My wife, Lindsey, is an incredible baker. Her apple cake tastes like fall and her sugar cookies are the stuff of legend, particularly because her creative and detailed decorations show up in various designs during holidays and birthday parties. I am amazed by how she takes a squeeze bottle of icing and creates a masterpiece. I hesitate to bite into it. It’s art.
While her skill is considerable, her ability to create would be severely hampered without tools. It’s one thing for her to have talent but when her sense of space and attention to detail are combined with something as simple as the plastic tip on the lid of a squeeze bottle, then what was once merely an idea or the stuff of possibility becomes a gift for family and friends.
The idea of leadership as art is not a new concept. More than a few books have been written to articulate how leadership cannot be reduced to science, shrunk down into a series of paint-by-number steps that applies universally to anyone who wakes up with the opportunity to lead. Art takes many different forms – sculpture, music, cuisine – and each form requires a specific medium – stone, a Gibson SG guitar, my wife’s royal icing. Similarly, leadership works in different environments using a particular medium that puts one’s leadership on display.
While much of leadership is contextual – a mother doesn’t lead her 18-month old twins the same way that a football coach leads 87 high school boys – there are some elements that show up wherever leadership is needed. Consider this the icing that brings color and shape to a family or to a football team.
Ambition is one type of icing that shows up in leadership, the medium that brings leading to life. So much of what I do in developing leaders begins with the basic question, ‘Do you want to lead?’ It is unsettling to encounter someone whose capacity to lead is uncoupled from a sense of ambition. As a pastor in a university town, capturing and unleashing ambition is one of my most significant challenges. The University of Georgia is a world-class institution and the students who arrive on campus are bright and possess a breathtaking capacity for leading others but it is rare to find a student with a sense of ambition – and even more rare to find a student with ambitions bigger than the size and scope of their life.
When I think about how the gospel influences leadership and, in particular, the ambition needed to lead, I have in mind the plastic tips on the end of the squeeze bottle that my wife uses to turn a tube of icing into an intricate design. It’s not enough to have ambition – every tyrant in the history of the world possessed a strong sense of ambition. No, the gospel takes ambition and funnels it with great precision into ordinary and everyday life.
The Context for Ambition
Gospel-centered leaders are ambitious – passionate about the glory of God shining brightly in the everyday places where providence has landed them. In Romans 15, Paul articulates his apostolic calling as an ambition to preach the gospel where it had not yet been proclaimed. While the particularities of our life and calling differ from a first-century Jewish missionary, what we do share in common with him is a God-given desire to see the glory, greatness, goodness and grace of God declared and displayed in our context.
When such ambition is applied to leadership, it shapes the passion needed to turn what’s possible into a vision that inspires people into action. And while one only needs to look at churches across the Western world to see the unique and particular visions God gives to different groups of people, it should not surprise us that underneath our vision statements is a deeply theological foundation. It is not too much to say that our desire for community and mission – however that desire is communicated – is under-girded by a radically God-centered view of life in this world. As Paul reminds the Corinthian church, everything we do ultimately takes place in an effort to glorify God as we show and tell the world that He is all-satisfying and infinitely valuable.
The Ambition of the Gospel
Our vision for ambitious, gospel-centered leadership is far bigger than leadership within the church. This is kingdom work that shapes leadership in every sphere of life – business, medicine, education, service industries, politics, homemaking. Because of the grace we have in common, given to us as broken image-bearers of God, it should not surprise us to find places in the life of our organization where kingdom values are already on display. It is here that the task of ambitious leadership begins, rallying people around a shared vision for a better future that in time can only be explained by and accomplished through the regenerating, renewing, reviving work of the Holy Spirit expressed in the gospel for the fame of King Jesus.