I recently shared a story with a group of leaders that seemed to encourage them in their integration of spiritual formation and leadership, and I hope it encourages you today as well. I believe it sheds light on a topic that is vital to our new way of leading from soul health: cultivating our capacity to listen.
Some years ago, my role within an organization was to give leadership to one of our largest client relationships, a huge global NGO. As part of that long-standing partnership, we operated from a statement of work (SOW) that would be re-negotiated within 2-3 months and hopefully renewed in order to maintain a strong client relationship and serve them well.
My CEO suggested that our team might benefit from doing some sort of evaluation or audit of the work we had done relative to the SOW. An audit would explore what had been committed, what had been accomplished, what had yet to be done; it would identify things we did that had or had not been agreed upon.
This audit would further help us re-position the relationship for greater value to the client in the future, and make sure we remained aligned in priorities and goals. All in all, it was a very reasonable and wise process and we had several months to get it done.
Early one morning while it was still dark outside, I sat in my chair to begin my day in silence and reflection, drinking my favorite coffee. As I watched the sun rise over the mountains and turn the sky from dark to dawn, I sensed an overwhelming urge to do that audit. Like, NOW.
The idea persisted and even intensified… I began to wonder if it wasn’t God’s voice, gently nudging me.
Good idea… I have months to get this done… I can even get it started later today, I reasoned. Once I get into the office.
But this idea persisted and even intensified, strongly suggesting I get to work on the audit. NOW. And then I began to wonder if it wasn’t God’s voice, gently nudging me.
But God, it’s my quiet time! Isn’t this the most important way I could be spending my time? I haven’t even opened my Bible yet?? If I don’t take this time now, I won’t get it back today! (That was not the first time I’ve tried to tell God He has a bad idea when it doesn’t fit my “formula”… more on that another time.) This urging in my spirit wouldn’t go away. I shifted in my chair. Tried focusing on my journal. Still, God wouldn’t let up.
Finally, I relented. Breaking all my own personal soul care norms, I reluctantly put down my journal, grabbed my laptop, and started working on that audit at 6:15 a.m. Soon it was 7:15, then 8:15, and by the time I realized I really needed to get into the office for my first meetings of the day… well, honestly, I didn’t even have time to shower. I just threw on some fresh deodorant, changed my clothes, brushed my hair, and rushed into work.
What was that about? Was my tendency toward drivenness just rearing its ugly head? Would I “pay” for this later in the day with deeper unrest, having forfeited the rhythms of silence that have become so essential to my life? I feared my darker tendencies might have won that day. In a former season of life, many potentially restful and quiet-filled mornings were easily replaced by my hyper-active sense of responsibility and drive. If there was anything at all on my to-do list, it would clearly take priority… silence and reflection and prayer could wait. And they did. For years.
Later that morning, once I was in the office, I got an unexpected email from my counterpart at our client, asking if we could cancel our routine check-in scheduled for that afternoon. “A few things came up.”
“Okay,” I replied. “No problem.” I paused and added, “Actually, since we’re already emailing… I drafted a high-level audit of our SOW and can send it over if that would be helpful.”
They replied right away. “Could you send that over ASAP? Our day has been upended by an unexpected high-priority meeting at noon, and it would be so helpful to have that for our conversation.”
Over the next four hours, significant changes came about in our partnership as new conversations went into motion, all the way up to the highest levels of both of our organizations. By the end of the day both CEOs had been interacting about the status of the relationship and dreaming together about where it would go next. And a huge part of what led to that outcome was the audit God had led me to create in the pre-dawn hours that very morning—instead of reading my Bible and writing in my journal.
As it turned out, I was one of the last people to leave the office that night, long after the sun had set. On the back steps leading to the parking lot, I ran into our CEO and another executive, and we casually exchanged goodbyes.
“Oh, and, Mindy,” he added, “by the way, great job on that audit—it really was a game changer for us.”
“Thanks! Have a great night,” I said, and turned to walk up the stairs to the back door. But I felt I couldn’t quite take the credit for a job well done. I turned, went back down the stairs, and confessed to the bigger story—how I sensed that pre-dawn urgency to abandon my normal routines and draft this audit.
Our CEO listened with a knowing twinkle in his eye, and I’ve never forgotten what he said: “Yep. It’s better to be led than smart.”
Oh, how true.
I still begin most days while it’s dark with silence, reflection, and reading. I have not changed my overall way of life whatsoever. But I have learned that God sometimes guides us into decisions that break our own rules… and we have to stay open. The million-dollar question is: Will we yield?
God sometimes guides us into decisions that break our own rules… and we have to stay open.
I’m sure there have been many times when I have not listened to that still, small voice, especially when it suggests things that contradict what I think is “right.” I’m not proud of that tendency in myself.
But I’m so grateful that, on that dark morning, I allowed myself to be persuaded. In addition to serving our client and our company well, I received the great gift of a leadership axiom I carry with me to this day: “It’s better to be led than smart.”
Each of us operates in a context that we don’t fully know. There are so many unknown things going on around us, so many factors of which we are unaware. It would be impossible to fully grasp the reality of any given situation, no matter how “smart” you are. There are meetings going on in other cities between people we have never met, meetings that will directly influence our future. We can’t possibly be aware of other people’s priorities, or of funding that’s about to happen, or ideas that are going to have a direct impact on us.
