Though more than thirty years have passed, I remember that day as if it was last weekend. On a crystal blue morning, my young son and I unloaded at the Signal Knob trailhead and began the long anticipated trip to the top. We had covered perhaps a hundred yards, when suddenly the magic was broken by an outburst of wailing. I emerged from my reverie to the sound of piteous weeping: “I can’t go any further, Dad. I want to go home!” My ill-concealed impatience kicked into overdrive as I unloaded his pack into mine, leaving him one pair of clean underwear—his token share of the load.
Starting out in life is much like this experience. We set out on a journey to the heights. We make careful preparations. We anticipate the joys and greatness that lie ahead. Then we suddenly discover pain, and find there is disappointment, suffering, and great difficulty along the way—maybe even failure. We thought leadership or success would be easier. We do not want suffering to come our way, and we don’t even expect it, most of the time. My son and I both learned something about suffering that day, and we still talk about it.
Many years later, as I introduced my eight-year-old granddaughter to that same mountain, I began by explaining that this hike was going to be difficult—enjoyable, but hard. But when it got painful, I said, if we persisted, we’d see a view most people never got to see. That’s become a metaphor now in our family, first learned at the feet of a wailing little backpacker by a young dad.
It’s a lesson for life, especially for leaders, if we pay attention: we earn our view through the twinned strands of persistence and pain. We arrive more humble, appreciating how suffering has shaped the person we have become and given us a view we would not have seen. But we’re still perplexed by the honing process. We must be prepared, lest we grow bitter instead of better.
The perplexity of the Greeks
Man is preoccupied with responding to suffering. The great and ancient religions have grappled with the perplexity of suffering and its humbling or embittering effects. In The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis explains that our suffering “would not be a problem unless, side by side with our daily experience of this painful world, we had received what we think a good assurance that ultimate reality is righteous and loving.”
We want to believe that there is a good God, not a capricious one, argues Lewis. If God is good—we reason—he would not desire our suffering. But since suffering is ever with us, God is either not good or as powerless as us. Yet that line of thinking is unsatisfactory, and so various belief systems have developed ways to explain suffering: numbing ourselves (Buddhism), believing we are reaping the consequences of a previous life (Hinduism), seeing it as God’s inexplicable will (Islam), or explaining it away as meaningless yet to be endured (existentialism). Perhaps the most famous treatment of suffering is told in the Jewish biblical and literary masterpiece, the story of Job.
The second strand
Another equally perplexing strand of development for leaders is interwoven with suffering: the source of humility. The Greeks pondered and explained the fall of man by the presence of hubris.
In The Iliad, the great warrior and leader Achilles rages. He throws a tantrum when he is deprived of a beautiful, captured slave girl, one-upped by his commanding general, Agamemnon. To show his disdain, Achilles withdraws his formidable powers from the battlefield in a fit of pique. A ten-year slaughter ensues until his anger is exceeded by an even greater fury when his best friend falls in battle. Though Achilles goes onto the field to defeat Troy’s champion, Hector, and helps lead a vengeful turnaround in the war, the senseless deaths of his fellow Greeks during his absence is the legacy of his wounded pride and overweening arrogance. He receives his just comeuppance from the gods when he is ultimately and ironically killed. An arrow hits Achilles in the one place that was unprotected when his mother dipped him into the river Styx, sealing his imperviousness as a demigod: his heel.
This is the lesson for all the ensuing generations who have ears to hear: pride comes before a fall. His “Achilles heel” (and mankind’s) was his lack of humility—an inability to submit to his boss, and an unwillingness to swallow his pride, endure suffering, and serve his fellow countrymen. Yet even today, the answers to achieving humility lie as unexplained as the reasons for suffering.
Our own perplexity
In his contemporary leadership classic, From Good to Great, Jim Collins and his research team seek to discover why some organizations are able to make a leap from mediocrity to the pantheon of great companies. To Collins’s surprise, his team of researchers arrives at a data-driven conclusion that he initially eschews: “It’s leadership, stupid.” While Level IV leaders (those who find good, but temporary success) are find followers for a time, Level V leaders (creators of even greater success but also something that endures) achieve lasting greatness that is transmitted to the next generation. What distinguishes Level IV and Level V?
Two distinctives arise. First, Level V leaders are driven not for their own success, but by a sense of purpose for their organization and the people in it. They are indeed purpose-driven, eschewing the temptation to acquire other businesses in the name of growth or the siren of easy, short-term profits or a lucrative buyout. Second—and here Homer and Collins find common ground—these Level V leaders possess an all-too-rare humility. They give praise to others, but look in the mirror when failure occurs. Such leaders win the loyalty and the energies of those who follow because their character proclaims they are not in it for themselves. But unfortunately, Collins ends where the data stops. He writes:
Our research exposed Level V as a key component inside the black box of what it takes to shift a company from good to great. Inside the black box is yet another black box—namely, the inner development of a person to Level V. We could speculate on what might be inside that black box, but it would mostly be just that—speculation.
