Leading With Grace — What Really Matters

David Hubbard, longtime president at Fuller Seminary, was a towering figure for me about how to lead courageously, with conviction and clarity, and yet to lead with grace.

Shortly before his untimely death, I invited Dave and Max De Pree, another hero of mine, to come to my campus and work with the Board of SPU to talk about how the board of trustees could function most effectively. In the course of our discussions, someone asked Dave what he most valued looking back at his long tenure at Fuller. He said something like this: “I hope Fuller is a place, a community, that is filled with grace.”

I loved that response. That notion has shaped the kind of leader I want to be. That language became part of the mission statement of Seattle Pacific: “we seek,” we say, “to model grace-filled community.” This is huge.

But how to lead with grace these days? Leadership is not an easy thing in our world today. Leaders are ripped constantly in the news, often vilified, and often for good reason. Our leaders have failed us. Broken trust tears at the fabric of our society right now, and broken trust is hugely difficult to repair.

And so I’ve been thinking a lot: how does one lead in such a climate of disappointment, even anger toward leaders? How do we lead when people yearn for so much more?

My very dear friend Bill Robinson, President of Whitworth University, has just written a wonderful little book where he reminds me again that leadership requires both grace and truth. Nothing new there, perhaps, but listen to this: “Truth without grace is harsh, usually self-centered, and very un-Christlike. Grace without truth is deceptively permissive, often lazy, and equally un-Christlike. Good leaders communicate both grace and truth in love.”

So grace and truth, to be sure. As we move forward into the unchartered waters of massive change in our world, lots of truth telling will be required of us, and that will take commitment and courage and strength.

But I suspect that grace will be the hardest part as we move forward. It usually is. Bill says about grace that “one of a leader’s most empowering tools is truth expressed in a spirit of grace. Grace favors trust over cynicism. Grace corrects kindly, not in a mean-spirited way. Grace celebrates what people do right, while acknowledging honestly where they need to improve. Grace restores confidence. Grace gives energy.”

Yes, that’s it. It is energy that comes with grace that we will desperately need moving forward. We will be forced by the circumstances to tell the truth, and we will commit ourselves to doing just that. But truth alone might sap our energy. The real energy, the energy for renewal and optimism and creative thinking, will only be released as we commit ourselves to being grace-filled leaders.

Dave Hubbard got it right. Don’t you think?

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Categories: Leadership

17 replies

  1. I was happy to see the mention of Bill Robinson’s wisdom on leading with grace and truth. I am eager to read his new book, Incarnate Leadership, in which he looks at what we can learn about leadership from Jesus. My daughter only attended Whitworth for one year, after which she missed Seattle (and I hope, her family) and transferred to SPU. But one of my happy memories of that year was a night when the phone rang around 9:30 p.m. When we answered, an enthusiastic voice came on the line and said “Hi, this is Bill Robinson, and I’m sorry to be calling so late, but I wanted to let you know that your daughter just won the Dating Game here at Whitworth!” I think that Jesus, had he been a college president, would have made this same call…late at night, on a friend to friend, first-named basis , to share this lighthearted moment of joy in our daughter’s life. Leaders care about the things that matter to those they are leading, whether those things are big or small.

  2. I think there are a lot of parallels in this grace + truth leadership equation for me in my parenting. Once again, there are so many spill-overs between work life and ministry and the wide world of mothering children. With too much grace, our children grow up without a right sense of self and others; the list goes on. Truth without ample doses of honest encouragement is hard to hear and to learn from.

  3. I truly appreciate your honesty and insight in how to become a better leader, as well as how grace sometimes is the hardest part. Very interesting, as well, to think about grace and truth needing each other – regarding Bill Robinson’s quote.

  4. Welcome to the blogosphere, President Eaton! I’m looking forward to reading your reflections as you live life in Seattle and provide vision for the SPU community.

    This post reminded me of Psalm 82. “One thing God has spoken, two things have I heard: that you, O God, are strong, and that you, O Lord, are loving.” The strength of truth and the love of grace, both embodied by the God we serve in Jesus.

    Enjoy the festivities of Graduation this week!

  5. “I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.”
    So fundamental a principle to our judicial system, and yet we see deception ingrained in much of our society from sports and entertainment to business and politics. But when something has the “ring of truth,” don’t we know it? The resonance we experience is the grace. Perhaps our financial struggles and corporate deceptions will result in a renewed love of truth and grace.

  6. What a wonderful reflection on the power of grace and truth together. This is a critical discussion that must be brought to our culture. It is essential to encounter our communities and world with both grace and truth. I find my generation so often loses sight of truth in the name of “gentleness” rather than grace. There is almost a cultural fear of truth because it can be offensive or challenging. Jesus was truth and brought amazing grace. We must also bring truth and grace and make sure they are in harmony together.

  7. Honestly, it is often hard for me to read about SPU being a “grace-filled community” because it always reminds me of a comment a dear friend and former roommate of mine made a while back about Haven being denied official club status on campus again.

    From what I can tell, SPU’s sexual minority is consistently frustrated with a sensed lack of grace in our community, especially in the lack of official space for conversation on the topic. Part of the problem, I think, is that some in this minority are just as closed to the idea of non-value-pushing dialogue as they sense “the administration” (that vague, too easily blamed entity) is.

    Is it possible, I wonder, to have a club, supported by those in power, where the struggles facing those of alternative sexual orientations are discussed in the open and the differing stances on the matter can meet each other with grace and seek truth together? I think the dialogue has seen momentum in the past couple years, but I don’t understand why it has met so much resistance recently. I would love to here your perspective on it, Dr. Eaton, since I’m sure I have a very one-sided view of the matter.

