Why Stress Makes a Leader

Excerpted From
Tempered Resilience
By Tod Bolsinger

“That hammer is heavy,” the blacksmith class instructor said.

For Beth and me standing in front of the anvil with a pair of tongs and molten steel, the weight of the hammer and what we were going to be doing for the next couple of hours felt significant. We were enthusiastic and ready to jump in, swinging away. But our instructor warned us that a lot of wasted effort goes into something when we try to force something. In reality, the process and tools do much of the work. Besides, he said, we could pull a muscle or tire out our arms by thinking we had to add a lot of muscle to this process of heating, holding and hammering.

The malleable, heated steel on the anvil was now ready for the hammer. One swing at a time slowly, repeatedly, over time, in a process that requires constant reheating and replacing, the steel is shaped into a tool for the task.

“Just remember,” the instructor said, “you are going to be swinging that hammer over and over again. You don’t have to swing it hard, just let it fall and let the hammer do the work.”

Let the hammer do the work.

Blacksmiths may be the only ancient artisans who used their crafts to make their tools and then used their tools to ply their craft. The very act of making tools is what helped them hone their craft and turned them into the smith to whom others would come to have their tools made. Leaders may be those same artisans today. One of my friends who is both the pastor of a church and marriage and family therapist likes to say that in anything relating to the care or leadership of humans, “You are your only tool.”

As we consider what it takes for a leader to develop the tempered resilience that will withstand both a failure of nerve and a failure of heart, we will see how stress makes a leader when that stress is focused on a particular formational purpose. In other words, what gets hammered into a leader becomes the very attributes they will use to hew hope from despair.


When the oft-quoted “10,000 hours” is cited as the path to mastery, what most forget is that it is ten thousand hours of deliberate practice. It is ten thousand hours of hard work under the tutelage of an expert, focusing on the mistakes that need to be overcome, the undoing of bad habits, and the development of new skills. The key is that we sometimes have to sacrifice some of the enjoyment of the task to get better at the task. The strain to master a new task, the awkwardness of repetitively doing something that we are not already good at is hard, it is stressful.

It hammers away at us.

What is also often overlooked is that practice is something that we do, not something that we think about or even pray about. Deliberate practice is a kind of stress that we take on in our body so we can develop the poise to bring the strength and capacity formed by that strength to bear in a particular circumstance. As one of my mentors taught me, “At the moment of crisis you do not rise to the occasion, you default to your training.”

All practices are embodied; that is, they are more than a mental activity or attitude, but over time for a Christian they increase the capacity of a Christian to act more like Christ. While learning requires reflection, practice must be enacted in order to be learned. Even spiritual disciplines, as Dallas Willard points out, are dependent on what we do with our bodies.

Both what I am calling spiritual practices (which shape our capacities to be a resilient Christian leader) and leadership skills (which leaders take on for the goal of forming and leading their communities to be more resilient toward change) are similar in this way. While we remain committed to reflection and relationship, if we want to grow as resilient leaders, we need to retrain our brains (which are part of our bodies!) through what we do with our hands, ears, eyes and mouths. In the words of Dallas Willard, “A discipline is any activity within our power that we engage in to enable us to do what we cannot do by direct effort.”

To return to our blacksmith analogy, the hammers for shaping the raw material of a leader have practical but indirect purposes: Stress adds strength. Hammering shapes the steel into the chisel that can face the stone. In the same way, spiritual practices for a leader are not about being better at the practice itself but creating the strength and character that has the resilience to resist a failure of nerve and overcome a failure of heart to “hew out of a mountain of despair stones of hope.”

Practices, then, are not about learning intellectual concepts but developing bodily capacity. Practices create a kind of spiritual muscle memory, training us to respond to a crisis and resistance like it is second nature. There is a huge difference between reading a book on the value of listening to a person and letting a conversation change your mind or give you empathy. There is a chasm of difference between hearing a sermon on forgiveness and being one of the parents forgiving the man who killed five schoolgirls in an Amish community or the members the Emmanuel AME Church who forgave a white supremacist who shot their pastor and a group of congregants while in prayer for no other reason than because they were Black. Yes, we are shaped by our life experiences, our relationships, our beliefs, but so much of what creates the capacity to do repetitively the hard acts of leadership is shaped by previous actions that we have practiced numerous times.

For different communities and their specific missions, the rules will be different. And the vows and their attendant practices will therefore be different. For example, Benedictines have a vow of stability that calls them to stay within their particular community for life, but Jesuits have a commitment to mobility that would enable them to respond to the call of God and go—even on very short notice—wherever they needed to go to for the “greater glory of God.”

For Martin Luther King Jr. the demands of a nonviolent public protest movement for racial equality and reconciliation led to the development of a commitment or rule of life that was very specific for furthering those ends. Every volunteer was required to sign a commitment card that included meditating on the teachings and life of Jesus, praying daily “to be used by God in order that all men might be free,” refraining from “violence of fist, tongue or hear”, and striving “to be in good spiritual and bodily health.”

A rule, therefore, is adapted to the mission of the group or the individual disciple. In our case the capacity to lead change in the face of resistance requires a set of practices that a leader would take on. In other words, most rules are for a way of living as a Christian, but I am suggesting a rule for a way of leading and even more specifically for answering the question, what practices of a rule of life form leadership resilience for facing resistance?

The resilience to stay in the adaptive process with one’s people when they begin to become restless is to either return to Egypt or to make a golden calf requires a kind of strength of will that is not mustered at the moment but must be hammered into the character of a leader.

In the same way that a chisel is not a sledgehammer and that hewing stones is not the same thing as smashing rocks to bits, the resilient leader has a kind of focused, sharpened strength of character that shows up as being grounded, teachable, attuned, adaptable and tenacious. Like the smith’s hammering that shapes the steel, the deliberate practices are the heavy hammer that shapes the spirit and capacity of a leader to put those qualities into action when the time comes.

Excerpted from Tempered Resilience by Tod Bolsinger. Copyright (c) 2020 by Tod Bolsinger. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. IVPress.com

Tod Bolsinger
Tod Bolsingerhttps://bolsinger.blogs.com/

Tod Bolsinger is a speaker, executive coach, former pastor and author who serves as associate professor of leadership formation and senior fellow for the De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Seminary. He is the author of Canoeing the Mountains and the forthcoming title Tempered Resilience (both IVP).