Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership – Book Review

Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership
Author: Ruth Hayley-Barton
Publisher: Piquant Editions
ISBN-13: 978-1903689431

Review by Irene McMahon.

In a beautiful mix of academic excellence and poetic prose, Ruth Haley Barton argues that until Christian leaders enter a process of spiritual transformation, their leadership will be tainted by selfishness and egotistic motivations. (Barton, 2008, p16)   However spiritual transformation is mysterious: initiated, orchestrated and brought to fruition by God. This is also a theme which Marva Dawn explores in her book ‘The Sense of the Call’. (Dawn, 2006) It is against this backdrop that Barton draws lessons from the life of Moses, her own testimony and the experience of others of how a leader’s spiritual journey shapes the way s/he leads.

There are three major themes which Barton deals with in this book which I believe are particularly relevant to 21st century leadership:

1.    the tension between the demands of a high performance society and not compromising basic Christian values

2.    the significance of identity and calling
3.    the cultivation of a community of leadership who know how to discern the will of God.

In a brilliant exegesis of the call of Moses, Barton walks us through the exposure of Moses’ selfish leadership ambitions as a young man, his struggle with his identity and how after years of solitude in the wilderness he was ready to pay attention to God.

This theme of silence, encounters with God and paying attention to the inner spirituality infuse all other topics discussed throughout the book.

Having just left a position of leadership in the UK where the demands of leadership are intensified by the immediacy of internet communication, I can confidently state this book highlighted the necessity for me of retreat and silence in a noisy restless world.  This is particularly poignant as leadership principles for communities of faith are being drawn more and more from the business world. Piper has written extensively on this subject, particularly in ‘Brothers, We are Not professionals’ where he says ‘the title of this book is meant to shake us loose from the pressure to fit in to the cultural expectations of professionalism.’ (Piper, 2002, pxii)

Barton emphasises the importance of leaders understanding themselves. Her handling of Moses’ struggle with his own identity is a very apt study in a society where ‘the search for identity is universal’ (Castells, 2010, p23). Barton really only focuses on what Northouse calls ‘Psycholdynamic Approach’ (Northouse, 2010, p271) emphasising the impact personality and temperament have on leadership styles. This is not to say that Barton is not aware of other leadership styles, but as the title of the book suggest, her focus is on the soul of the leader.

Barton has done 21st century leaders a great service by infusing new meaning into the concept of calling.  Often calling has become little more than a pious euphemism for doing what we feel like doing Barton brings us back to the understanding that a call is highly relational: ‘it is an interpersonal connection and communication that is initiated by God and thus demands our attention and response.’ (Barton, 2008, p79).

For me the highlight of the book were Barton’s chapters on cultivating a community of leadership.  In an increasingly fragmented society, people long to belong, to be a part of community. (Beven Herangi, 2002, p12) It is as a community of leaders learn to discern the will of God, unhurried, confident in who they are and their calling, that Christian communities are led. ‘Individuality is not compromised but realised in fellowship, in community, with others. We belong to others by design. We are created for relationship with one another and we do truly belong to one another in and through Jesus Christ.’ (DeVine, 2005,  p90  )

The biggest let down of the book for me was Chapter 13 ‘Reenvisioning the Promised Land’.  In this chapter it seems to me that she speculates (from silence) as to why Moses did not enter into the Promised Land. She builds the entire chapter on the premise that ‘for Moses the presence of God was the Promised Land.’ (Barton, 2008, p214) and that this is what leaders ought to anticipate as they are being transformed.  While she concedes that it hasn’t been easy to arrive at this conclusion I find it difficult to substantiate it from the story of Moses.
I have found it difficult to find fault with this book in that the author has focused on what the title says she would and it is excellent in both content and style.

References
Barton, R.H (2008) Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership. Illinois: IVP Books
Castells M. (2010) The Rise of the Network Society. UK: Wiley-Blackwell.
Dawn, M (2006)  A Sense of the Call.  Cambridge: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
DeVine, M (2005)  Bonhoeffer Speaks Today.  Tennessee: Broadman & Holman Publishers.  [online].  Available at
http://books.google.com/books?id=QMKVv3LQsNAC&printsec=frontcover&dq=Bonhoeffer+Speaks+Today+Mark+DeVine&source
Hergani, B (2002) ‘So, like, what’s with these Xer’s, man?’ In Postmission. Ed. by Tiplady, R. Cumbria: Paternoster Press 2-13
Piper, J (2002) Brothers, We are Not Professionals.’  Tennessee: Broadman & Holman Publishers

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