Introduction and Overview
Phil Ryken offers a compelling treatment of Christ’s threefold office for thinking about the work of college and university presidents in our faith-based contexts. In his wonderful, precise style he offers an overview of our current challenges while integrating the most formative literature to extend our understanding. His goal is straightforward: If we can become like Christ, our presidential leadership will be more effective. If we can understand and fulfill the threefold office (prophet, priest, king/queen) of Christ, our work will not only be effective, it will be redemptive.
Much in Dr. Ryken’s work warrants our attention. He rightly notes the genuine struggle to define the core principles and abilities that a college president should possess. While accenting the importance of “exceptional management, expansive vision-casting and enormous stamina,” he also acknowledges the unlikeliness of finding all these gifts and abilities to the same extent or even in the same person. Regardless of our ability to live up to the ideal, we must understand the expectations that shape ultimate responsibilities.
The explication of the threefold office of prophet, priest, and king/queen helps frame our challenge. The president as prophet articulates the vision, anchors the institution to biblical truth, preserves and protects theological boundaries, and sets the community’s sights on the future. In each of these observations, Dr. Ryken is right.
But the reality runs much deeper and exhibits greater complexity. The president not only sets the vision, but must continuously activate the aspiring edge compatible with the organization and effective in the external context. Here, Phil extols the virtues of “shared governance” while recognizing the challenges of obtaining broad buy-in or agreement. In these circumstances, a president must act against an imminent threat of obsolescence or mission-drift.
Likewise, suggesting that “the Holy Spirit works best when it is paired with the collective community” offers a relevant and guiding ideal. We benefit when we hire or inherit leaders responsive to the Holy Spirit, but we must also consciously cultivate this capability as the strains within our communities increasingly cluster around significant and entrenched differences.
The added emphasis on transparency is important, but saying “what needs to be said” without concern for the cost or consequence can fall short of effective and excellent communication. The call to “practice appropriate transparency” is reminiscent of learning to embody Aristotle’s Golden Mean. Cultivating this symmetry and elegance of learning to do the right thing for the right reason at the right time in the right way is difficult because its embodiment relies on our own maturity and sound judgment. Over time, we discover that “appropriate transparency” is hard to define and even harder to practice effectively. The media is littered with people who, in the words of “Seinfeld,” have committed “classic over-share” either by design or self-destruction.
Likewise, the suggestion that “…knowing that he or she is divinely called to be a prophet can strengthen a president’s resolve to speak the truth clearly, boldly, and persuasively, whatever the cost…” is difficult and not always best for the institution. Because Dr. Ryken is such an effective leader himself, he clearly has an intuitive grasp that you cannot create or pursue momentum-crushing controversy at every turn. We simply cannot chase after every challenge. Wisdom requires that we address these issues, but it also dictates that we do it in the right way, discerning what needs to be addressed publicly, privately or not at all.
The second office, the priest, gets to the heart of our campus-based responsibilities. While amplifying the sacrificial elements of the presidency, Dr. Ryken’s compelling treatment reminds us that the job is 2 percent glamour and 98 percent hard work. When you execute the responsibilities of the president, you realize that your vision for the institution must exceed the inconvenience of the work. You have to be interruptible. Days seldom begin and end the way you think they will. The spiritual discipline of prayer not only strengthens our insight and resolve but invites God to be present in our life and work.
The second accent on the priestly role combines three crucial capacities. Most of us can do anything for a little while, but we can seldom sustain ourselves in a role or responsibility over time unless it fits with our own values. Being compatible awakens our deeply held convictions about what needs to be done. Both our compatibility with the mission of our institution and our convictions about our priorities create perceptions and experiences that place us at odds with certain organizational factions and interests. We must cultivate discipline in our priestly role to stay emotionally present to the many constituencies of our college. Controversy and disagreement often cause us to step back; the spiritual responsibilities of the priest require that we step forward.
The third and final office, the president as king/queen, calls forth our responsibility to embody the values, establish the priorities, and pursue the agendas most likely to lead to our institution’s success and effectiveness. Dr. Ryken beautifully elevates the roles and priorities of this unique office: the importance of organizing your campus for success, the significance of a wise and effective board of trustees, the necessity of hiring and developing a gifted and motivated executive team, the benefit of shared governance, and the necessity of defending the mission against internal and external threats. All demonstrate the president’s responsibility.
