Grace Cathedral

Grace Cathedral

Article | April 21, 2024

Sermon: Harvard Leadership Class w/Jesus

Blog|The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm Clemens Young

Watch the sermon on YouTube.

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want” (Psalm 23).

When I was at Harvard, on the advice of a friend who is a nun, I decided to take a leadership course at the Kennedy School of Government. My fellow classmates came from twenty-six countries and included CEO’s, a judge, a District Attorney, an army general, a state senator, the founder of an investment bank, the co-founder of a Political Action Committee, an ambassador, a university dean, the head administrator for airports in Israel, etc.

Our teacher Ronald Heifetz changed who I am. He spoke with uncanny and absolutely non-defensive frankness. He had an MD, practiced as a surgeon, and had previously taught at Harvard Medical School. He was a cello virtuoso who had studied under Gregor Piatagorsky and music was central to his understanding of leadership.1

This week I read all my class notes – everything from doodles that spelled my wife’s Hawaiian name in Greek letters to quotes with three stars in the margin (such as, “in disagreements the first value we lose sight of is the ability to be curious”).2 The syllabus says directly that the course’s goal is, “to increase one’s capacity to sustain the demands of leadership.” It was perfect preparation for the rest of my life.

On the first day Heifetz said, “if you are going through a difficult time I strongly urge you not to take this course.” He was right. This was not an ordinary lecture class but a seemingly entirely improvised discussion. Heifetz would start by saying something like, “What do we want to address today?” It felt strangely dangerous. Nothing was going to come easy or be handed to us on a silver platter. We talked about the feeling in class and agreed it was tense.

At one point in the early lectures Heifetz just stopped being an authority figure for a while. In the resulting chaos we learned how much we all crave authority and guiding norms. It felt more like a Werner Erhard seminar than a Harvard lecture.

Heifetz might not always say it directly but he regards leadership above all as a spiritual practice. The motivations for good leadership are spiritual. The character and the skills that we need to develop for leadership are spiritual. To be effective we have to recognize forces that were previously invisible to us and experience the world with intuition and based on a real understanding of ourselves. Leadership success requires curiosity, compassion, wisdom, honesty, courage, humility, self-knowledge and the right balance between detachment and passion.

Today is Good Shepherd Sunday. In the Fourth Gospel Jesus faces accusers who seek to kill him. He uses the metaphor of a leader as a good shepherd. This idea was already ancient in his time and mentioned in the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Psalms. You might be thinking, “No one listens to me since I retired,” or, “I’m at the lowest level in my company, or I’m just a kid, what could leadership possibly have to do with me?”

Heifetz makes a central distinction between authority and leadership. Authority comes from one’s institutional standing and involves managing people’s expectations.3 Jesus was not the Roman governor or the high priest. He did not have this authority.

Leadership on the other hand means mobilizing resources to make progress on difficult problems.4 In many instances people exercise more powerful leadership without having formal authority than with it. Jesus did. And make no mistake Jesus expects each of us to act as leaders regardless of our formal or informal authority. We exist to glorify God and to help solve the problems we encounter. For homework I invite you this week to consciously exercise leadership that is inspired by Jesus.

1. Adaptive Challenges. This morning I am going to do the opposite of what my teacher did, I am going to speak directly and briefly about three of his observations concerning leadership.5 One of Heifetz’s primary ideas concerns the difference between a technical problem and an adaptive challenge. A technical problem is one that we already know how to respond to; best practices, if you will, already exist. It may be simple like setting a broken bone or incredibly complicated like putting a person on the moon, but an expert, a mechanic, surgeon or rocket scientist, already knows how to handle it.6

An adaptive challenge is different. No adequate response has been developed for it. I have in mind our terrible problem of people without housing, racial prejudice, addiction, education, misinformation, poverty, war, white Christian nationalism, election denial, despair, isolation, etc. It is tempting to treat an adaptive challenge as if it were a technical problem, to look to an authority to solve that problem for us. But problems like this require cooperation among groups of people who are seeking solutions, not pretending to already know all the answers.

What was Jesus’ adaptive challenge? His disciples thought it was overthrowing the Roman Empire or enthroning a king who shared their identity. But this was not it. Instead Jesus was what the theologian Paul Tillich calls “the New Being.” Jesus inaugurated a new way of being human which he called “the realm of God” in which all people would be healed, cared for and treated with dignity. It is a realm of spiritual well-being in which we experience God as a kind of loving father such as the father in the Prodigal Son story. This is what Jesus means when he says, “the Father knows me and I know the Father” (Jn. 10).

