- This post is a summary of my talk at the Tolkien Conference sponsored by Urbana Theological Seminary on Feb 1, 2014.
Have you suffered under Sarumanic, Wormtongue-ian, Gollum-istic, or just plain Orcish leadership? If so, you know the suffering and emotional havoc that bad leadership causes, not to mention the untold cost in under-performance, wasted talent, and crushed morale in organizations of every type.
Recent studies document a growing loss of faith in most major U.S. institutions today. Anecdotal evidence reinforces the view. There is a crisis of leadership. Whether it's the Washington shut-down, the Wall Street meltdown, or just plain trouble at work, we’ve all felt it.
Good leaders make life better for everyone under their influence. Poor leaders do the opposite. This is certainly as true in church cultures as anywhere else.
And so, when asked to contribute a talk for a recent Tolkien conference, I thought, here is an opportunity to engage two passions: Tolkien and leadership.
In that spirit, I offer five leadership lessons from Gandalf:
Respect for Freedom: Gandalf never stoops to coercive tactics or uses his formidable powers to make people do things. He employs persuasive, not positional power. He leads people, not through intimidation or force, but ultimately, by appealing to their higher nature and best qualities. Whether it’s getting Bilbo to join the quest of the Dwarves, or later persuading him to give up the Ring, or rousing Theoden to shake off craven counsels and rise to battle, Gandalf’s honor and respect for freedom wins hearts and builds protagonists.
Big-Picture Thinking: Gandalf sees himself as a steward, not just of one realm, but of “all worthy things.” He is well-traveled and has a broad perspective of the big picture and the problems facing the free peoples of Middle-earth as a whole. His Elvish name, Mithrandir, means “the Grey Pilgrim.” While he has connections with people and places everywhere, he does not belong to any one of them but rather, to all of them. Gandalf’s universalism breaks through the “silos” of various races and peoples, mobilizing the varied regions of Middle-earth to successfully resist Sauron.
Unity Building: It’s one thing to be a visionary leader who sees the big picture. It’s quite another to get other people on board, motivated, and unified in its pursuit. Gandalf overcomes division by uniting free peoples in friendship towards an urgent common purpose. He labors tirelessly - and successfully - to gather scattered races across geographic and personal distances into a unified mission of resistance to Sauron. To do this, he must overcome forces of history, memory, and inertia in order to unite different races who were often long alienated.
Believing in People: Gandalf saw more in others than anyone else could, and usually more than they saw in themselves. “There is a lot more in him than you guess, and a deal more than he has any idea of himself,” says Gandalf in The Hobbit, referring to Bilbo. Gandalf believed in Frodo. He surprisingly endorsed Merry and Pippin as the final members chosen for the Fellowship; he believed in Theoden when the old King seemed hopelessly depleted and diminished. He even hoped against hope that Saruman would come around, offering him a last chance to come clean and join the good guys.
Hope: Gandalf clung to a fierce, contagious hope. At the Council of Elrond, he defends Frodo's quest to destroy the Ring, saying, “Despair is for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not.” In his letters, Tolken wrote of “hope without guarantees.” During the siege of Gondor, it is written: “wherever he came men’s hearts would life again, and the winged shadows pass from memory.” Whether sending the Ring with Frodo to Mount Doom, sacrificing his life fighting the Balrog, or leading the march to the Black Gate to buy a little more time, Gandalf’s hope ennobled and energized others, against improbable and near-impossible odds.
In a culture such as ours, with its cynicism and skepticism toward leaders, Gandalf is a literary breath of fresh air. He may not real, but he is true. Ian McKellan, the actor who so iconically portrays Gandalf in the Peter Jackson films, once said in an interview that Tolkien never quite thought the Lord of the Rings was entirely made up; but rather, as author, he was convinced that it really happened, somehow, somewhere, if only in our own hearts.
Middle-earth is a place our hearts know, and Gandalf is a leader our hearts recognize. As a leader, Gandalf’s literary legacy still has the power to rouse us from our safe hobbit holes and into the great adventure of our time, ready to find our courage and our destiny... or even help other find theirs.
I am striving to pastor Gandalf-style. Please pray for me!
Know any Gandalfs leading the way today?
Hit me up with a comment or tweet!
For the 30 minute video, as well as others from the conference, click here:
"Steward of All Worthy Things: Leadership Lessons From Gandalf"
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