Spiritual Friendship In Leadership

Leadership development has become all the rage for just about every organization imaginable, be it businesses, churches, and even as persons. Resources and conferences abound with tips, tricks, and principles on how to grow as a leader, including how to strategize your workweek, raise your leadership capacity, empower others, live a more disciplined lifestyle, and consume even more resources and conferences that say all the same things—just in different ways.

But despite all the leadership development literature that’s available, there is a leadership principle that is hardly ever talked about, and is potentially the most essential principle every leader must learn in order to lead.

The greatest leadership principle is to…. (are you ready for this?)

Have great friends.

You think I’m joking. Yet study after study reveals that what separates great, healthy leaders from great, burned out leaders is his or her community of friends. Dr. Henry Cloud, an author renown for his work in psychology, leadership development, and church work, writes extensively on this in his book, The Power of the Other. He contends that our relationships are the top determining factor of our ability to succeed in just about every facet of our lives, including our physical health. He writes:

“The quality of our most significant relationships determine how long we live, whether we reach our goals or not, how much money we make, how well our kids do in school, how much we trust people, how we cope with stress and failure, what kind of mood we’re in, how much physical pain we experience, and how and what we think.” (The Power of the Other, 23-24).

Last I checked, most leadership development principles suggest that every single one of the items Cloud lists is determined by your individual leadership ability to muster up the power to just make these things happen: “To pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” Yet science proves that we are social beings. We function at our highest capacities, not just when we have high functioning teams, but when we have strong, supportive networks of deep friendships that allow us to be known by others, confess we aren’t as put together as others think we are, and spur us to become the greatest version of ourselves.

I’m convinced the greatest gift to leaders are friends who remind us we’re not alone.

But here’s my contention: It’s one thing for leaders to have good friends. But it’s another thing for leaders to have deep friends. 

The common American perception of “friends” that make you feel good and like to hang out doesn’t satisfy what our leadership capacity demands to grow as leaders, let alone what the depths of our souls demand to flourish as children of God. There is an ancient Christian tradition from a 12th century monastery that is hardly known today, yet it best articulates the deep friendship needed for leaders to carry their loads and grow their souls. This tradition is called spiritual friendship.

St. Aelred, the abbot of the Rievaulx monastery in the 1100s, is the founding father of this tradition. As a monk, you would’ve been embedded in a community of very deep people. It was literally monks’ professions to contemplate the deep things of God. Therefore, the friendships that arose from these communities had immense spiritual implications that nobody would even consider today. Aelred writes that in our friendships with those who share a common love for Christ, then Christ’s very presence is in our midst. The Holy Spirit becomes the binding power that makes our friendship even possible. Aelred holds that just as God is love, as 1 John says, and love is what binds friends, then God himself is friendship. To have deep, self-sacrificing friendships founded on Christ’s love, then, is the most human example of being embraced by the love of God. With this as the foundation, then the greatest act of love in spiritual friendships is pushing one another to fall more in love with Christ to grow in him. Everything about good discipleship becomes the essence of friendship, making it a core element to the Spirit making us holy.

Why would any leader not want this? Our leadership capacity can only grow to the extent our souls are taken care of. You must have friends the Lord can use to make you a better you. Friendships are the ultimate factor that determine not just what you do and how you do it, but even who you are as a person. As Dr. Cloud says, “The truth is that you are who you are,… because the power of other people has helped you get there.”

May we make our friendship development as high a priority as our leadership development.

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