Leading by Memory

By Daniel Vestal

Effective and healthy leaders are formed and sustained by understanding the internal dynamics that compelled them into leadership. It is important to pay attention to the deepest part of ourselves that caused us to become leaders in the first place. We must give attention to what it is that continues to motivate and compel us, in the deepest part of ourselves. “Why did I become a leader?” “Why do I continue to lead?” It’s not enough to say, “This is how I earn a living,” or “I have leadership gifts,” or “I was asked to do this,” or “I’m good at it.

We lead out of one, or a combination, of several internal dynamics: memory, narrative, conscience, imagination, music.

Some of us lead primarily out of memory. We remember what we have seen, experienced and learned in someone else. And either consciously or unconsciously we pattern our leadership after them. Memory is a powerful influence in shaping and forming our personality and the way we interact with others.

I grew up in the home of an evangelist. My father was a charismatic and powerful personality who commanded attention and respect just by his presence. However, he was also a humble man who was unpretentious and compassionate. He was straightforward in his conversation and always greeted people with a warm smile. Some of my earliest memories are of his shaking a person’s hand with enthusiasm and gladness. He would look a person in the eye and engage them in a natural and welcoming way.

This may sound like a small matter, but that memory shaped the way I began to greet and engage people before I went off to college. My father’s behavior was an unconscious influence on interactions with others. When I became a Pastor I would stand at the door of the church at the end of worship and greet those who had attended after the pattern of my father. I didn’t realize this action until someone who had known my father said, “You are just like your dad. You even shake hands like your dad.” I was leading out of memory.

As I went to college and seminary I experienced something of a theological deconstruction and reconstruction. My inherited faith was challenged, and then was expanded and deepened. Of course this influenced how I preached and what I preached from the pulpit. I learned a new vocabulary as well as new rhetorical styles. I didn’t consciously decide one day to alter my preaching, it just happened because of the power of memory.

I had an Old Testament seminary professor who loved the Hebrew Scriptures and expounded them more effectively than anyone I had ever heard. He had a way of preaching and teaching that was thoughtful, yet passionate. His influence was profound. In my first pastorate after preaching a series of sermons on the book of Job, I realized that I sounded like Dr. Garland. I was leading out of memory.

In the years that have followed others entered into my life with their gifts, insights and personalities. As I absorbed their influence, either in person or through their writings, I incorporated their impact into my pastoral leadership through memory. Denominational statesmen, clinical pastoral educators, organizational theorists, mystics and monks became my mentors and teachers.

What is important in our development as leaders and in nurturing others as leaders is for us to get “in touch” with our memory. We should “mine our memories” and be intentional in seeking to understand this internal dynamic and its influence on us. We can do this with thoughtful reflection and guided conversation. Reflect on the following questions.

1.Who are the first persons I can remember who influenced me to be a leader?

2.What specifically do I remember about their leadership that was good? Or bad?

3.Can I name in some kind of chronological order the leaders whose theology/practice/behavior has shaped and formed me as a leader?

4.What are my good memories, bad memories, painful memories about leadership.

Self awareness and self understanding are not automatic. They require serious introspection and honest contemplation. Sometimes they require painful exposure from someone who will be honest with us and point out where we need help. Memories can be difficult to face, just as they can be exhilarating. Either way, leadership is enhanced by exploring our own memory.

Each of us have patterns of thought and behavior patterns that we have observed and learned from others, perhaps without knowing it. By exploring and examining our memory we can better understand why we do what we do. Each of us have had “turning point” moments, some dramatic and some mundane, that framed our future. In a recent workshop someone told me, “Some of the most mundane experiences have been the most transformative. Remembering those experiences helped reframe my understanding and see their value for today.”