Leaders As Truth Tellers
By Ted Cockle
If you’ve seen the movie Whiplash* you know it’s a peculiar way to start an article for a group of educators—let alone Christian ones. The film follows a jazz drummer under the tutelage of a rather extreme—yet prestigious—college conductor. At first glance, this foul-mouthed, music stand throwing educator seems an unlikely resource for professional development. Yet, a brush with the extreme can often serve to expose the subtle cracks and holes in our methods.
In the film, this prestigious conductor, Terence Fletcher, wields his standard of excellence like a yardstick, harshly disciplining students for anything shy of perfection. He stops at nothing to bring about a student’s full potential. The conductor reveals his pedagogical cards late in the film when he says, "the two most harmful words in the English language are ‘good job.’” This line is where the complexity of the film hit me. While I’d grown to despise his character, Terence Fletcher had something to teach me. He taught me that I’d been lying to my students.
Now, before you call my boss, hear me out. The lies I tell my students (and the lies you might tell too) are not intentional lies born of malice, but lies born of a reflexive desire to seek harmony. They come disguised as encouragement, but result in ruin. I think you know the type I’m talking about. They are the lies embedded in the generic “good jobs” I pass out like candy at a parade—freely, indiscriminately. At best, the “good job” is vague; at worst, the “good job” is a flat out lie when the job was anything but good. The danger of these blind encouragements is in their subtlety. Without being specific, we could be affirming practices, worldviews, and liturgies that will harm our students later in life.
So where, then, lies our hope? How can we seek to cultivate excellence without harshness? How can we encourage without foregoing truthfulness? As I hope will always be my answer, let’s look to Christ, who—in His threefold office of Prophet, Priest and King—provides an excellent model for balanced truth telling.
Truth Telling Prophet
A prophet is just as much about defining the current reality as he/she is about setting a vision for the future (Ryken, 2013). In many ways, the vision for the future is born out of the needs that arise from the current state.
Christ spoke the truth of our situation—of our need of Him—in the Sermon on the Mount (and other discourses). As He shows us how far we fall short of the holiness a holy God demands, Christ Himself is the vision of truth—the vision of our future.
For us this means calling it like it is. This means, in love, helping a student to see why something didn’t go as well as it could have. Our role is to help them see and learn now—giving them the tools to overcome similar challenges in the future.
Truth Telling Priest
A priest brings the truth of God’s Word to bear on the lives of those in his/her care (Ryken, 2013). Seeing both the felt needs and the actual needs, a Priest speaks the truths of Scripture over his/her people to care for his/her people. A priest carries the burden of reconciling the people to the Father with the Word that is Truth—Christ Himself.
Christ is our example of a truth telling Priest. Throughout His ministry, Christ constantly references Scripture to show care (which sometimes looked like rebuke). Then, having dwelt among us, He took up the burdens we were to carry and carried them on our behalf—reconciling us to the Father.
Like Christ, we too must have Scripture so emblazoned on our hearts that it is the very language we speak. God’s story of redemption ought to be the story we tell—in every situation—because it is our story and our students’ stories. We must know, as Christ knew, that this story would be the most comforting thing as we bear the burdens of our students and bring them before God in prayer.
Truth Telling King
A king/queen, properly exercising his/her authority, speaks the truths of accountability to his/her people (Ryken, 2013). He/She asks, “what are they doing well, what are they not doing well?” A king/queen knows the consequences of speaking an “un-truth” from their position of authority, especially if that untruth is hidden within a blind encouragement. Rather than saying “good job” indiscriminately, a king judiciously guards his/her words to ensure their weight and significance are not lost. Each word is chosen with precision.
Christ models this throughout His ministry as He quickly, graciously, and authoritatively maneuvered to the heart of those He interacted with—the rich young ruler, the woman at the well, the disciples, and the crowds.
"And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.” Matthew 7:28-29, ESV
How we use our words will help determine the authority they carry. When offering complements, we ought to be specific enough to be helpful. Specificity will prevent an overuse of the generic “good job.” We must remember that helping our students see an accurate picture of where they are is a huge part of how we can encourage them to grow.
The POWER TO BE Truth Tellers
When we lead as Christ did, in threefold truth telling, we can encourage our students to become who God is creating them to be without having to resort to the methods of Terence Fletcher. While Christlikeness can be daunting, let us be encouraged by Christ’s completed work as a Prophet, Priest, and King—it is not only our example to follow, it is the power at work within us.
Ryken, P. (2013, March 4). Leadership for Christ and His Kingdom. Leadership for Christ and His Kingdom - Books & Culture - ChristianityTodayLibrary.com. Retrieved from http://www.ctlibrary.com/bc/2013/marapr/leadership-for-christ-and-his-kingdom.html
*NOTE: I would encourage caution regarding Whiplash. While the film is well done, it was intense and extremely vulgar. While I’m thankful for the lessons I learned, I might not watch the film again, knowing all the language the film contains.