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Why Ambiguity Makes For Great Art And Terrible Leadership

Most critics will tell you that great novels and films involve more than a little ambiguity.  Characters are rounded, stories are open-ended, and the heroes and villains are indistinguishable, in large part because people are both at the same time.

It’s why in Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away, the drama unfolds around a simultaneous baptism & drowning.  Is it an act of murder?  Or salvation?  Judgment?  Or mercy?

Or at the close of The Life Of Pi, the reader is left wondering, “did any of this happen?  If so, at what level?”

Or the closing scene of Sophie’s Choice, when viewers finally grasp the awfulness of, well, Sophie’s choice, we’re left pondering:  “What would I have done?  How would I have coped?  Is Sophie someone we abhor or admire?”

And the characters in Genesis 12-50 — in many ways, a self-contained novella — are so vivid because they are so ambiguous.  Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, and Leah: are they scoundrels or saviors?  Cowardly or courageous?  Faithful or apostate?  Yes!  That’s why we love them all these years later.

Ambiguity, then, makes for great art.

But it makes for terrible leadership.

Because those of us who are tasked with leadership dare not leave people with uncertainty regarding our core beliefs, their next steps, or even the meaning of our words.

I know ambiguity makes for terrible leadership because I’ve been that ambiguously terrible leader.  It happened when I expected others to read my mind.  It happened when I dropped hints and assumed that people would interpret them as commands.  It happened when I lacked the courage to say what I actually meant and to be honest with what I actually wanted.

And it happened when I lacked an organizational center and in turn bounced from idea to idea to idea and from project to project to project.  I am most blessed that God allowed us to tread water during my times of ambiguously terrible leadership.

Three things in the last six years or so have helped me gain some victories in this wrestling match with myself:

  1. The clarity that accompanied the adoption of inviting all people into a living relationship with Jesus Christ as our mission statement and the Vision Frame that surrounds it.  It helped me approach the level of discipline as a leader that I already have as a person.
  2. Setting expectations during the hiring process rather than after you get frustrated with a new hire.  We have a document called On Salary And In Ministry At Good Shepherd that prevents problems before they arise.
  3. Remembering that when it comes to preaching and ministry, I do “bold” a lot better than I do “cool.”

When I hit “publish” on this post, I’ll likely go pick up a recent novel and appreciate it for its ambiguity.

But when I get to work in the morning, I need to be ready to lead with clarity.

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