Leadership: A Journey of Discernment
By Linda Sommerville
“The race doesn’t always go to the swift, but it does go to the runner.”
This obvious yet profound statement got my attention at the most recent CCCU Women’s Leadership Development Institute (WLDI). Sherilyn Emberton, president of Huntington University, shared this thought with the cohort of nearly 30 women leaders from CCCU schools across the country, encouraging us to “use whatever resources God has given you” to lead well in our situations and keep running the race, no matter what obstacles we may face.
Leading well was a theme echoed by MaryKate Morse, dean of Portland Seminary, as she helped us unpack the story of Queen Esther and her “for such a time as this” leadership moment. Esther’s story was an invitation for us to consider how God might be uniquely calling each of us to step up and out of our comfort zones, find our own voices as leaders, and prayerfully lead our organizations forward in these troubled times.
Both of these images — that of a runner, needing grit and determination to keep going, and the image of Queen Esther, needing discernment, vision, and courage to step into her leadership moment — resonated with my own thinking about leadership these days. Never has there been a more important time in Christian higher education for godly and gifted leaders to lead well as we seek to shape our students into the transformational servant leaders needed in our world. In the face of lightning-fast and often unpredictable change, we must continually be developed and stretched as leaders so that we’ll be ready to face whatever challenges lie around the next corner.
For those of us in this year’s WLDI cohort, after more than a year of responding to the challenges of COVID and the rapidly shifting landscape of higher education, we were ready for a break (which the beautiful setting provided). But beyond rest and meaningful connection, we were also hungry to be sharpened in our leadership strategy, identity, and skill so that we could be the leaders God designed us to be, able to meet the demanding challenges of the moment and to consider where God may be leading us next. As I looked around the room, I couldn’t help wondering who might be next to become a university president or provost.
While I have learned never to say never to God, I don’t sense that either of those roles is my next step. But if “what’s past is prologue,” as Shakespeare wrote, then I feel comfortable saying that whatever God has next for me will likely be something I can’t imagine now. My own leadership journey has taken many twists and turns, and God has not always shown me what’s next around the corner — sometimes because I wasn’t ready to see myself in a new leadership role, but sometimes because, like Queen Esther, God was still preparing me for my own “such a time as this” leadership moment.
So while I seek to continue leading faithfully right where I am, I also continue to look for ways to grow as a leader in order to be ready when the next leadership opportunity comes. As leaders, we don’t have to be the smartest or the fastest runner — but we do have to run! And to run well, we must continue developing our leadership so we’re ready for the next challenge or opportunity God brings. Most importantly, we need to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfector of faith” (Hebrews 12:1-2). May God grant us the wisdom, vision, and strength to lead our schools well this coming year!
Linda Sommerville, Ph.D., is associate vice president for Professional and Continuing Education (PACE) at William Jessup University (Rocklin, CA).