As Dr. Ryken brings the essay to a close, he reintroduces other voices that offer complementary perspectives. This elegant and provocative exegesis of a theological understanding of Christ’s threefold office clearly applies to the responsibilities of those of us who serve as presidents. As I read the essay, however, I wondered if we had to restrict ourselves to these understandings and implications or if we could go further. I think we need to go further.
The Need for an Enhanced Paradigm
First, I think it important to emphasize the value of results, not activities. Self-consciously practicing the threefold office may well lead to significance and success. But our responsibilities often take us far beyond their limited and limiting perspective.
Second, every leader, including a president of a faith-based institution, requires a critical ingredient: creating the spiritual disciplines that lead to self-correction. Human history, both secular and Christian, provides great and grotesque examples of executive leadership. An unbridled ego lacking self-restraint can lead to failure. But what makes the difference? Distinguishing between the ego-driven and those who develop humility depends on the extent to which leaders develop a capacity for internal conversation that helps them recover from personal and professional mistakes.
Third, I think we benefit when we go beyond the model of Christ’s threefold office and do not restrict ourselves to this theological interpretation. So many sources illustrate this point and help to amplify the life, practices and teachings of Jesus in significant ways. Three in particular deserve mention: Ernst Troeltsch’s The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches,1 H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture,2 and Jaroslav Pelikan’s Jesus Through the Centuries.3
Each describes how Jesus has been present through time and across history. Each demonstrates the variety of understandings within the church and how Jesus has been made present to communities and cultures around the world. Finally, each work offers a self-corrective that invites us to find the spirit of love and humility in the life and ministry of Jesus, which makes him such an attractive figure and force across time and into eternity. In other words, Jesus makes the greatest impact on our work as presidents when we consider how we can become like him in our context and in our character.
Building an Enhanced Paradigm
The biggest challenge we face in responding to Dr. Ryken’s excellent essay is balancing the importance and relevance of Christ’s threefold office without feeling constrained or beholden to this paradigm alone. We need to begin in expanding the role and responsibility of the president by identifying and articulating a philosophy of leadership that maximizes the God-given gifts and abilities of those under our care and influence. From this Archimedean point, we can lead and move the world. Other elements of consequence include cultivating a moral outlook that includes self-correction, developing an organizational culture that renews and strengthens our work associates, and finding ways to increase and enhance the competence of our whole organization. This invites an enhanced leadership paradigm.
For the past several years, I have taught a class on executive leadership. During the semester, we read and study several excellent sources of insight that provide guidance. As I led the seminar this spring and contemplated this essay, I began to look beyond the threefold office of Christ to a model that addresses the breadth of responsibilities we face as president. I realized how much I believe effective leadership rises and falls on our development in three key areas: intelligence born of education and experience, creativity born of innovation and calculated risk-taking, and emotional intelligence born of self-awareness, empathy, and moral intelligence.
Sydney Finkelstein’s classic work, Strategic Leadership, provides tremendous help in the first area. He demonstrates the importance of a variety of educational backgrounds and administrative responsibilities when a CEO puts together an executive team.4 Dr. Finkelstein offers one of the best and most comprehensive overviews of leadership literature from the past 50 years because he elevates the importance of a CEO working in concert with a highly competent executive team. They effectively respond in real time to new challenges because their varied backgrounds and experiences make creative problem-solving possible.
We live in a time that makes the threefold office of Christ relevant but incomplete. Beginning with Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason,5 the modern era elevated the human as the center of meaning and value. Ever since, an uneasy tension exists between reason and revelation. With the emphasis on humans, the plausibility structures of meaning that had marked the Middle Ages began to decay and eventually collapse. Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions demonstrates why.6 When new knowledge breaks into our prevailing worldview, we either learn to enlarge our perspective to make sense of it, or our structures of meaning collapse.
