Imagine that you are notified that the most important and impressive leader you have ever heard of will be “passing by” this afternoon. You would never, ever miss an opportunity to meet, much less simply encounter this person so you are prepared to do whatever it takes to make it happen.
You have followed this person’s work your entire life, his ideas have shaped your approach to your own work and your relationships with those you lead. You feel deeply indebted to his guiding influence. You are, without understatement, a disciple of his teaching. So much so, that you can’t help but see him as “larger than life.” The thought of meeting this person is overwhelming to you.
When you arrive at the location, you see an enormous crowd gathered.
The crowd passes by but this person is not among them. This gathering was not for him. Then you hear music in the distance, a fanfare that must indicate his presence. You make your way to the music, only to have it dissipate on your arrival with no evidence of him being there.
There is a great commotion behind you now. More people than before, someone yelling into a microphone, the words are passionate almost angry, though you cannot make them out. Is this him, you wonder? You approach and discover that it is not. He is not here.
Discouraged, you begin the long walk home. Street after street there are fewer people, fewer buildings, fewer cars. You continue walking into a large, forested park. A light silent sound – your intuition? your instinct? – invites you to take a rest under the canopy of a tremendous oak tree. As you approach it you see a man sitting at its base, resting there, reading a book.
He notices you and calmly waves you over. It is him, at last. Just him, alone. Waiting for you.
You sit, bewildered at first, taking in the truth that this is the one, right in front of you now, this is the one in whom you so fervently believe and you think to yourself, of course! Of course he wouldn’t be a part of the enormous crowds, or at the center of the loud music or rallying people with angry speech.
Of course he would be right here at this tree. He did pass by as promised, so quietly, so humbly that no one noticed him. But you did, finally, and his invitational presence led you right to him.
You stopped looking for him the way so many others had looked. You gave up what they believed about how he would arrive and how he would be found. And you forgot to be afraid or overwhelmed. You forgot to be intimidated or anxious.
You discovered something so essential and somehow still so foreign, a leader whose authority comes from internal capacity rather than external validation. A leader who is concerned with serious things in a curious way. A leader who is engaging but not forceful, present but not consumed with his presence.
And you rested there for a while, enlarging and enlivening the conversation with your own contributions because he not only made space for you to do so but expected that you could and you would.
This is what stays with you today, that it was never about him. It was always about being a part of something larger than yourself.
And then you got up and on your way, restless with determination to get back to work so that others could feel the same.
Inspired by 1 Kings, Chapter 19
DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.