  8. Now that I’ve caught up with you, Dr. Eaton, I can stop flooding your comment sections. Let me take this last opportunity though to apologize for the typos; I always seem to catch them right after I click “Post Comment.” Once again, I appreciate your opening yourself to the wider community in this hip, electronic form. I think it’s a bold step.

  9. Glad to see your new blog. I miss being on the campus of SPU, but it is nice to be able to have a sense of our continued fellowship via the Internet. If you ever come to Vancouver, BC, it would be great to have a coffee! WWG

  10. I am wondering how Ms. Lybrand and others picture grace and truth both being present in our culture with the push for discussing, accepting, legalizing “alternative sexual orientations”. Any form of biblical truth that is expressed is always taken as lacking grace.

  11. Loved Bill’s comments about truth and grace, and the ongoing dialogue you foster about these relevant topics.

  12. I just read Haven’s web site. Sadly, this is typical of what happens when people confuse grace with “what makes me feel accepted”. Grace and truth (Law and Gospel) are much more difficult and more deeply demanding than that. Millennia of Judeo-Christian teaching easily disprove the idea that “biblical passages on human sexuality are open to different interpretations”.

    Ms. Lybrand: I certainly support a club that is safe for people to discuss their fears and questions, especially on the most sensitive topics. However the final goal cannot be merely that they were accepted simply because they feel strongly about it. All sinners need to be warned that attitudes and behaviors do have real consequences in this life and the next. This club should have the goal to lovingly redeem and rehabiliate those who are confused sexually, not coddle them.

    Dr. Eaton: All of this talk on grace is very nice so far, but what is the practicality? What unpopular stands is SPU taking on important issues such as homosexuality and abortion? The Perkins Center does fine work and I don’t want to put down many aspects of social justice. The world applauds that. Why is SPU so silent about homosexuality and abortion, where the world scorns the Biblical position? I tried to get a statement from the public affairs office on abortion and they merely pointed me to the Free Methodist site and didn’t want to say any more. This is hardly engaging the culture.

  13. I love your exploration of “how does one lead in such a climate of disappointment, even anger toward leaders?” Truly, being a leader and living in the so-called limelight can often be one of the loneliest places for any individual.

    Just as a good leader seeks to serve those entrusted to their care, the “led” must seek to serve and follow their leader. The breakdown in the leader/led relationship comes when the led cease to believe in the leader’s authority, abilities, etc. A good leader ought to purse and engage with even “better” advisors. In doing so, the led can submit to their leader with confidence, knowing that their leader is the benefactor of relational, and often generational, wisdom that alone he or she would not possess.

    We all agree (I hope) that leaders need to lead with transparency. Furthermore, those being led need to understand the difference between inquiry and critique – seeking to understand rather than voicing disapproval.

    If we truly desire better leaders we must first prepare our hearts and minds to have the ability to be led.

  14. Dear President Eaton:
    I was delighted with the spirit of your post on grace and truth. I was a “back row” divinity student in Dr. David Hubbard’s Monday night Hebrew Prophets class at Fuller. He lectured with such content and verve, that the classmate to my right and I had to wring our hands and arms to get the feeling back after the 3 hour lecture from all the note taking. All of the brilliant O.T. doctoral candidates were in the front row where he could engage them. We were in the back row. He tolerated our more pastorly than scholarly minds which were trying always to catch on and catch up– and he did that with great grace. What struck me about him… and about John Perkins (who I met at his home in East Pasadena, the Harumbi Center) was that he lived a committment to grace and truth. Dr. Hubbard –in that Monday night class and in moments I saw him on campus– lived a very human but very grace- and truth -filled life. He struggled mightily with forces at Fuller and obstacles of financing, vision, purpose, staffing , Pasadena zoning laws. He was a scholar/administrator/visionary.. who chose to teach me Hebrew Prophets on Monday night. At his core he was a teacher… but he embodied his convictions. I sense you do to. It is a high aspiration. But it is the noblest of attempts. It is what Jesus did. The truth is, people don’t really get it fully until one such as Dr. Hubbard is gone from this planet. I’m sad about that. But I don’t suppose he is. After all he did not live for the praise or acknowledgement of others. Even if he had labored in obscurity, he would have remained true to his convictions. Sounds a bit like Jesus. I hope I am, and others (especially all who read your blog) graced with the same calm quiet, peaceful conviction to not only believe in grace and truth, but to try to live it out.

    Rick Church– yeah, it’s really my last name
    a parent of an SPU sophomore and a pastor in Illinois

  15. Yes, grace is a gift and does give true energy. Look at the difference between the sons in Luke 15. One was broken by grace when returned to the family. The other was living a life of works, trying to earn favor from the Father. Which son going forward is more motivated to love the Father and love others? Always the one broken by grace.

  16. What a wonderful reflection on the power of grace and truth together. This is a critical discussion that must be brought to our culture. It is essential to encounter our communities and world with both grace and truth. I find my generation so often loses sight of truth in the name of “gentleness” rather than grace. There is almost a cultural fear of truth because it can be offensive or challenging. Jesus was truth and brought amazing grace. We must also bring truth and grace and make sure they are in harmony together.

  17. I love your exploration of “how does one lead in such a climate of disappointment, even anger toward leaders?” Truly, being a leader and living in the so-called limelight can often be one of the loneliest places for any individual.

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