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Leadership and Listening by Jill Ver Steeg

Leadership begins with listening.  This might come as a surprise to many since “leadership” is usually envisioned as the would-be leader talking a lot, casting a vision, summoning people to “Follow me!”   But leadership begins and ends with good listening. The center of a leader’s job is to make sense of the human condition and observing that condition.  Listening to those who have stories to tell is what makes that possible.

One hundred years ago, we would have read Shakespeare to understand the human condition.  Shakespeare helped us understand people’s stories. Today, Pixar is doing an extraordinary job of making sense of the human condition because it always has such a human story to tell in its films.  The human condition is, quite actually, the toggle between longing and loss. Take 11-year-old Riley in the Pixar film Inside Out, negotiating a move from Minnesota to San Francisco, or 78-year-old Carl Fredrickson in Up, a widower who ties balloons to his home to fulfill his lifelong dream to visit South America, or Merida in Brave, the skilled archer who wants to differentiate herself from age-old tradition that squelches her impetuous spirit.  The Psalms give vocabulary to human longing and loss. Rise up, O Lord!  Deliver me, O my God!  O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

Leaders listen.  They listen well.  They listen long enough to help others make sense of longing and loss.  The longing may come in the form of aspirations. Ask yourself this question: What do the people in my care hope for?  What drives them? People aspire to make a difference, to be deeply loved, to be significant in some way. What are the losses that people talk about?  Of what are they afraid? The loss of the way things used to be, the loss of money, the death of a loved one, the betrayal of a friend? And where is God in both the longing and the loss?

A leader’s job is to listen long enough to give people categories to help them make spiritual sense of their world.  And then sending those people out into the world to live with those categories.

In Exodus 3, God speaks through God’s servant Moses.  Moses tells the Israelites that God has heard their cries.  That is news to them. They had been living for a very long time with the assumption that God had abandoned them.  The very essence that God has heard their cries not only changed their mental model of God, but it changed their actions in the world.  Moses is re-framing things for the Israelites. What matters most in this moment is not that they are slaves in Egypt but that God has heard their cries.  This is what matters most in this moment.

Mental models are a set of assumptions and beliefs about the world, how it works, and how things in the world are in relationship to one another.  Mental models are powerful as they help us function in the world. What do the people in your care do with their Tuesday afternoons and Friday mornings?  What keeps your people up at night? What do you hear from your corner table at Starbucks?

Leaders give people the tools they need to make sense of their Tuesday afternoons and Friday mornings.

Leaders inspire hope and incite change by making meaning, giving people language and story for the questions that arise.  By helping to shape new mental models for people, leaders help others live into a new way of being, providing new categories for the challenges they face.

This is not an easy task.  Dr. Scott Cormode of Fuller Theological Seminary offers excellent insight in this conversation.  Says Cormode, “Changing a mental model is powerful for exactly the reason it is hard.” We see this played out in Mark 8.  In this passage Jesus gives the disciples new categories to help them answer his question, “Who do people say that I am?” As the mother of James and John learns, a new mental model for a “messiah” created a new mental model for what it meant to be the “disciple” of a Messiah.

What is your mental model of church?  Having been raised in one, you might think of a  traditional church: a sanctuary with pews and hymn books.   The current cultural moment in which we live demands that we adapt our mental models of church to re-imagine and re-tool how the gospel is extended.  Maybe church happens in a boxing gym, a hotel lobby, a living room? An order of worship displayed on a white board and people move from the Lord’s Table to another table to share a crock of soup and bread?

Changing mental models is a process.  Listening requires disciplined attention.  Helping people to change the way they see the world in order to change how they act in the world takes time.  The good news for leaders is that God calls leaders to plant and water and God will cause the increase.

Good news, indeed.

Jill Ver Steeg

Jill Ver Steeg is a minister in the Reformed Church in America, currently serving as the Chief Ministry Officer for the RCA. In this role, Jill leads the ministry staff who steward "Transformed and Transforming," the RCA's 15-year goal. She is curious about adaptive leadership in the workplace and ministry innovation and collaboration. Jill lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan with her husband Shane and their four sons.


  • Fred Mueller says:

    Okay, new models. Maybe. But a boxing ring? If I am not mistaken, a boxing ring is where two people try their hardest to knock out the opponent. Jesus said turn the other cheek. Disciples would make poor pugilists. Maybe I am not listening enough?

    • George E says:

      Fred, you make a good point (but I’d say you listened very well, and did not un-hear the reference to boxing). I would like to submit a personal story. Way back in the day, I took a college PE class in boxing. One of the class was a Black Panther-type student activist. Through boxing each other, we created a camaraderie that I suspect would not have happened elsewhere.

  • George E says:

    This essay may be helpful in understanding Trump’s supporters. Along with the rudeness and braggadocio, Trump resonates with a large number of Americans because he’s listened. And not just to the masses. During the selection process for a new Justice, Trump asked, according to news reports, a couple hundred people what they thought of this candidate or another. Contrast that with the previous incumbent, who always believed himself to be the smartest guy in the room, and listened to practically no one. Many Americans appreciate a president who listens.

  • Marcia Carter says:

    The boxing ring is part of a new mental model for my husband (and, of course, for me through him). He was recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and is participating in Rock Steady Boxing. The physical, aerobic activities of this program are proved essential in slowing the progress of this disease. The fellowship with fellow Parkinson’s patients and their caregivers is the added bonus. Patients and caregivers alike listen to each other and provide emotional, physical, and moral support for each other. It’s the same feeling we have about our church family. This world would be a lonely place without them!

    • George E says:

      I’m glad your husband has Rock Steady available, and that he’s able/willing to participate.

      There is irony in this, that your husband is helped with his Parkinson’s by boxing while Muhammed Ali’s Parkinson’s is attributed to boxing.

  • James Schaap says:

    I saw Up with my grandkids and thought it an absolute delight, but I can’t help hoping that Prince Hamlet still gets a hearing somewhere.

  • Fred Mueller says:

    Anyone who knows me knows I can be dense. Thanks George and Marcia for new insights. I may be dense, but I pray my ears are unstopped. I applaud the good that has come out of the boxing ring, but I am still suspicious. . .

  • Marge Vander Wagen says:

    Your words encouraged me. I have a new congregation to lead and am listening carefully to find out who they are and where they want to go. Although this is a long process and I am moving slowly, this gives God time to fill my mind with acceptable goals for us. Thank you for examples of movies that clips could possibly be shown without offending the most conservative members.

  • Darryl DeRuiter says:

    Really good stuff here. Leadership is not the “rocket science” that so many make it out to be. It’s common sense factors like listening and serving and doing. It’s the hard stuff in the doing that separates good leaders and great leaders. Good listeners don’t make great leaders but you can’t be a great leader unless you are a good listener. Make sense? Thanks Jill.

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