Fifty years after a diving accident that left her a quadriplegic at the age of 17, Joni Eareckson Tada shares seven humbling lessons that say a lot about Jesus and the kind of leadership he requires of those who serve in his name.
In 2005 I met Joni, who today is CEO of Joni and Friends, the now-worldwide ministry she helped to found. Today, her ministry reaches out in Jesus’ name to millions of disabled children, adults and families in 60 countries. For the past 13 years, Joni and Friends has continued to build and sustain a flourishing organizational culture.
A few weeks ago, I asked Joni to reflect on her five decades of ministry which started as her story began to spread and the letters from disabled individuals began to pour in. Behind the growth and gospel impact of Joni and Friends is a tremendous senior leadership team, spearheaded by the gifted, long-time contributions of others including, President and COO Doug Mazza, himself the father of a disabled son.
But what about Joni, herself? What gets her up in the morning and traveling the world with her husband Ken? As you’ll see, it has to do with her deep passion to answer Jesus’ call in Luke to “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind and make them come in so my house will be full.” What are the lessons she’s learned along the way—lessons that can speak to your leadership and life, today? Here’s what she said…
The Seven Humbling Lessons
1. A True Power
“When I was still on my feet in high school, I was seen by others as a natural leader. After my accident, however, I had to forget everything I’d been taught about personal power equating to effective leadership. Through my paralysis, I’ve discovered that my calling as a leader is shaped as much by my weakness and failings as it is by my strength.”
My friend Dr. Dan Allender says, “The leaders God chooses are more broken than strong, more damaged than whole, more troubled than secure. The most effective leaders do not rise to power in spite of their weakness, they lead with power because of their weakness.”
2. A Servant Leader Model
It’s not an axiom but rather a practice. After telling the disciples to find the disabled and bring them in, Jesus modeled it, stopping for virtually every disabled person he met.
3. An “EGO”-Driven Culture
At Joni and Friends, we strive to create a strong culture built around our core values: Honor God in everything we do, build relationships based on trust and respect, maintain integrity and excellence in programs and services, and practice responsible stewardship. If our culture is strong, then the spiritual and emotional health will be strong as well. To borrow a line from Lead Like Jesus’ leadership training which Joni and Friends continues to use, “We try to promote “EGO”—not Edging God Out, but rather Exalting God Only.
In my failures and weaknesses, I’ve learned to fall forward, rather than backward, into the arms of Grace.”
4. A Godly Purpose
But God delights in leveraging our weakness and minimizing our power so that when we accomplish work through them, the whole world will know the Lord has done it.
5. A Secret Contentment
Today, I wake up feeling very weak. In the morning, when the chronic pain is worst, I say, “Lord, I’m so weary, I cannot do this. Jesus, I can’t do anything, not even life in a wheelchair.” It’s then, I choose to say, “Lord, I’m going to boast in my affliction so that your power might rest on me.” This is the secret of contentment of living each day as the Apostle Paul talked about, because when I am week, then I am strong in the Lord.’
6. A New Heart
You would think that after 50 years of dealing with quadriplegia I would be most excited to receive a glorified body in heaven, but not so. What I’m excited about is, one day, receiving a new heart completely free of sin. I’m such a fan of the Puritans who encouraged Christ’s followers to “sit close to self-scrutiny.” I constantly examine my heart, mindful that God has placed into my hands this amazing ministry to the world’s one billion people with disabilities; It is a calling and a responsibility which I dare not jeopardize, minimize or risk losing.
7. An Admirable Character
Sooner or later, every Christian leader needs to grasp what it means, as part of one’s calling to biblical leadership, to be the chief of sinners, as Paul claimed for himself. There’s nothing wrong in being admirable if you confess a wrong and then go forward in humility, presenting yourself as mature in Christ and then helping others in that same journey.
What do these seven humbling lessons stir up in you? What people and situations at home or work come to mind? Considering all that Joni has shared here about her own life and leadership calling, where might God be nudging you right now to stop and reflect, to pay attention, to pray, and perhaps to reconsider where you might pause, and gather and move forward with your people, your team, your organization?
I’ve found it’s questions like these that can bring you to your knees, as a leader who seeks to humbly follow Christ. That’s one thing I continue to revisit and explore and learn as a result of hearing Joni Eareckson Tada share these seven, humbling lessons about leadership and life.
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