Nikki Toyama-Szeto: Bring Your Full Self

There are opportunities for us right now to step into the conversation as a centrist evangelical organization to help different sides talk to each other. What does it mean to be Christians in America in this time and place? ESA is very globally engaged—and American Christians need to reconnect with what is really going on with the global church. It helps us understand our context, our luxuries and privileges. It also helps us understand our responsibilities.

Tell me more about how you see the core responsibilities of a leader.

Thinking through this with an executive coach sparked a bit of a journey for me to consider what is really unique about Christian leaders. I observe that the church went through a season, much of it good, of learning a lot about leadership from the business world. This was the big, booming, pastor-as-executive season. That brought a lot of rigor to a conversation that had been pretty mushy before.

I wonder, though, if the pendulum has overswung that way. There are very real distinctives between what a business or secular leader should be and what a Christian leader uniquely is and should do. One of the core things that a Christian leader does is intercede—for the mission, the church, their people. That was something that was impressed upon me when I was program director at Urbana. The responsibilities were absolutely overwhelming. Someone who was very wise said this to me: “Ninety-five percent of your job, someone else can do. Five percent? Only you can do. You need to aggressively delegate to protect that 5 percent.”

Much of that 5 percent was intercession—in prayer and in protecting the mission, advocating for what was necessary to our call. That is a potent distinctive of Christian leadership. It implies interpreting reality for your people—pointing out what God is doing in our story as it relates to Scripture. We can allow Scripture to do the heavy lifting, but we need to lead in interpretation of what we are experiencing and what faithfulness to Jesus looks like in light of his Word.

What are some common ways Christians talk about leadership that give you pause?

One of the key ones is “servant leadership.” Maybe servant leadership is a really helpful corrective thing for white male leaders. I don’t want to downplay that. And of course, Jesus says that leaders among his followers won’t be like leaders outside the kingdom. His servant language is helpful. My hesitations are less theological and more cultural—how the term interfaces with real life and ministry today. On that front, two things trouble me a bit about the servant leadership idea: first, what the leader is doing, and second, their internal view of where they are coming from.

Regarding what they are doing: Servant leadership implies that much of the action remains the leader’s role. While leaders ought to be very active, a Jesuslike leader doesn’t do everything. They empower. They give their leadership and authority away.

Second, I wonder about the self-image of many servant leaders. It’s easy, especially for white males, to focus on how much they are giving up or sacrificing in order to lead as a servant instead of a tyrant. For any of us, that kind of thinking can easily morph into a self-understanding that we are martyrs to our mission, not in an honest and connected way, but in a self-focused or even self-deceptive way. We see ourselves as giving up much that wasn’t ours to keep in the first place, and patting ourselves on the back for doing so. The image can indirectly assume and affirm a whole hierarchy of privilege that doesn’t belong in Christian leadership. It can’t really criticize itself. It can’t question the status quo. It’s stuck. As a result, it squelches innovation, creativity and empowering of others.

What other common leadership ideas would you encourage us to evaluate?

Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, talks about a Level 5 Leader. He looked at organizations in different sectors then at a comparable organization in the same sector and time, using metrics like profit and growth to track success. He was asking what sets truly great leadership apart from good leadership, of course. The “a-ha” that came for me out of that research was this: The kinds of people that we usually consider to be great leaders—the bold, brash, charismatic, powerful presences that command a room and articulate people toward a vision, the exaggerated leaders that we are drawn to—aren’t really great leaders.

The numbers say that truly great leaders have a totally different set of qualities. They tend to be modest and humble. They work behind the scenes. In fact, after “great,” charismatic leaders leave, organizations tend to crash. Truly great leadership is different than the surface might indicate. The fruit of it often happens when a leader isn’t there. It might manifest when you’re gone.

If much of what you do gets undone when you leave, that just tells me that people were scared of you. It doesn’t mean you’re a good leader, and certainly not a great one. You didn’t have the power you appeared to have. Truly great leaders anchor things in a culture and an ethos. People get it. They can carry it on when you’re not there.

So some of the questions that I ask myself as an executive are, “How do people experience my presence? How do people feel when I’m not there?” If they’re relieved, that’s a terrible sign. If they act a certain way when I happen to be there, then what’s happening might not be about leadership at all, but control, intimidation and fear.

Really great leadership is anchored. Deeply. Sometimes the fruit of that is manifest after the leader is gone.

Don’t miss part 2 of the interview with Nikki Toyama-Szeto, in which she talks about authenticity in leadership, developing younger leaders, the leadership gender gap in the church, and more.

Paul J. Pastor is editor-a-large for Outreach magazine, and author of The Listening Day: Meditations on the Way (Zeal Books). He lives in Oregon. For more: