Book Review: The Leadership Ellipse by Robert A. Fryling

Through my graduate studies at Fuller Seminary, I have been introduced to many different books. Some of those books have been more impactful than others. A recent required read, The Leadership Ellipse by Robert A. Fryling, was certainly one of these more impactful reads.

Those serving in roles of leadership often struggle to fully embrace and embody the entirety of their role and calling because of the inhibiting tensions and expectations that have many times been placed on their role before they are ever serving in that position. Those tensions and expectations are placed on leaders from multiple sources - externally and internally, communally and culturally. In fact, often unhealthy tensions and expectations are projected on the role they are serving in by the leader themselves. At other moments, these heightened pressures come from peers, and those the leader serves through their role. 

A leader’s inability to authentically embody and embrace their calling, leads to a lack of effectiveness and fruitfulness in their leadership, and it creates an obvious misfiring both in the individual's inner spiritual life and through the outer demands of the leader’s work and role. As an author, Robert A. Fryling has a way of relating to established leaders, as well as connecting to their tensions and troubles in a way that few are able to do. Through The Leadership Ellipse, we find an impactful and effective path to integrate together the inner and outer life of a leader. 

In this book, Fryling's approach invites leaders to develop both the tools and rhythms to implement better self-awareness, healthier rhythms of leadership practice, and compassionate new postures that will lead to an authentic and integrated approach in a leader's relationship with God and others. Fryling's new paradigm for leaders brings about a healthier understanding of leadership that causes us to rethink our leadership goals and values, and teaches the importance of living healthily in the tensions of leadership. Our inner lives must find balance with the outer pressures of our role.

Far too often, leaders do not slow down enough to know what is going on inside them and trust me, the pressures of their role and the laments of life have stirred things inside us regardless if we see it or not. The leader's inability to pause and reflect on these things that are stirring inside a leader will unconsciously permit the expectations and pressures of our influential role to take priority over their own spiritual and personal formation. Even more, a leader's striving for success or contentment can cause the deepest discontentment in us and ultimately create mission drift. As pointed out by Fryling, "much more insidious are the demands that arise from our own spirit of discontent within ourselves and with our place in the world" (Fryling 2009, 32). For this reason, leaders must wean themselves from the personal and cultural pressures and impulses around them and discover that "there is profound satisfaction in just resting" (Fryling 2009, 35). This act of weaning off personal and cultural impulses can be simply defined as an act of Sabbath. Sabbath is not just leaving our office, desk, or place of employment for rest but rather it is a time to pause and leave all of our thoughts of our responsibilities, preoccupations, and opportunities. Perhaps the call to leave our preoccupations is the hardest.

Leaders and non-leaders alike want to belong to a context in which they are seen, known, and loved. Our religious systems have not always modeled well what it means to allow a leader to be vulnerable and transparent at this level. Belonging is much deeper than affiliation than acceptance, and "belonging has a far deeper meaning than just a formal relationship" (Fryling 2009, 123).  We have been created to belong to God, to the purpose in our lives, to each other in community, and the created world around us. That sense of belonging can be damaged by communal dysfunction, lack of intimate communities, excessive busyness, and visionary boredom and from the lack of challenge. What can inhibit these impulses from damaging our sense of belonging, is rooted in the leader's ability to practice pause, to check their humility and to sit in prayerful awareness or listening prayer. These moments will drive us towards an inherent discontentment and ultimately into isolation, but it can be shifted through prayer, mirroring the “four times Jesus prays his disciples, that we, would be one” (Fryling 2009, 127). Leaders might consider in what ways they are living in isolation from the world and failing to step into a sense of sentness. When leaders pause to "practice an intentional belonging to God, to each other and in the world, we experience a transformation from our loneliness into a more vibrant and peaceful sense of our calling" (Fryling 2009, 35).

Fryling suggests that “when we are able to lead with the conscious awareness of God’s continual and immediate presence not only inside us but also in our external context, we bring spiritual coherence and health to our organizational environment(s)” (Fryling 2009, 137). We cannot hope to achieve greater attentiveness through a formulaic approach, but rather new inner and then external posturing to who we are and how we operate. We become contagiously more aware of God's divine presence and appointments when we find ourselves more "involved with people through listening, learning, and loving" (Fryling 2009, 174). This shift from individual focus, to a focus on God at work in others, is accomplished in a community when the leader "invests in people through time, touch, and teaching" (Fryling 2009, 174).  Such an invested attentiveness to what God is doing in the people and communal context, not only inspires leaders, but transforms their faith in what God is doing, and it also "inspires people through enunciating vision and providing encouragement" (Fryling 2009, 174). Leaders become more attentive when they make the community less about their vision and more of a discovery of what God is doing in others and the community.

The tension between a leader's internal and external selves must be attended to with commitment and intentionality. Not only does a failure to maintain this tension between our inner and outer lives affects our personal spiritual formation, but it will also ultimately invade the communities and spheres of influence in which we as leaders have influence. Implementing the self-awareness, rhythms of practice, and new postures proposed by Robert A. Fryling will undoubtedly lead to an authentic and integrated approach in relationship with God, ourselves, and others.

Though I have read many books on leadership, many aspects of Fryling’s writings connected with me in deeper ways than any other. It was encouraging to read this book as a veteran leader and find some inner struggles that I have faced in such descriptive words that I have struggled to name for myself. Moving forward, I am sure what I am taking away from this book will continue to influence my approach to leadership and in developing leadership goals. I highly recommend this read to all leaders.


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