Human intelligence, moreover, is not one-dimensional. As early as 1983, Howard Gardner demonstrated the existence and significance of at least seven different areas of human intelligence: verbal, interpersonal, mathematical, spatial, kinesthetic, intrapersonal, and musical.7 These new concepts provide significant insights into our knowledge of human intelligence. This, in turn, helps us grasp how we grow and expand in developing an enhanced understanding of our leadership. As a result, we find it not only impossible but unnecessary to restrict ourselves to pre-existing categories. We need to reach for new knowledge and new ways of thinking to remain relevant in our leadership.
How do we learn from our experiences? As experience-based learning models become more prevalent, they offer good insight into the role trusted mentors and colleagues can play in our development. One of my favorite lines from T. S. Eliot’s poem, Four Quartets, speaks to this reality, “…They had the experience but missed the meaning.”8 Sadly, this is so often the case, but it need not be. Experience can be a great teacher if we let it, but we must put disciplines in place that allow us to learn from experience, such as daily or regular reflection. When added to regular and predictable interaction with a mentor or coach, these reflections and invited guidance help us learn to be better and more effective.
Recent literature in organizational psychology has amplified the significance of what these specialists call a “trans-active memory system,”9 the way groups and teams remember and communicate their organization’s collective memory. What historic events launched the organization, threatened it, or catapulted it into a whole new period of growth and contribution? How are these stories remembered and retold? What existential threats came from outside? What crises arose from the inside? These realities all recognize that groups and teams now dominate the makeup of many organizations and that we are learning the importance of prior, direct experience in enhancing our effectiveness and problem-solving capacities. One of the most significant findings demonstrates that learning from direct experience makes a positive impact on creative problem solving.
In the second element, creativity born of innovation and calculated risk-taking, we recognize that we almost always face pre-existing conditions in our circumstances. Several years ago, I participated in a Blue Sky-thinking workshop, and the leader asked, “If there were no limits, what would you do?” As I sat in frustration, I began to excavate my own discontent and realized we almost always have to innovate within a set of pre-existing conditions. Only rarely do we start from scratch—and even in those occasions we face limitations we had not anticipated. During the early and middle part of the 1990s, I completed a dual degree at Claremont Graduate University, pursuing a Doctor of Philosophy in philosophy of religion and an MBA in strategic management with Peter Drucker. Deep into his work on leadership and management, Drucker had turned his enormous intellect and insight to the non-profit, third-sector organizations in our economy. He was also writing and talking about the importance of innovation and entrepreneurship. At this time, he first articulated the seven core principles that need to guide efforts to renew our organizations.10 His vast writing on the subject clusters around the following key principles: unexpected occurrences, incongruities, and process needs that come from inside the organization; and market changes, demographic changes, changes in perception, and the cultivation or discovery of new knowledge that come from outside the organization. Together, they provide seven opportunities to renew and innovate and prompt us to think creatively about the need to find new solutions for our current dilemmas.
Innovation naturally leads to calculated risk-taking. This reality acknowledges that we have to cultivate an aspiring edge that will keep us fresh and growing without wreaking havoc on our organization. We can’t be chaotic with our risk-taking, and we can’t simply withdraw into inactivity. Instead, we have to find the growth points that can lead us forward, which almost always come from encounters beyond our organizations that hold the potential to bring ongoing renewal and relevance.
The third and final element, emotional intelligence born of self-awareness, empathy, and moral intelligence, lies at the heart of our motives as leaders. Why do we do what we do? Do we serve our own ego or purposes greater than ourselves? What do we hope to accomplish, and why do we want to accomplish it?
Every area of life contains a moral dimension. We all operate in arenas where basic expectations of honesty, fairness and personal integrity apply. Violations of these expectations about life and social and behavioral interaction lead to a breakdown. How does that occur?
Moral intelligence develops over time, beginning with a basic orientation to the moral life and never ending. The work of Evagrius of Pontus deeply enriched my own life, especially his articulation of the eight deadly thoughts and the eight life-giving virtues.11 Without going into exhaustive detail, Evagrius identifies how we awaken and grow in our moral outlook and awareness.12
He begins with gluttony, the insatiable desire to consume or hoard because we fear there will not be enough. In ancient times, this meant food or drink, but in our era it extends to career opportunities. The compensating virtue is temperance, the recognition that we can exercise restraint in the short run because God’s provision will be sufficient.
