In his 1995 book, “Leading Minds,” Howard Gardner studied the lives of great leaders. His main conclusion was, a leader has a story to tell, and what sets apart the great leader is he/she effectively communicates his/her story in a way that inspires others to discover or rediscover their stories.
Gardner calls this the stories of identity, where people discover their identity and mission, “who they are, where they come from, and where they are headed.”
Gardner points out that the power of the story is it evokes both a rational and emotional response, a cognitive and affective process. It engages the whole person.
This is the power of Christ’s story. It engages the whole person. At the same time, Christ’s story illustrates another principle in leadership articulated by Ignatius of Loyola.
Ignatius used to tell the early Jesuits, as a tip for effective ministry, that if they wanted to influence people, he said, “enter their door and take them out from your door.”
In the ancient hymn used in the letter of Paul to the Philippians, we read of the kenosis of Christ, his emptying himself of his divinity to share in our humanity, “though he was in the form of God he did not regard equality with God, something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself taking the form of a slave coming in human likeness… he humbled himself.” (Philippians 2: 6-8).
Christ entered our door to understand our hopes and dreams, our fears and pains, and even our temptations. This made his story even more effective as a story of our identity—who we are, where we come from, and where we are going. This showed one powerful trait of a great leader: humility—the ability to be naturally one with us.
Where we are going became Christ’s taking us out from his door: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” His story is the way. In this story, the fundamental truth of our identity and mission is gleaned. The way and the truth animate the way we live our day-to-day life and provide the inspiration to live this life with meaning and mission.
There is that moment in our life when we realize this story coming together. As the Jungian spiritual writer Robert Johnson puts it, the slender threads of our life come together. The bits and pieces of our life, the slender threads—in God’s time, he pulls together to form the magnificent tapestry of our life story.
Mine came at that moment in a high school classroom where I sat with a young man of 18 or so. As he talked about his pain of struggling with his broken family, the slender threads of my story started to come together. When he broke down, I simply placed my hand on his shoulder, gently tapped him and said: “Go ahead! Just let it out. I know how it feels.”
God pulled together the slender threads of my life and showed me the magnificent tapestry of the story. I clearly understood who I am, the journey I came from, and the path I will choose.
From then on, I knew I will choose to dedicate my life to helping young people discover their story, their mission in life. To help them discover their story, because I knew how painful it was to discover mine without adult guidance and accompaniment.
Our stories show us “the way, the truth, and the life.”
It is a good reminder to us and to our leaders that we need to constantly tell our stories and allow one another to discover one’s story—the story of identity and not the contrived story imposed by supposed leaders. These are the ones Christ referred to as “those who lorded it over.” The authentic leader is one who quietly, humbly, yet powerfully communicates his/her story, as it inspires.
When I was around grade 4, I witnessed an incident involving my grandfather that somehow influenced my story profoundly. He was a very distinguished person, well-educated and brilliant, had a distinguished career as public servant, and was one you could almost call patrician. Though his family was landed and thus gave him the comfort not to worry much about material needs, he always was a simple person. He enjoyed the good things in life, yet was never attached to them.
I used to stay with him and my grandmother on weekends and summer breaks. One night at dinner, he stood up to get something from the kitchen. This was rare. His habit was, when he sat down for meals, he wanted everything on the table. He did not want to be served by the household staff because he wanted them to eat at the same time he did.
When he went out to the kitchen and saw that the staff was not eating the same food we were eating, he stormed back into the dining room and, with a raised voice, told my grandmother: “How many times will I tell you that what we eat is what our staff should eat. If we cannot do this, it is either of two things. Either we cannot afford anymore what we are eating, or we have become too selfish.”
This forever shaped my story and somehow influenced the way I continued to write my story. The incident was one slender thread that pulled together a major part of my tapestry. To this day, I look at my grandfather’s story as the most influential element that added the unique grace of how I live out my relationships with people—to share what I have, to let them eat what I eat.
“I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Christ tells us his story, but I would like to think He does this for us to discover ours and not to impose His.
Adults acting like kids
A few years ago, I was conversing with a bishop who told me he always believed in treating people as adults, but often they choose to be treated more like children. He shared a case involving two leaders in his diocese who were at odds. They came to him to resolve the issue. He told them to work it out between them and to come back after two weeks to tell him what they had arrived at.
Two weeks later, they returned to him. The conflict was not resolved, and hardly did they deal with each other like mature adults. What the two had arrived at was to ask the bishop to resolve the conflict.
When I was still a Jesuit, my peers and I, the younger priests then 10, 15 years ago, used to talk about how our church has the tendency to treat and deal with adults like children. Seems like another way to say how autocratic the system is.
There is some truth to this. Not just in the church, but in other institutions of our society—family, business, government. Just look at the “overstaying” leaders or heads who have not passed on the torch to the next generation, the generation that runs the risk of remaining forever the children of the patriarch, the perpetual protégée of the master and leader.
Leadership is authority and influence. The power flows from these. The root word of authority is to give life, Fr. Horacio dela Costa, SJ, said in a homily. Leadership gives life to our stories of identity where we discover our identity and mission—who we are, where we come from, and where we are headed.
I think this is what Christ showed us and inspired in us when He said: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”