My phone rang at 9:30 p.m. one Thursday evening. The caller was my boss, a senior director.
“Mike, you have a new assignment," he said. "Beginning tomorrow morning, you are the new QA [quality assurance] lead for our next-generation product, with a staff of fourteen. The project is eighteen months old and has missed all its delivery dates. Your team has worked twenty-six consecutive weekends.”
This directive presented me with two challenges. One, I was still managing a team of 25 that was six weeks from delivery of the last Netscape browser (which became the code base for the first version of Firefox).
Two, I was taking responsibility for a product I had not seen and a team I had never met. Their manager was fired just minutes before I got the phone call.
Copyright: ginosphotos / 123RF Stock Photo
In a pivotal scene in the animated film The Lion King,the lion Simba is staring at his reflection in the water alongside the sage baboon Rafiki when the spirit of Simba’s late father, Mufasa, speaks to him:
Mufasa: Simba, you have forgotten me.
Simba: No. How could I?
Mufasa: You have forgotten who you are and so have forgotten me. Look inside yourself, Simba. You are more than what you have become. You must take your place in the circle of life.
Simba: How can I go back [to my homeland]? I'm not who I used to be.
Mufasa: Remember who you are. You are my son, and the one true king.
Costa Mitchell, the National Director at Association of Vineyard Churches in South Africa, encourages Christians in leadership to remember who they are. In his book Giving Leadership, Mitchell offers a corrective and a way forward. He urges leaders to exchange their often self-serving agenda for a giving servant leadership model that empowers, collaborates, and focuses on the common good (319-320).
I believe that spiritual leadership is about being a followerof Jesus. The question I ask myself daily is how being a follower informs my leadership approach. Leaders need God to shape their character, their spiritual gifts, their desires, and their mission.
Jesus gives us a leadership model that is different than the world’s. As recorded in Matthew 20:25-28 (ESV):
But Jesus called [the disciples] to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
It is essential that our identity as leaders reflect the example of Christ. We are specifically exhorted not to be like leaders in the world.
The day after I got that phone call, a Friday, I met with the QA leads to assess the status of the project. I learned that all the team members were escaping for the weekend, desperate for a break. My senior QA lead had booked a weekend at Lake Tahoe.
The senior project leads were to meet every Friday at 5:00 p.m. for status updates. Before 5, other team members were packing up for the day and heading for the exit.
At the status update meeting, the project’s engineering director told me that the QA team would need to work over the weekend again to meet a deadline. I pushed back, explaining that only sixteen man-hours would meet the requirement and another working weekend was unnecessary. He said he did not want to wait until Monday to discover any problems. I relented and agreed to the weekend work.
Afterwards, the senior QA lead told me, “Mike, I don’t know what to do. Most of the team has left, and I expect they will keep their computers and phones off till Monday. My Lake Tahoe reservation is waiting. It has been twenty-six straight weekends.” She was understandably desperate.
I replied, “I only need one more hour of your time. Tell the rest of the team to go home.”
As a Christian leader in spiritual or secular contexts, I challenge myself to exhibit the quality of servanthood. Walter Wright, executive director of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary, says,“Servant leadership points people away from the leader to the mission of the community and empowers their individual contributions toward that mission.”
I knew I could call upon my other team, with whom I had a reservoir of goodwill. I called a key contributor from that team and asked him if he was willing to work the weekend as a favor. Without hesitation, he said he was up to the task. The overworked senior lead from my new team spent exactly one hour providing information to him and then left for her weekend.
By Monday, no issues were found with the product, and we shipped it on schedule. The team never worked another weekend for the duration of the project.
What a gift I was given. Costa Mitchell says that the call to leadership is often birthed in crisis. My team’s crisis provided opportunity to build respect and interconnectedness with my new team. I earned the right to lead them by making use of goodwill from my other team. At the same time, I garnered the trust of a demanding director because I helped solve a longstanding challenge.
Leadership models abound in Silicon Valley, where ascending the corporate ladder is about winning, manipulation, and pushing others down. I have worked with managers who use guilt, badgering, and intimidation to coerce compliance. They were often rewarded for the value they provided to the business.
Like Simba, I must remember who I am and who my father is. As a leader, this means rejecting leadership models that are not life-giving. A servant leadership model is life-giving for the church and for those outside the church.
What better witness can we provide to the world than how we lead?
Michael Dunn became a Christian in 1975 during the sweet spot of the Jesus movement. His career has been in high tech, including tenures at Apple, Netscape, AOL, Palm, and a few startups. He and his wife, Kathy, raised four children and are learning to be grandparents. They currently live in Santa Cruz.
In previous years, Michael was involved with several church plants in San Francisco and Austin. In 2015, Michael completed a masters from the School of Theology at Fuller Seminary. He still works in high tech but is starting to work out his focus for this next season. Presently he is interested in serving boomers. He attended The River from 2012 to 2017.