To Live is to Lead

By Ren Siebenga  |  June 17th

Leaders give leadership, creating meaning and taking responsibility to create what should be out of what is. Meaning in our lives exists in the tension between the reality of what is and the reality of what could, should, or must be. Leaders do this with words, story, using their authority, making decisions, and modeling the way to go, centred around a purpose that creates identity in a group and/or school.

The reality of life has both known and unknown sides to it. The known is the realm of order, security, predictability and standards. The process of life, however, often takes us into the unknown realm that can present promise, revelation, creativity and innovation—in other words, renewal and growth. Both the known and the unknown have their scary parts. The known can become blind, tyrannical, and stagnant. The unknown has chaos, terror and destruction to contend with.

Given all of this, how does a leader work with reality so that it brings meaning? In three ways: as prophet, as priest and as king (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q. 23). Leaders could be called to assume all three offices in the same day; yet more often, they will emphasize one or the other for a period of time in the school’s history.

We know that the kingly office calls for adopting ways of thinking and acting that are known to work. This office is about keeping people in the known territory and bringing order and predictability to the organization. This becomes the standard from which deviation occurs. Often this office is equated with management; however, that is not a true fit. As noted above leaders who remain in the kingly office and fail to move to their other offices can become blind, complacent, and stagnant. 

When we use the word leader, we often think of the office of prophet, because all great leaders need to be explorers. The prophet has to live (at least partly) in the unknown, experiencing and exploring the potential possibilities and terrors of being outside the prevailing culture. The prophet has insights which can provide growth and renewal, and is charismatic, inciting passions and a sense of adventure— qualities we equate with leaders. The prophet believes her own vision absolutely, the depth of belief that often baffles other people. The life of the prophet is not optional, with a narrow way and a path that has destiny. The prophet is often unable to not speak the truth (the vision) as they see it.

The priest on the other hand provides the bridge between the order of the king and the vision of the prophet. The priest stands for honesty, called to tell the story and confront the counter stories, sometimes dangerously but always in ways that are digestible. The priest is primarily an interpreter who understands what is and discerns what should or could be. They help us to see what is a problem versus what is merely a distraction. The priest helps us to adapt to the forces of chaos, and yet retain something of the charisma of the prophet when the prophet is gone.

The cycle of meaning goes from prophet to priest to king: from new revelations to interpretations and renewal to incorporation into the existing ways. We always need the stability and predictability of the king in order to keep the chaos of the unknown away from the organization. When circumstances start to push the unknown toward us, we cry out for the prophet to bring ideas and models for survival and hope. Both prophets and kings need the priest to translate and stabilize the revelations and to be persistent at bringing them into the culture.

However, these offices can go awry.

The king-leaders tend to “know everything” and want to keep their organization away from the dark forest of chaos and the unknown. To them, the prophet appears to be unpredictable, half- crazy and to hold dangerously misguided ideas. Because people tend to listen to the prophet, the King feels threatened and will often use power to eliminate her. This is often the counter story. Kings are afraid to hear it, so they react. (Incidentally counter story is most helpful in institutions as it is needed to sharpen the story).

On the other hand, the prophet leaders can undermine the king by being critical or actively destructive of some aspects of the institutionalize culture, and they can view the orderly leaders as blind. A prophet may use unexpected methods to disrupt stability, in an effort to make their insights come alive. Their approach to change is typically organic and adventurous. They are not careful planners and thus they are a risk. The prophet lives partly outside the culture and experiences chaos, fear and revelation. In general, these experiences are not optional for this type of person. They are passionate about what they see in the dark forest and bring back their visions and insights despite all opposition.

Since the leader priest lives between prophet and king, he is exposed to their tension. Since the priest lives within the existing culture, he could be tempted to offer revelation to the culture at a price. The priest could slip into telling his audience only what they want to hear, making no waves and thus siding with the establishment—acting more like a king. Or the priest could manipulate the information he has and make the it mystical, desired, and only obtainable through the priest—thus pretending to be the prophet. 

When the three leader offices are exercised as they were meant to be:

  • We kings have boundaries and are what we do not do, the roads we do not take, the options we foreclose, the habits we break, the comforts we give up, the security we risk, the fears that we do not allow to constrain us.
  • We prophets enter the dark forest in order to arrive at what we do not know. We must go by a way which is the way of ignorance in order to possess what we do not possess, we must go by the way of dispossession in order to arrive at what we are not; we must go through the way in which we are not.
  • We kings act when action is necessary. We make decisions. We do not endlessly keep our options open or hesitate when to hesitate is to abdicate.

If we expose ourselves to the sources of meaning and if we act on them, we will become a leader. However, if we shield ourselves from the tensions of meaning, or if we do not act on them, we will have great difficulty in providing meaning to others.

There is synergy between the three leader offices. We are drawn to the revelation and charisma of the prophet, we need the stability of the king, and we need the honesty and illumination of the priest.

The prophet is energized by the tensions of separation because she has the courage to go into the unknown and to see her vision. The priest is energized by the tension of story and interprets the world. The king is energized by the tension of alternatives and uses his authority to make decisions. These qualities are essentials of leadership, and more importantly of “living life” responsibly.

So, if we take up our responsibilities, we will undertake the journey and embrace God’s wild vision for our lives and our institutions. If we live as prophets, priests, and kings, we will take up our task. If we hold to the stories that exist between the two worlds, we will see and not be blind. If we close doors, say no, turn away from pathways we are not called to wander in we will find our identity. If we have courage so that we can enter the unknown when it calls to us, we will become what we are not. If we decide and act when decisions and actions are necessary, we will energize others and learn for ourselves. If we do these things for a cause we believe in, we will be a leader. If we hold others in our hearts our lives will bear fruit and we will not be lonely .