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The Reluctant Leader

A Harvard Law graduate resisted notions of leadership until she experienced a different model at Duke Divinity School.

I want to start with a confession: I really do not like the word leader. I often cringe when I hear it attached to my name in some form. I have a mental picture of a stuffy man seated at the head of a large conference-room table barking orders to the minions who sit with pen and paper in hand, hoping to get assigned some minor task that will help propel the future of “The Organization.” They nod at everything he says in feigned agreement.

A caricature indeed, but not that far from the truth—at least the truth I had been taught. I was formally trained to be a leader in some of the world’s finest academic institutions. By God’s grace I went from a low-performing public school system to Columbia University and then two years later on to Harvard Law School. Because of my academic background, I can claim to be a part of an elite group of leaders, movers, and shakers. I know the difference between leaders and managers, the former being those who innovate, the latter those who perpetuate. I worked in white-shoe law firms and state government. Put me in a room and I can network with the best of them. I learned to be charming yet aggressive, persuasive without being whiny. I held positions of leadership in school and in my local community. In the face of defeat, I could recall the words of my beloved alma mater’s chant whenever the football team lost: “That’s all right. That’s OK. You’re going to work for us someday!” To be a leader meant to be on top. It meant to have the last word. It meant to couple power and influence with prestige and success.

Though I had been trained this way, I never felt comfortable in this role. I never quite fit it. I often thought it was because I am African American, a woman, or considered politically liberal. Sometimes one of those characteristics might be the reason. But the defining quality that separated me from this culture of leadership was always my faith. What I had been trained to consider leadership was not commensurate with the gospel. I just could not imagine “Jesus, CEO.” That didn’t seem like the perspective of faithfulness to Christ.

I knew God called me to be among the least of these. Even while in law school, when others coveted summer associate positions in competitive law firms, I took opportunities to work on nursing-home neglect cases, housing-discrimination class actions, landlord-tenant disputes, and service in New Orleans, La., and Gulfport, Miss., following Hurricane Katrina.

Unfortunately, while I knew my faith should inform my understanding of leadership, I found no alternative ideas within the church. I grew up in a black Baptist church that had its own conceptions of leadership: think the preaching power of Martin Luther King, not quiet Rosa Parks. More broadly, I was (and remain) critical of notions of Christian leadership. Often we repackage the world’s concept of leadership by throwing in Jesus and a few Scripture verses and calling it Christian. I suspect that we still want the biggest and best, including the power and influence and envy of others, but we are Christian—so we take our leadership manuals, do a Control-F search, and replace all instances of business, corporation , or organization with church. Tools like “relationship building” can be just as shallow as networking if the goal is to receive a better church assignment or an invitation to preach the next community revival.

Eventually I entered Duke Divinity School after a long struggle with God about following my ministerial calling. Duke Divinity School promised to form me into a leader. I was not interested in becoming a leader, but I came anyway, because God said so. Two warring images invaded in my head: the power-hungry CEO found among the exclusive and elite, and the all-powerful Christ found among the poor, the sick, and the marginalized. In many ways this is what Duke Divinity School itself epitomizes: the power of the large, prestigious university coupled with the Divinity School’s desire to remain faithful to a gospel message that calls us to those who are most powerless.

To my surprise and delight, Duke Divinity School did not offer me a recipe for leadership. Instead, the professors, staff, administration, and students constantly reminded me to be faithful to the God I love and to what God had implanted in me. To do this, I was offered an array