The second deadly thought is envy, the dual resentment we have of the gifts of others. In modern times, the idea has intensified in identification with the term schadenfreude, which combines resentment with a desire to destroy another’s gifts, abilities and opportunities. The compensating virtue is contentment and learning to celebrate others’ gifts and abilities because we are content with our own.
Greed, the third deadly thought, represents a boundless grasping, typically for money or fame, without respect for others. The compensating virtue is generosity and developing and demonstrating a capacity to limit ourselves to help those who are less fortunate. It includes the capacity to assist others and to notice the needs of those around us.
The fiercest passion is anger, the fourth deadly thought. We develop wrath toward those we feel have given injury or offense. The compensating virtue is mildness, the ability to maintain our emotional and intellectual balance through self-restraint. Modern writers refer to it as our ability to self-regulate.
The fifth deadly thought is pride or excessive egocentrism. It simply means an exaggerated sense of our own gifts and abilities. The compensating virtue is humility or the ability to see our gifts and abilities accurately as we cultivate an appropriate and appreciative view of the gifts and abilities of others.
Lust, the disordered love of self that causes us to use others strictly to satisfy our own desires, is the sixth deadly thought. Although it originally pertained to unbridled sexual desire, it can refer to destroying all our opportunities when we cannot channel our energies and desires appropriately. The compensating virtue is fidelity, or the capacity to honor and respect others because we recognize their existence as separate from our own.
The seventh deadly thought, indifference, occurs when we believe our life no longer matters or offers anything of enduring value. It is the classic description of a mid-life crisis; we doubt that we are spending our energy to contribute to anything beyond ourselves. The compensating virtue is perseverance and the ability to endure difficult circumstances without any hope of quick resolution because we are committed to contributing to the greater good of our work and our organization.
The eighth and final deadly thought is melancholy or the belief that neither our current contributions nor our entire existence have ever mattered. We enter into a state of existential despair. The compensating virtue is wisdom or recognizing that our work has mattered and will endure in people and organizations that will outlive us. Together, these eight deadly thoughts and eight life-giving virtues encompass how we progress in developing measurable moral intelligence.
Finally, emotional intelligence combines self-awareness with empathy and moral intelligence. Introduced initially by Daniel Goleman,13 this discipline has developed wide-reaching impacts, including the use of neuroscience to understand why we react and behave the way we do given a variety of situations and stimuli. The first step in cultivating emotional intelligence is becoming self-aware, which occurs in a variety of ways but requires a capacity for self-assessment and discipline. I begin every morning with an overview of the day, anticipating what I will see and the people I will encounter. I can set a general framework of anticipation that helps regulate the flow of my emotion and energy, especially when unplanned interruptions occur. The importance of self-awareness has increased since the discovery that individuals with brain trauma in the frontal lobe and prefrontal cortex could recover full cognitive function, but lose the ability to base decision-making on an emotional judgment. In other words, they could still think through a situation, but they no longer recognized the impact of their decisions. The results were ruinous, but ultimately educational.
Self-regulation is at the heart of emotional intelligence. Often we become aware of a situation or circumstance that affects us adversely. Our reaction reflects our capacity for self-regulation. We have witnessed individuals who committed career-limiting mistakes simply because they lacked the ability to manage themselves effectively in the face of personal affront or disrespect. But the ones who develop self-regulation not only survive these challenges but thrive in the face of obstacles and setbacks. They endure when things do not go their way, and they learn and move forward with wisdom and understanding. This part of leadership gets little attention but happens often. Imagine if we took the example of Christ at face value and advocated that a leader could be in any single position no longer than three years and that every leadership responsibility had to end in crucifixion? The consequences to our organizations would be disastrous.
The third aspect of emotional intelligence is developing empathy. How do we stay emotionally connected to the people in our life who rely on us and on whom we rely? How do we develop a capacity to see things from their point of view so we can respond appropriately despite the circumstances?
