Every Thursday night a crowd gathers in a little place called Millers on the mall in downtown Charlottesville, VA for a Jazz experience unlike any other. The headliner is John D’earth. D’earth is a world renowned Jazz trumpeter, who has called Charlottesville home for more than 30 years. He is the Director of Jazz Performance at the Univeristy of Virginia and the jazz artist-in-residence at Virginia Commonwealth University.
A few minutes into the set, Millers is transformed into D’earth’s off-campus classroom. Besides the four artists that accompany D’earth, there are two college-aged young men. They stand beside the stage, nervously smiling while holding their instruments. They are tapping and bouncing in time with the band, watching and waiting for the moment when their teacher will point in their direction and call them to take center stage.
Improvisation is an often used metaphor for the work of theological exploration, Biblical interpretation and ministerial leadership in the Christian community. It provides helpful questions for thinking through the difficult questions of past, present and future expressions of the Body of Christ. These include: Questions like…
- how do we receive the story of Jesus in our time and place?
- how do we apply our gifts and talents to the retelling of this story?
- how do we tell the story in a way that is faithful to the past, responsive to the present and inclusive of the surrounding community of believers?
Following Christ, ad leading others to do the same, is essentially an exercise in improvisation.
Improvisation separates jazz from many other styles. It denies common musical distinctions, such as composer and performer, creator and interpreter, soloist and group, teacher and student. In his book Jazz 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Jazz author John F. Szwed writes, “In jazz, it is the activity itself that is as important as the result. It is a music that is learned in the doing, in collective play: it is a social music… as such it is a way of being as well as a way of doing. It is an emergent form, a social form, and as much an ethic as it is an aesthetic.”
As I sat in Millers Thursday night, absorbed by the energy and complexity of the musical performance, my attention regularly turned to D’earth’s intermittent interactions with his young students. From my perspective as a musician and as a minister, John D’earth was teaching a clinic on leadership formation.
Five Lessons on Developing Leaders
1. Create Opportunities for Emerging Leaders to Take Center Stage
Why does an artist who could fill a theatre and charge $50 a ticket play for free every week in a bar that barely seats 50? D’earth knows that his students will learn more through the experience of playing that three-hour live set than he can teach in a three-hour lecture on “How to have a great live performance.”
Learning leadership requires doing leadership. Find opportunities to point to a few emerging leaders and call them to take the lead.
How do you identify and evaluate gifts among emerging leaders in your community?
Does the same fixed set of people regularly occupy center stage?
How are new leaders identified?
2. Create Space for Emerging Leaders to Take Risks and Sometimes Fail
Over the course of years, these two young students developed themselves through rehearsal and performance. Still, stepping to center stage at Millers involved great risk. In those brief moments, the whole performance was in their hands. The band followed their lead.
No amount of practice could prepare them for the sensation of losing their safety net. However, when the moment came, they were ready. They weren’t flawless, but they were good. They’ll be even better next time.
In your community, does leadership development happen on purpose or by accident?
Are there spaces you can create for emerging leaders to take risks, sometimes fail, and still feel the support and security of the surrounding community?
How can you tell the difference between a young leader who is ready for a big responsibility and one who still needs time to grow?
There is a chasmal difference between rushing an ill-equipped accidental young leader to center stage and trusting a developing young leader to take the show. Identified and nurtured emerging leaders are ready for risks and the hard lessons of failure. Accidental leaders take few risks and do not take failure well.
3. Create Culture that Values and Encourages Contributions from Emerging Leaders
The crowd at Millers on Thursday night doesn’t feel cheated when the young artists take the stage. On the contrary, they cheer louder.
In order to provide opportunities for emerging leaders to take risks, the surrounding community must value both their contribution and their process of formation. This will require more than a condescending pat on the head.
When a community values the flawed but progressively improving contribution of emerging leaders, they share in the joy of participating in this young person’s growth. Leadership development becomes a family effort, a social practice.
- How patient and tolerant is your community of messiness and missteps?
- What stories do you tell to your community and about your community?
- Do these stories highlight their shared value of cultivating leadership?
4. Create Connections for Emerging Leaders to Access Additional Resources and Opportunities
Because of their special relationship with their trumpeting mentor, these two students have access to a broad network of musical connections.
The challenge here is for the mentor. He or she must have humility and a clear understanding of their limitations.
Some lessons we can’t teach, but others can. Some skills we don’t have, but others do. Some doors we can’t open, but others will. We let our young leaders down when we fail to network them to a broader scope of teachers, resources and opportunities.
- Do you tell your colleagues and friends about the emerging leaders with whom you are working?
- Have you shared their names and contact information or setup a meeting on their behalf?
- Do you have a network of potential mentors readily available to help in the places you are weakest?
- Practically, do your young leaders have more service opportunities and vocational options because of their relationship with your network?
5. Create Reflective Processes for Positive Feedback, Constructive Critique and Identification of Strength and Growth Areas
The most formative experiences for emerging leaders require the greatest amount of processing. Emotions and adrenaline blur the moment in such a way that they may not even fully remember how they did – good, bad or otherwise. Without constructive reflection, the young leader may completely misinterpret how he or she did, and miss out on the educational value of the experience.
When you reflect with young leaders, help them connect the dots between:
- Leadership experience and their gifts
- Values and mission of your ministry
- Their place in the larger mission of the body of Christ in the world.
Consider how Jesus did it:
In Luke 10, Jesus points seventy emerging leaders to go out to heal the sick and proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near.
- He gave them specific instructions – (v. 5-11)
- He gave clear warnings – (v. 3)
- He limited their resources increasing their risk of failure and increasing their dependence on their hosts and one another – (v. 4) He empowered them, as an extension of his authority and his ministry – (v. 16)
- He affirmed and celebrated their work while sharing constructive feedback – (v. 19-20)
- Lastly, he interpreted their work within the broader narrative of God’s salvation story – (v. 23-24)
In a recent interview, John D’earth summarized his philosophy of jazz saying, “You’ve got to know two things in jazz: Tell your story and don’t copy people.” Developing of emerging leaders in the community of Jesus takes a slightly different approach. We might say: “tell your story as you copy Jesus.”
Survey the places where you are a leader. Are you providing the opportunity, space, culture, connection and reflection for emerging leaders to tell their story as they faithfully and uniquely live into the life and story of Jesus?
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