March 5, 2013
Don't Be a Hero: Rethinking Impact
by Tyler Wigg-Stevenson
Many years ago I was involved with an organization that had the grand mission of tackling the world’s biggest problems.
The leader of the organization—I’ll call him Bill—had a Rolodex full of contact information for top leaders around the world in government, business, civil society, religion, arts, entertainment. He had built his connections on the strength of his charisma and his genuine desire to do good in a world plagued with problems. Everyone who met him came away with the impression of a charming, sincere leader—a not-for-profit hero who was doing great things.
Bill was great in a public setting, where he could communicate his vision with grand, heartfelt rhetoric. When you got a little closer, however, cracks in this world-saving image started to appear. Out of view from anyone he needed to impress, Bill flew into rages at small obstacles. He stalked through the office wearing an invisible bubble of cold anger, chewing out junior staff for minor mistakes or differences in opinions. He grew abusive toward an executive who’d come on board to help stabilize the chaos he created. This poisonous environment led to rapid staff turnover and terrible morale.
In sum, the disconnect between Bill’s vision for the world and the way he treated those around him had huge consequences for the very effort he was called to lead.
Bill is an extreme example, but I frequently come across this personality type: men and women whose good intentions and grand ambitions blind them to the terrible ways they interact with real human beings. Such leaders may love a concept—peace, community, flourishing and so on—but don’t seem to like people very much.
Granted, we’re all a lot easier to love in the abstract than we are face-to-face. But leaders who like causes more than those the causes serve often wind up sitting in the rubble of their ambitions and relationships—left alone with a great vision for what the world could look like if God would just call and ask for their help.
My intimate familiarity with the siren song of ambition is what makes me so concerned about much of the talk I hear in Christian circles today. Everywhere I go, it seems that people are talking about saving or changing the world. The message to individuals is that we should be leaders—heroes—who can make an impact.
But impact is value neutral. It’s a concept based on degree of influence rather than quality. If I make an impact on something, all I’ve done is hit it really hard—with no guarantee that it’s better for the collision.
This “impact culture” is dangerous on many levels.
We should remember that God does not need our big plans. Instead, he calls us to become little Christs. So perhaps we would do well to pump the brakes of ambition, to slow down a bit while we discern whether we are moving in the right direction. After all, if we are headed the wrong way, it would be much better to be moving slowly.
Excerpted and adapted from The World Is Not Ours to Save: Finding the Freedom to Do Good.
Tyler Wigg-Stevenson is the founder and director of the Two Futures Project, a movement of Christians for nuclear threat reduction and the global abolition of nuclear weapons. He also serves as chairman of the Global Task Force on Nuclear Weapons for the World Evangelical Alliance.