As a spiritual community Grace Cathedral shares this adaptive challenge of working for the realm of God. And in a society where Christianity is justifiably associated with misogyny, homophobia and unkindness we offer a vision of community in which anyone can belong before they believe. On the basis of our conviction that every person without exception is beloved by God we have taken on the adaptive challenge of transforming Christianity, of reimagining church with courage, joy and wonder.7

2. Strategic Principles. Heifetz speaks a great deal about the practical work of leadership. He describes this as creating a kind of holding container for people working on the problem and then paying attention to one’s own feelings to understand the mind of the group.

Leadership involves uncovering and articulating the adaptive challenge. A leader also needs to manage the anxiety of the group. People have to be concerned enough to want to act but not so afraid that they will give up in hopelessness. Because human beings tend to avoid hard challenges, a leader needs to keep the group focused on the problem not just on trying to relieve the stress the group is feeling. This involves giving the work back to people at a rate they can assimilate. He also points out how important it is to protect leaders who do not have authority so that they can contribute to the solution.8

3. Values. Heifetz taught us that the best leaders have such a deep feeling for their mission they will, if necessary, sacrifice themselves for the higher purpose. Heifetz refers to the leaders getting (metaphorically, mostly I hope) assassinated. This happens when the stress a leader generates in order to solve a problem becomes so great that the leader gets expelled. This is how I understand Jesus’ life. Jesus talks about this.

In today’s gospel the Greek the word kalos which we translate as good, as in Good Shepherd, probably means something more like real or genuine. Jesus says that the hired hand is there for the transaction, for the payment, but the real shepherd has the power (ezousian often translated as authority) to lay down his life (the Greek word is psuxēn or soul) for the sake of the sheep. Many leaders at some point have to decide whether to keep pushing for uncomfortable change even when they know it might mean they will be forced to leave.

Before closing I want to briefly tell you about a leader who shaped us, our first dean, J. Wilmer Gresham. Dean Gresham moved to San Jose California for health reasons. In 1910 at the age of 39 when he was asked to become the first Dean of Grace Cathedral he hesitated wondering if the damp cold of San Francisco would kill him. Almost immediately after moving here to this block, he discerned his adaptive challenges: to build this Cathedral and to begin a ministry of healing that involved organizing groups to gather for prayer that gradually became an national movement. He helped so many people privately, financially. Trusting God he gave all of himself.9

After serving almost 30 years Dean Gresham retired and a year later his wife Emily Cooke Graham died. Many evenings he would stand on the sidewalk in front of their old home weeping for her. He found so much comfort in Jesus, the Good Shepherd, that he gave a stained glass window in the South Transept in her memory. He did this so that we would know that like the sheep in the arms of Jesus we are loved by God.

At the end of our leadership course Ronald Heifetz reminded us that he had told us at the beginning that he would disappoint us. He talked about how at times the teaching staff too had felt that we were wandering in the desert, that some students might have felt hurt or misrepresented. But most of all he taught us how to say goodbye.

Heifetz promised that we could shed light in our life even when there is no light around us. He said that the God of the Greek philosopher Archimedes was called “the unmoved mover.” But Heifetz said that he believed much more in Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s idea of God as “the most moved mover.”

My dear ones, we are all called to lay down our lives for the sake of God’s realm. But we are not left without comfort. We have each other and we always have the Good Shepherd. Jesus teaches that God loves us the way that a faithful teacher loves her students or a father treasures his lost child.

1 His brother Daniel was a professional violinist. But none of these things can account for what made him so mysterious, so unique.

2 Ronald Heifetz, Course Notes from “Exercising Leadership: Mobilizing Group Resources,” PAL 101, The Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, 29 October 1992.

3 If people don’t like what someone is saying, and have the power to do so, they may remove an authority figure.

4 “I define leadership as an activity, not as a set of personality characteristics. So what I’m interested in is developing people’s capacity to perform a particular activity, and I call this activity “leadership.” And the activity of leadership I define as the mobilization of the resources of a people or an organization to make progress on the difficult problems it faces.”
“Leadership Expert: Ronald Heifetz,” INC Magazine, October 1988.

5 Wouldn’t it be extraordinary to learn leadership in the same way at church on a Sunday morning? It would definitely be unsettling at times.

6 Ronald Heifetz, Leadership Without Easy Answers (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994) 71-3.

7 Reimaging church with courage, joy and wonder is our cathedral mission statement.

8 Ronald Heifetz, Leadership Without Easy Answers (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994) 128.

9 LaVonne Neff, “Introduction,” in J. Wilmer Gresham, Wings of Healing: On Faith for Daily Life (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2000).

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