Leading With Grace — What Really Matters

David Hubbard, longtime president at Fuller Seminary, was a towering figure for me about how to lead courageously, with conviction and clarity, and yet to lead with grace.

Shortly before his untimely death, I invited Dave and Max De Pree, another hero of mine, to come to my campus and work with the Board of SPU to talk about how the board of trustees could function most effectively. In the course of our discussions, someone asked Dave what he most valued looking back at his long tenure at Fuller. He said something like this: “I hope Fuller is a place, a community, that is filled with grace.”

I loved that response. That notion has shaped the kind of leader I want to be. That language became part of the mission statement of Seattle Pacific: “we seek,” we say, “to model grace-filled community.” This is huge.

But how to lead with grace these days? Leadership is not an easy thing in our world today. Leaders are ripped constantly in the news, often vilified, and often for good reason. Our leaders have failed us. Broken trust tears at the fabric of our society right now, and broken trust is hugely difficult to repair.

And so I’ve been thinking a lot: how does one lead in such a climate of disappointment, even anger toward leaders? How do we lead when people yearn for so much more?

My very dear friend Bill Robinson, President of Whitworth University, has just written a wonderful little book where he reminds me again that leadership requires both grace and truth. Nothing new there, perhaps, but listen to this: “Truth without grace is harsh, usually self-centered, and very un-Christlike. Grace without truth is deceptively permissive, often lazy, and equally un-Christlike. Good leaders communicate both grace and truth in love.”

So grace and truth, to be sure. As we move forward into the unchartered waters of massive change in our world, lots of truth telling will be required of us, and that will take commitment and courage and strength.

But I suspect that grace will be the hardest part as we move forward. It usually is. Bill says about grace that “one of a leader’s most empowering tools is truth expressed in a spirit of grace. Grace favors trust over cynicism. Grace corrects kindly, not in a mean-spirited way. Grace celebrates what people do right, while acknowledging honestly where they need to improve. Grace restores confidence. Grace gives energy.”

Yes, that’s it. It is energy that comes with grace that we will desperately need moving forward. We will be forced by the circumstances to tell the truth, and we will commit ourselves to doing just that. But truth alone might sap our energy. The real energy, the energy for renewal and optimism and creative thinking, will only be released as we commit ourselves to being grace-filled leaders.

Dave Hubbard got it right. Don’t you think?