Many examples in scripture point us to this, but one of my favorite completely outrageous examples of this is when God gave King Xerxes a restless night, causing him to read about Mordecai and remember his good deed many years ago that had been forgotten and ignored. That became the pivot point of the entire story, leading to Queen Esther’s courageous plea to save her people. But that moment would not have happened in the same way without Xerxes’ restless night. Or how about Joseph and Mary completely uprooting their entire lives on no notice, with nothing but a dream to guide them… ultimately saving Jesus from a threat they could not see? And there are countless others.
The best we can do on any given day is listen to the divine whispers of God. And behave accordingly. Sure, we make our plans, initiate, lead, and figure things out along the way. But at the same time, we can intentionally arrange our lives to cultivate openness and yieldedness… not only in quiet pre-dawn hours, but even in the hustle and bustle of our work and ordinary life. Cultivating openness in all these contexts is vital. Not for some performative reason, but simply because it’s better to be led than smart. Always.
So, I say, I believe the future belongs to those who listen. And those who can do what follows the listening.
But let’s be honest—it’s especially hard to listen when we’re inclined to lean on our own understanding. And I find that when the pressure is on, when I feel deeply responsible, and the public visibility of a particular project is big, I lean even harder on my own understanding. Write that next talk! Create that next product! Lead that next meeting! Send that next proposal!
I find that when the pressure is on, I lean even harder on my own understanding.
My natural tendencies towards self-reliance are very strong, and ironically those tendencies seem to increase when I believe the stakes are highest.
I’m guessing I’m not alone in this tendency, as I see the same pattern in God’s people reflected in scripture. Repeatedly, when the stakes were high, they turned to self-made strategies to secure their well-being.
I hear the ache in God’s heart in Isaiah chapter 30, and especially verse 15:
This is what the Sovereign Lord, the Holy One of Israel, says:
“In repentance and rest is your salvation,
in quietness and trust is your strength,…”
Sounds great, right?
But that’s not the end of the verse… God continues:
“… but you would have none of it.”
He goes on (v. 16-17):
“You said, ‘No, we will flee on horses.’
Therefore you will flee!
You said, ‘We will ride off on swift horses.’
Therefore your pursuers will be swift!
A thousand will flee
at the threat of one;
at the threat of five
you will all flee away,
till you are left
like a flagstaff on a mountaintop,
like a banner on a hill.”
Doesn’t that make your heart ache? The Holy One of Israel is offering us salvation in the form of rest. He’s offering us strength in the form of quietness and trust… but too often we refuse it, relying on our own strength, wanting to see things happen our way. But all we end up doing is fleeing, making decisions that leave us battered and anxious, depressed, and without hope.
But there is hope. And Isaiah points to it again in verse 18:
Yet the Lord longs to be gracious to you;
therefore he will rise up to show you compassion.
For the Lord is a God of justice.
Blessed are all who wait for him!
The world will tell you the future belongs to the powerful or the wealthy. Others say the future belongs to those who prepare for it, or those who believe in the power of their dreams. Some T-shirts say “The future is female.”
But I believe the future belongs to those who listen. And what happens when a leader becomes a listener? That’s when things get really interesting.
When a leader takes the time to listen to their team, that’s when the organization really starts going places. That’s when innovation happens, when products or approaches we never could have imagined percolate to the surface.
Listening to those around us, really paying attention to those exploring faith, creates the kinds of environments that open up people’s spirits and help them to become more receptive to what God is saying.
And think about what happens when church planters listen to their communities instead of arriving and setting the tone and telling people what they need. Listening to those around us, really paying attention to those exploring faith, creates the kinds of environments that open up people’s spirits and help them to become more receptive to what God is saying. (My friend Dave Runyon shares a great story about pastors listening deeply to their community here.)
But even more important than listening to our teams or even our communities is listening to God. The future belongs to those who listen to God.
Maybe this call to listen to God resonates with you and your current life experiences, but you’re not sure what listening to God even looks like. Here are three practices that I’ve found extremely valuable when it comes to increasing my ability to listen:
- Listening Prayer. When we take the time to sit quietly with God, not only does it open us up to wisdom from the Spirit, it also expands our capacity for silence in other parts of our lives. We stop using words to simply fill up empty spaces when we are with God and others, and instead of dominating conversations, we tend more towards question asking and remaining curious.
- Keep a journal. When we take a few minutes every day to write down the thoughts that are in our head, it creates in us a greater ability to listen to what’s taking place in our interior world. We become much more aware of our interior fears, doubts, and insecurities, as well as of our dreams, desires, and motivations. Journaling is one of the best ways to cultivate a spirit of listening.
- Become a question asker. One of the best things you do as a leader is to create intentional practices and rhythms that automatically create space for you to ask your team questions. Can you allocate a portion of your weekly meeting to asking questions? Or think bigger than that. What if you asked the leaders of your city questions and invited them to share their needs? How could this transform the way your organization is currently operating?
In 2021, our team at Soul Care conducted a “listening tour” in order to understand what leaders were facing on the topic of soul care. Broad interviews led to some deep, prayerful listening. It was incredibly helpful as I transitioned from my marketplace responsibilities back into the work of Soul Care. The findings continue to shape what we do and how we do it as a team. I’m so grateful we started with some deep listening. I’ll be talking about our findings in our upcoming podcast episodes for Healthy Leaders NEXT at Leadership Network!
But in the meantime… listen deeply in your context!
Listen to your team.
Listen to your community.
Listen, ultimately, to God.
It’s always better to be led than smart.
How will your future be shaped by listening?
If you’d like to hear more from Mindy Caliguire and the Soul Care team, you can sign up to get this kind of inspiration delivered straight into your inbox, join their online community (The Soul Care Collective), or find out more about how to bring Soul Care into your organization.