather than manipulated by money and power.
The images of the Jesse Tree and the Lion lying down with the Lamb from Isaiah 11:1-10 have captured our imaginations and made their way to greeting cards because they symbolize this kind of leadership. These verses in Isaiah point to three key characteristics of transformational leadership that I believe MCC is being called to manifest in the world today: rootedness, giftedness and innerness.
“But a shoot shall grow out of the stump of Jesse.” (Isa. 11:1) Transformational leaders are rooted in a history. David was the youngest and least likely of Jesse’s sons to become the leader of all Israel, but God’s choice of him disrupted the tradition, which claimed the oldest son had more privilege. The ideal leader for whom the whole world had been longing would come from that ‘stump.’ As far as denominations go, MCC might be seen as the youngest and least likely to make a difference in the changing landscape of Christianity these days, but the roots of our 45-year history run deep with many firsts: marriage equality, World AIDS Day, queering the Bible, and the ordination of LGBT people. God is calling us to stay rooted in that disruptive history while finding ways to offer our courage, steadfastness and experience to a world hungry for true encounters with the Divine that go beyond organized religion.
“The spirit of the Lord shall alight upon him.” (Isa. 11:2) Transformational leaders lead from their giftedness. Isaiah’s ideal leader had seven gifts: the spirit, wisdom, insight, counsel, valor, devotion and reverence to God. During the time of empire, when this passage was written, physical prowess, military brilliance, wealth, and the size of your army would have been considered ‘gifts’ of leadership. Isaiah’s vision focused on the inward qualities needed by a leader who would issue in a new age of justice and peace. So often leadership is measured by external demands that cause us to lose sight of the ‘birthright gifts’ each of us possess. The pressures of living up to other people’s expectations, the dysfunction of our institutions, and our fears of rejection lead us over a lifetime further and further away from our birthright gifts — the gift of our true self, which is the only gift we can offer in our leadership. One way to rediscover our birthright gifts is to go back to memories of our childhood when we lived closer to those gifts. I wonder what memories from our early years would point to some birthright gifts we need to rediscover in MCC?
“He shall sense the truth by his reverence for the Lord: He shall not judge by what his eyes behold, nor decide by what his ears perceive.” (Isa. 11:3) Transformational leaders lead from within. The Messiah that Isaiah anticipates will ‘sense truth’ based on a relationship with God. This inner truth is the clarity Bob Johansen speaks about in his book, Leaders Make the Future. He claims that the best leaders are seers, sensors and listeners, and that their clarity comes from inner strength and discipline. It is important for individual leaders to do the inner work necessary to know one’s strengths and limitations, shadow and light. As a community, we in MCC can offer places of safety and support for individuals to do that kind of work. We can also engage in this kind of inner work as a denomination, understanding more deeply our strengths and limitations, shadow and light, so that we might “sense the truth” that is beyond what our eyes can behold or our ears perceive.
May the leadership lessons of Isaiah guide us in this season of Advent as we engage in transforming ourselves as we transform the world.
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