There are any number of goals/purposes/dreams that we aim for when we lead. We lead to hit benchmarks or to see an organization grow. Or any other of a myriad of business defined ends. Sometimes we lead in ways that are designed to achieve more personal ends, e.g., to meet our need for identity, significance, or belonging. But when we’re leading for fullness, our ends are the flourishing of all the people we lead. And that flourishing is the experience of being fully human.
Setting forth the flourishing of people in being fully human might sound like a ridiculous goal for most leaders. How on earth, we might ask, will we meet all our business goals (or the sometimes-questionable personal goals)? And it’s fine to feel that question brings up tension. But rather than try to justify the end of fullness in the eyes of business, we should ask why the tension exists in the first place? I suggest that the tension exists because we know that the goals and ends we adopt are at best indifferent, and at worst hostile, to human flourishing – to truly being human.
If we actually do attempt to lead for fullness, then we are going to rub up against all of the sharp edges of a society that doesn’t believe in human flourishing. OR it has such a radically different understanding of what constitutes flourishing that we’re really talking about two different things.
We’ve defined fullness as experiencing the flourishing of being fully human. But what does that mean? It sounds like a statement that is more at home in a philosophy classroom than in a blog for people in leadership. Let’s take the phrases one by one, because they indicate our foundational view of what human existence is all about.
Flourishing is best thought of as a plant metaphor. It makes us think of a bright green plant that is growing vigorously. It is putting forth green leaves and blossoms and then fruit. The plant is being its full planty-self, doing its plant thing to the best of its capacity.
The fully in being fully human means just what a dictionary definition would suggest – entirely or wholly – but it’s more helpful to think of it as meaning “without any bits cut out”. Think about the plant and now imagine that someone put it in a box. It’s a convenient box for carrying the plant. It stacks well, so you can make the most efficient use of space. But now imagine that the plant doesn’t quite fit in the box, and so you lop off all the bits of the plant that stick out of the box. Some of our ways of understanding being human give priority to the box and lop off at the bits of people that don’t fit. So fully, here, means left intact, without inconvenient pieces removed.
Being human might sound like it doesn’t need defining. After all, we are all human. We know what being human means! But that is precisely where we get into trouble.
The first thing we should say about humans is that we’re relational beings. This means that when we are leading people to create structures, programmes, or products, we need to acknowledge that they are beings who are embedded in relationships. Any time humans gather together, we become communities. And it is no different in a work environment. This has all sort of implications for leaders. For example, it means that we are all shaped and influenced by the people we work with. Their input and interactions with us will shape how we value ourselves and even define our sense of self, and vice versa. A good leader who is leading for fullness is someone who is acknowledges and nurtures the community they lead. They know that their committee, group, and organization have culture. (See 3Gs for Culture Shaping Leadership for what the positive shaping of culture looks like.)
This is where things start to get controversial, and messy. No one wants to admit weakness. In fact, it might be something that leaders are particularly averse to. And yet, the truth is that weakness is inherent to what it means to be human. I suspect this is what lies behind the growing demand for leaders who are authentic and transparent, and, well, human (consider this blog). And this is the messy part. We need to let ourselves actually be human in front of the people we lead. That doesn’t mean being as fully transparent with everyone as we are with close friends and family. But it does mean asking for help, taking holidays, and admitting our limitations (more on that in a moment).
Moreover, we need to let them be human in all their weakness. We need to shape a culture that has space for people to safely be weak in. That might be that our people are able to share about health concerns or disabilities. Or it might mean that they can talk openly about their work limitations without fear of embarrassment or reprisal.
Being fully human requires acknowledging our weakness. But another, related part of being human, is being limited. A simple example is the limited amount that we can work. Our human bodies can only function so well for so long before we need rest and sleep. That is a limitation. And yet, it seems that we are either reluctant to admit that limitation or the work cultures we have created ignore that limitation. For example, a study from 2018 showed that only 40% of UK employees took their full annual leave.
Limitations, whether they are physiological, mental health, or simply the nature of our human biology, must be allowed to remain part of the picture of what it means to be fully human. Once again, leaders need to pioneer living within and modeling the acceptance of limitation if we want to be leading for fullness. And a significant part of that leading for fullness will be intentionally shaping the culture of our organization so that it supports this vision of being human.
If you’re leading in a ministry setting – church, non-profit, etc. – rather than in a corporate setting you might have some questions at this point. To begin with, you might be asking how a vision of fullness as the flourishing of being fully human squares with a Christian understanding of the goal of ministry. The answer to that is in two parts. First, Dietrich Bonhoeffer defined Jesus as the true human in his Ethics. In other parts of Bonhoeffer’s corpus, we find hints that lead us to believe that humans are embedded, embodied beings (fragile, frail, dependent, and limited) who always stand before God and whose most genuinely human act is to receive. (This portrait of being human was the subject of my PhD thesis.)
Second, the purpose of ministry, as Dallas Willard once said in an interview, “is bringing the life of God, as it would be understood in terms of Jesus and his kingdom, into the lives of other people.” (Goggin and Strobel, 130) Therefore, leading for fulness, as I have described it in this blog, should be the overarching goal, motivating and driving every form of Christian leadership.
Further, you might be wondering whether leading from this space of acknowledged weakness, limitation, and interdependence is possible. While the model that has ruled the corporate world for the last century and more is compelling and gets a lot done, the New Testament questions its worth. Consider Paul’s response to the Corinthians’ fascination with “super apostles” (2 Cor 11). He boasts in his weakness and all the points where he differed from those high-status orators. It’s not a path that guarantees a large following for your podcast, but it is what Paul saw as faithful leadership.
If you’re a Christian who is a leader in any field, you are probably sitting with one final, uncomfortable question. You are probably asking whether you are modeling this Jesus-shaped version of being truly human or not. Are you living without meaningful community? What about covering up weakness? Or ignoring limitations? These things are often par for the course for Christian leaders. Let me leave you with some quality resources that help us ask the difficult questions. Moreover, these resources model ways of leading and being that embrace this way of being fully human.
We’ve covered leading for fullness, but as we end, let me encourage you to live for fullness too. Leading in this way will help the people you lead experience flourishing. But you can only lead this way if you’re living for fullness. So, I encourage you to embrace being fully human. Live in community and let other people help shape you and tell you who you are. Accept the weakness of being human, whether that’s growing old or having a limp or being neurodivergent. And learn to not only live within your limitations but express them and invite others in to help you. All of this will make you a better leader. But more significantly it’ll make you a better human. And it will open the door to a meaningful life.