Empathy is the cultivated capacity to feel others’ emotional response to their circumstances and situation. In this, is found a tremendous affinity for the life, teachings, and nature of Jesus. Above all, he demonstrates enormous capacity to enter our situations and especially our suffering. When Paul writes that we should have the mind of Christ, he offers a recognition and reality that lead us to live and lead like Jesus and helps us develop a capacity to perceive and feel the impact of our decision-making.
Finally, one of the most understated but persistent realities of leadership involves managing experiences of personal and professional disrespect. Goleman calls these “amygdala triggers” because they activate the part of our brain that overreacts before we can self-regulate. We encounter at least five while we lead: being treated unfairly, experiencing condescension, rarely or ever experiencing appreciation that resonates, believing we are being asked to meet unrealistic deadlines, and believing we are not listened to and our opinion and perspective do not matter. Together, these experiences give us an opportunity to overcome the evil of others by working to manage our own emotions so we can lead well.
Indeed, in these moments, we have the opportunity to be the most like Christ in the way in which he acted and responded to experiences of scorn and contempt. In fact, one of the most compelling elements of Jesus’s example and response is the way he always seemed to see beyond the presenting questions or accusation to the deeper reality that was motivating the individual or crowd. As a result, he was able to make the right response regardless of the provocation.
Ultimately, we are responsible as leaders to connect emotionally and to serve as the synthesizing agent of these discrete areas of insight and experience. Some of our greatest learning occurs from dealing with our own experiences. Combining intelligence, creativity and emotional intelligence stimulates us to think about the intersection of our gifts and abilities so we can lead a life of personal flourishing and professional success. Clearly, cultivating daily disciplines helps us to grow and also makes meaningful contributions possible every day of our life. In the process, we also discover new ways to respond when we recognize we need to live and manage our responsibilities differently.
Integration and Conclusion
By now, you may be asking yourself, “Wasn’t this response supposed to be a critique of Phil Ryken’s essay on Christ’s threefold office?” The short answer is, “Yes, and it is.” The longer answer needs to be developed further, but clusters around my attempt to amplify the threefold office of prophet, priest, and king/ queen with the important qualities of intelligence, creativity, and emotional intelligence. We face a perennial challenge: trying to discern the timeless from the time-bound. Clearly, our understanding of the person and work of Jesus is timeless. But how we understand and apply it is time-bound and should be incorporated into each new age of life and work. In decades and centuries to come, Christian leaders everywhere, and especially Christian leaders of our faith-based institutions of higher education, will need to encounter Christ and reflect on him. They must also incorporate and deploy the vast learning of contemporary study and research so leaders in every age enjoy a life of personal flourishing, professional competence and contribution, and institutional success. This will not come easily, but it will always endure as the necessary measure of effective and sustaining leadership.
Cite this article
- Ernst Troeltsch, The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches (Louisville, KY: Westminster/ John Knox Press, 1992; this translation of Die Soziallehren der christlichen Kirchen und Gruppen [German edition 1912] was first published in 1931 by George Allen and Unwin Ltd., London and the Macmillan Co., New York).
- Richard H. Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper and Row, 1951).
- Jaroslav Pelikan, Jesus Through the Centuries (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985).
- Sydney Finkelstein, et.al. Strategic Leadership (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).
- Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Norman Kemp Smith (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1980; originally written, 1781).
- Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1962; 2012).
- Howard Gardner, Frames of Mind (New York: Basic Books, 1983).
- T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1943; 1971).
- Yuquing Ren and Linda Argote, “Transactive Memory Systems 1985-2010: An Integrative Framework,” The Academy of Management Annals 5.1 (2011): 189-229. See: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/19416520.2011.590300.
- Peter Drucker, “The Discipline of Innovation,” in Classic Drucker (Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing, 2006), 69-79.
- Evagrius of Pontus. The Praktikos & Chapters on Prayer (Spencer, MA: Cistercian Publishers, 1970).
- For a brief overview, see Gayle Beebe, The Shaping of an Effective Leader (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011), 34-35.
- Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence (New York: Bantam Books, 1995); and Goleman, Working with Emotional Intelligence (New York: Bantam Books, 1998).