In a well-known TED Talk, General Electric industrial designer Doug Dietz explained his heartbreak when he saw how terrified a little girl was when she entered an MRI suite. She was forced to endure 30 minutes in the claustrophobic MRI machine he had designed. Dietz realized he had helped create an environment that was frighteningly inhospitable to the children he was trying to serve.
As a result, he quickly convened a team of experts in children's experiences who helped him redesign the MRI experience to welcome children. They created jungle adventures and pirate islands, spaceships and submarines. Children not only willingly submitted to the necessity of an MRI, but many asked their parents if they could do it again. Dietz is one example of many I could cite of how a hospitable leader creates welcoming environments where people want to be led to do good and beautiful things—and difficult but important things.
Insist on 'Climate Change'
Hospitable leadership is what happens when a leader views leadership through the lens of hospitality. A hospitable leader creates environments of welcome where moral leadership can more effectively influence an ever-expanding diversity of people. These leaders pay great attention to physical, spiritual, emotional, attitudinal and communicative climates. Leaders must insist on climate change in a world that often feels cold and heartless and inhospitable. We can create atmospherics of welcome where people actually open their hearts and minds to our efforts to influence them—especially to the more and better and forever life Jesus promised.
Jesus is the ultimate hospitable leader. Every imaginable kind of person seemed to feel welcome in His presence. And no wonder! When He described why He came, He said He came "to seek and save the lost" (Luke 19:10b, NIV) and "to give His life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45b). But when He described how He came, He said, "The Son of Man came eating and drinking" (Matt. 11:19a).
Jesus was tasked with the most serious mission in the world, yet He fulfilled it in the context of hospitality. We see this from the wedding at Cana to the feeding of the 5,000 to His frequent presence at dinner parties to the Last Supper to His post-Resurrection breakfast with Peter. He constantly created or used environmental conditions where people felt welcome and where He was able to move His mission forward.
It fascinates me that one way Jesus described His kingdom was as a great wedding feast that a king prepared for his son (Matt. 22:2). How many of us could describe our leadership sphere in such hospitable terms? What if our leadership domain felt like a feast to our followers, to our children and congregants and communities? Jesus did the most important work for the world and led the most successful movement in the history of the world, and yet His leadership felt like a feast He had prepared and to which everyone was invited.
Influence With Heart
In my new book, The Hospitable Leader: Create Environments Where People and Dreams Flourish, I unpack the big ideas of hospitable leadership by offering "Five Welcomes."
The first Welcome is "Home." At its core, hospitable leadership is about engendering environments that feel like home to the people we want to lead. Home is where the heart is warm, and when people's hearts are warm, they are much more open to our efforts to lead them. This is a soft leadership skill. But soft leadership skills bring hard results. As Abraham Lincoln said in an 1842 temperance address, "If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend. Therein is a drop of honey that catches his heart, which ... is the great highroad to his reason."
Jesus was a heart warmer. Remember those guys on the road to Emmaus? They asked each other, "Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?" (Luke 24:32, NIV). When people's hearts are burning, they are much more receptive to truth.
The second Welcome is "Strangers." In Hebrews 13:1-2, we are commanded to first practice philadelphia, to love our brothers and sisters, and then to move to philoxenia, to love strangers. "Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters (philadelphia). Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers (philoxenia), for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it."
Philoxenia is the opposite of xenophobia, which is an irrational fear of strangers. A stranger could be someone of a different race, ethnicity or nation of origin. Or someone from the other political party or the other denomination. Or someone who doesn't believe in Jesus or share your worldview. Jesus welcomed strangers, knowing if He could get them to the table, He could influence them. We must see the angel in every stranger. Often that person who is strange to us becomes a messenger from God.
The third Welcome is "Dreams." Hospitable leaders are hospitable to people and their dreams. In John 10, when Jesus contrasted good leaders/shepherds and bad leaders/shepherds, He revealed that He is the Good Shepherd who gives people "life in all its fullness" (v. 10, NCV) or "more and better life than they ever dreamed of" (v. 10, MSG). Sadly, inhospitable leaders make their leadership efforts primarily about their dreams or the dreams of the organization they are leading. But hospitable leaders invest in the dreams of their followers. They are not only concerned with the accomplishment of organizational mission, but also the fulfillment of the God-inspired dreams of the people they lead.
The fourth Welcome is "Communication." Hospitable leaders establish communicative climates where truth—and the truth of the gospel—can be spoken and, hopefully, received.
Hospitality offers us the possibility of creating environments where people are willing to listen to one another, even when listening challenges us. Some time ago, I addressed a subject in a sermon that was controversial in the larger societal conversation. As I greeted people afterward, a couple—first-time guests—introduced themselves. He is the producer of a national television talk show famous in part for humorously disparaging people with a point of view like the one I had just espoused.
"I disagree with nearly everything you said today," he said. "But I respect that you said it and appreciate the way you said it."
They became regular attenders, disagreeing on some points, no doubt, but still listening. They feel welcome. The need to create safe places where truth can be spoken and heard is one of the most important responsibilities of a hospitable leader.
The final Welcome of The Hospitable Leader is "Feasts." It's quite simple: If we hope to create a welcoming environment that feels like a feast to our followers, we must learn to feast first. Jesus had the most important mission in the world yet said of Himself that He came "enjoying life" (Matt. 11:19b, Phillips). As a leader, I have learned the atmospherics of my own heart and life are contagious. If the leader isn't happy, it is a challenge for anyone in the leader's sphere to be happy. We must learn to experience the full feast of abundant life and know that our joyous state of being creates the conditions for others' success.
Our far-too-often inhospitable world needs leaders who warm people's hearts and speak the truth in love, who welcome strangers, who are full of hope and happiness and enjoy life in all of its fullness. We need people like Jesus to throw a feast and invite everyone. Our world needs hospitable leaders.
Terry A. Smith is the lead pastor of The Life Christian Church in West Orange and Paramus, New Jersey, and co-founder of The New York City Leadership Center. He is also the author of the bestseller Live 10: Jumpstart the Best Version of Your Life and his latest book, The Hospitable Leader.
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