I was once Mickey Mouse’ bodyguard. For one evening. For about 2 hours. But it altered the way I saw the world and today deeply impacts the way I coach Christian leaders.
I’ll get to that story in a moment, but first let me say that on my work with Christian leaders, I have become more and more aware that in order to lead well, especially when the “heat” of leadership is turned up and your resilience in facing resistance wavers, a good leader knows that she needs good relationships. Many strong, sturdy, trustworthy relationships. If you are going to endure in the challenges of leadership, you need partners that will stand alongside you and mentors who will give support, coaching and advice. Indeed, I am often both the partner to others and the mentor to some. And as long as I have been in leadership myself, I have had a firm rule that I would always build a team and find partners to work alongside me AND I have always had a coach, a spiritual director, or a therapist to mentor me along. (And I still do today)! But along the way, I sometimes minimized the importance of friendship in leadership.
In my study of leadership resilience, I found that one of the attributes of a resilient leader is to be grounded in something other than your success as a leader. This, of course, is why it’s critical to know that—just like Jesus—you are a beloved child of God BEFORE you ever do anything FOR God (Matthew 3:17). Before Jesus preached one sermon, did one miracle, cast out one demon, or confronted one self-satisfied religious leader, he was already declared “beloved” by God. In the same way, the most resilient leaders are those who have people in their lives who remind them all the time—even daily—that they are loved and appreciated even regardless if they are being ‘successful’ in leadership or not.
Which brings us to the night that I was Mickey Mouse’s bodyguard.
When I was nineteen, the youth organization I worked in held its national convention at the Disneyland Hotel. The conference organizers arranged with Disneyland to have a surprise appearance by Mickey Mouse. One of the conditions of having the famous Disney mascot was that Mickey needed a bodyguard, not an actual armed security officer but someone who would stay with Mickey offstage and make sure that no one bothered him—or even saw him.
I was that bodyguard. I was the only person allowed in the offstage room where Mickey rested and waited for his cue to go on. I had to make sure that no one saw Mickey, that no one took any pictures, and that no one even knew so as not to ruin the surprise. But when we were waiting for Mickey to go on, she took off her costume head and smoked a cigarette. Mickey Mouse on stage was a beloved mythical cartoon character loved by generations. Offstage, Mickey was a shy, kind five-foot-tall petite woman whose name I never got I often imagine that when the actress who plays Mickey Mouse goes home every day that she is probably both exhilarated at the joy she brings to others and relieved to be herself for a while. Her friends may know what she does for a living, but if they are good friends, they won’t need her to be Mickey, just herself. And that is what we need too.
For years when I was a pastor in San Clemente, I had one good friend who was about a dozen years older than me. He was raising teenagers when I had toddlers; he was paying for weddings for his five kids when I was paying for braces and sports activities for my two. We would often walk the ridge trail in our town, and I would listen to any advice he would generously and gently offer. He and his family were deeply involved in the church, but it was clear that our friendship mattered more to him than whether I was his pastor. When the time came for me to discern whether I should be open to an invitation to leave the church and join the administration of Fuller Seminary, he was the first person in the congregation who I asked for advice.
Looking back, I realized that as often as I had wanted him to be in some form of official leadership for the church, he had always declined. At the time I was disappointed. He was a successful businessman, he was deeply trusted in the community, and his life was marked by winsomeness and wisdom. He would have made a great church leader. But he was more committed to me personally than to the shared work we had at the church. And the gift of his friendship endures today even as I need offstage relationships in my work at Fuller Seminary.
So, as you consider your own leadership challenges, let me ask you to consider: Who are the people in your life who see you with your mask off? Who is allowed to see you let down? Who reminds you that you are “beloved” BEFORE you have accomplished anything?
Leaders need partners, and mentors—and friends. And that may be the most important relationships of all.
Tod Bolsinger is founder of the Church Leadership Initiative at the De Pree Center For Leadership, Fuller Seminary. He is the author of four books including the best-selling Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory, and Tempered Resilience: How Leaders are Formed in the Crucible of Change. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org