Nikki Toyama-Szeto: Authenticity Creates Credibility

Don’t miss part 1 of the interview with Nikki Toyama-Szeto, in which she talks about her transition from engineering to the nonprofit sphere, common misconceptions Christians have about leadership, and the core responsibilities of a leader.

How does the Christian story ground your thoughts about leadership?

I think about Jesus here. If Jesus had come today, he could have reached far more people than he did. Through the advances in communication, social media and global reach, he could have spread his message so much farther. Just think of a simple thing, like a microphone—how much power and intimacy it can provide for a speaker. But he chose to come at a certain time and a certain place.

It would be easy to feel as if that wasn’t the most strategic time or place. And that checks my temptation to feel as if my leadership is about maximizing. It’s not. My leadership is about being truly and courageously faithful to a specific invitation.

If Jesus was about maximizing and growth, he chose his methods and people poorly, even for his time. Just look at those scrappy disciples. Half of them hated each other. That is not strategic team-building, in any kind of traditional leadership sense. But Jesus’ story and mission was for a totally different set of goals than we typically have for our organizations. He constantly modeled stepping aside from expectations. Jesus did not consume people or burn them out to accomplish his ministry.

Sometimes, if people have a strong maximizing orientation, or an “infinite growth” orientation, it can be easy to scare, bully or intimidate people—usually accidentally. Why? Because the true invitation—faithfulness—is being lost. Do we have categories for this kind of leadership? If we don’t, we need to ponder the example of Jesus a bit more.

The questions I ask try to be in line with the values I see in the ministry of Christ. What is someone’s experience when they are in my presence? How can I pay attention to people’s transformation and not just work for their compliance?

I hear links between authenticity as a leader and authority here. Unpack that for us.

The best leadership comes from bringing your full self. Authenticity establishes credibility for authority. The model that I don’t like is accomplishment leadership, a triumphant conquer-the-hill leadership. I don’t see that in the ministry of Jesus. The idea of bringing your whole self is much healthier. David is a great example of this. He is a biblical figure who made truly terrible choices, but his inner orientation always drew him back. He was a man after God’s own heart.

Our addictions to perfectionism or image come out of a framework that is accomplishment- and achievement-oriented. We need to understand how those often undermine being people after God’s own heart.

Leadership transforms the leader. It can even serve the transformation of a community. But much of that comes from a leader modeling being their full self. That includes vulnerabilities. Being vulnerable doesn’t mean manipulating or crying on shoulders to use others’ sympathies for our ends. It means authentically believing that as much comes from our questions as our answers.

Right now, I am both a mother and a leader. Lots of people see those roles as a liability to each other. But I want my organizational leadership to be better because I am a mother, and my motherhood to be better because I am a leader. It’s healthy to ponder all our roles in life through this lens and offer them to be reclaimed as an asset for leadership. If we don’t do this, it’s all too easy for our leadership to get out of balance. You’ll know this when you begin sacrificing other important things in your life to “win” at leadership. If that happens, our leadership becomes idolatry instead of transforming us to be more like Jesus.

Tell us more about moving into that “full self” space.

If someone feels like a fraud—teaching something that they aren’t sure that they believe—they need to hear a very simple message: We do not need to pass along the things we do not have. Instead, leading from your full self starts with asking what you have. Do you have questions? Lead from those questions. Do you have a struggle? Maybe that’s the gift that God has given you for your community. Steward it authentically and well. Don’t cover the gift over. Steward it in faithfulness. In our leadership, God can redeem the things that you feel you have to hide and cover up. What if those things were God’s best gift for your community, and God chose you to be the best steward of them?

Today’s leadership world is pretty toxic. Social media and our curated lives set up standards that fight going deep into this quest for fullness. We each need to seek what unique thing we have been given. There is something in each of us that uniquely brings God joy.

God could have chosen anyone in the world to lead your community, and he chose you. Why is that?

As a leader, how do know if your presence is blessing people?

Unspoken cues are important. For instance: What happens when I walk into a room? Where do people’s eyes go? What is the first thing they do? Later, when I leave, do I suspect there’s going to be a sigh of relief when the door closes after me?

But I also know because I ask. I ask clear, intentional questions of my staff. Language like: “Hey, I’m committed to creating a space you can flourish in. Are there things I’m doing that feel oppressive to you?” I try to be aware of things about myself—like how I externally process ideas—that are not bad in themselves but stress others out. I seek to understand others, and then prompt them to communicate in ways that feel like “home” for their personality.

I love studying different cultures and personalities. It is absolutely essential for a leader to be able to understand where their people are coming from. For example, if you ask an Asian person, “Are you fine?” they’ll nearly always say, “Yes,” because we’re a communal, face-saving culture. But if you rephrase the question a bit: “It seems like this is hard for you right now. Can I help?” they’ll also say, “Yes,” and you will have gotten to a first step for their real flourishing.

Paul J. Pastor
Paul J. Pastor

Paul J. Pastor is editor-at-large of Outreach and author of several books, including The Face of the Deep, The Listening Day, Palau: A Life on Fire (with Luis Palau) and Bower Lodge: Poems. He lives in Oregon.