The road to greatness lies in a paradox, at least for those who strive to become great leaders. Yet, if you were to look more deeply at the leaders we would follow to the ends of the earth, there is more than a hint of an answer. In the double helix of suffering and humility, twinned together, each strand so difficult to understand in and of itself, a sense of meaning begins to emerge. To see this, we must turn to one more story, a hero as much unlike Achilles as possible. In this self-effacing leader, we find suffering and humility come together to produce greatness in leadership that serves others—and, of course, a greatness he would deny.
Cheer the beloved country
The recent World Cup in South Africa offered not only redemption for Spain’s soccer fortunes, but also a symbolic vindication of South Africa’s journey from being an international pariah to rejoining the family of nations. It was a two-week showcase of the almost miraculous progress that has occurred in the space of less than twenty years—and a reminder of Nelson Mandela’s contributions to the world.
Mandela was a hunted man when the South African police finally captured him in 1962. As leader of the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC) movement, he was a threat to the increasingly draconian government. Yet while he proved to be a galvanizing and cunning leader, he was not always a wise one, as he later admitted. After his trial, the young father was imprisoned for most of the next 27 years on the infamous Robben Island. The harsh treatment and isolation from his family led to times of despair, but slowly there was transformation in this intelligent, dignified but impulsive and angry young man.
By later accounts, his faith gave him the capacity to forgive his jailers and those who formulated and cruelly enforced the apartheid policies. His lived-out quality of humble and forgiving character and human decency to all he encountered slowly won the respect of his opponents. It gave him the platform from which to proclaim his belief that a unified and equal South Africa was the best government for blacks and whites alike.
When international and internal pressures finally mounted to a fever pitch two decades later, the apartheid government turned to Nelson Mandela—first in secret, while he was still in prison. After his release, Mandela returned to head the ANC and negotiate a fair and open election. His subsequent selection as President marked the culmination of a rise from labeled terrorist to prisoner to global leader. Yet his ascendancy to power did not efface the deep humility he had gained during his time of privation: “In my country, we go to prison first and then become President.”
To many he was almost puzzlingly fair, staying true to his beliefs, offering reconciliation, not revenge, to the former purveyors of apartheid. At the end of the day, the crucible of his transformation was suffering, now paired with humility. Mandela demonstrated justice interlaced with grace—a serving leadership that transformed South Africa in a way the headlines of the day described as “miraculous.”
If you closely examine the lives of other great leaders of the past, they almost unerringly bear witness that suffering pairs with humility to produce a leader with a tempered core. This inner steel stands both the tests of failure and the lure of power. These are the leaders who choose to serve rather than to be served or to build monuments to themselves.
The descent of the leader
Those entering the next generation of Christian leaders must ultimately confront the paradoxes of leadership: great leaders descend to achieve greatness; they are servants who lead. We speak here not of personal greatness—as of the tyrant Ozymandius, who carved his own epitaph in stone only to have a poet record his windblown remainder centuries later—but a legacy sown into the lives of others. The apostle Paul understood the way in which humility and suffering combine to bring about this descent of a purposedriven leader into greatness when he wrote to the leaders in Philippi, and to us in Philippians 2:3-9:
Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name.
Grasping after greatness is not the way to begin a vocation or a calling in life, though many do. Paul advises us to begin with a willingness to serve. In his book The Fabric of Faithfulness, Steven Garber recommends seeking out a mentor who embodies time spent in the crucible of suffering and humility, a model of what we would become. Be willing to be obedient to the point of dying to self, as Nelson Mandela did, even as Abraham Lincoln, Mother Theresa, George Washington, Vaclev Havel and a host of others have—even Jesus. They were Level V leaders, all.
Such a life is not only one of humility born of suffering; it is one of trust, not in the “system” or in the right “tickets,” but in the One who understands what it is to voluntarily descend. The road to greatness passes directly through here—not in currying the applause of those around you, but in gaining the silent approval of the great cloud of witnesses who went on before. They have known what it is to suffer, to be humbled, and in their calling, to serve well until the end.
What lies within the second black box forms a legacy built into the lives of others. It is a patiently and persistently honed life, lived well and long despite suffering, failure, or hardship. In Mandela’s words, at the end, it is the product of earning your view: “After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.” Within that secret inner chamber is an intertwined cord of three strands, fashioned by the Spirit—suffering, humility, and service.