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Nikki Toyama-Szeto: Bring Your Full Self

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Nikki Toyama-Szeto has a serious résumé. Stanford educated, with Silicon Valley mechanical-engineering experience and a patent in her name, she followed a call to leave the tech world and enter Christian ministry leadership. Today, she serves as the executive director of Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA), an organization working for cultural renewal, holistic ministry, political reflection and action, social justice and reconciliation, and creation care. Having previously served as vice president of International Justice Mission and as program director for Urbana Student Missions Conference, Toyama-Szeto has brought creativity, a fresh perspective and a deep commitment to mission through her executive roles.

She is the author of Partnering With the Global Church and one of the editors of More Than Serving Tea: Asian American Women on Expectations, Relationships, Leadership and Faith.

Outreach Editor-at-Large Paul J. Pastor caught up with Toyama-Szeto to talk leadership development, Christlike ministry in today’s culture and faithfully bringing our full selves to leadership.

You left a promising career as an engineer to enter nonprofit leadership. Tell us about that transition.

I was an engineer in Silicon Valley during the first boom. I did rapid prototyping engineering—which demands a quick turnaround of projects and constant learning. I enjoyed it but largely did it because I could. Because of the whirlwind advances in tech and business, it was just insane to be an engineer in that place and time. I knew Christian engineers who—to borrow Eric Liddell’s phrase—“felt God’s pleasure” when they were working, but I didn’t.

So I decided to move into ministry with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, because God had worked in my life through them while I was a student. I decided to do that for a couple years, which turned into 14, then into a life trajectory that has led to where I serve today.

Did you have any formative experiences when you were younger that helped direct you to leadership?

Yes, I think the call predated the opportunity. I had a couple of experiences in my school days that I see now were formative. I wouldn’t have always called myself a leader, but I recognize now that a lot of things I did instinctively were leadership. For example, in second grade, I organized a luncheon for my class. I worked with multiple classes and our library to coordinate the event. Looking back, that’s a little unusual.

My name is Nikki, which originally comes from the Greek name “Nike” (like the shoes). When I was looking into the meaning of my name in middle school or so, I read somewhere that it could mean “victory of the people.” That resonated with me. My name pointed out the strength of community.

I’m from Chicago. Our church always sent students to the Urbana Student Missions Conference. They’d come back and share about the incredible experience they had. So I went during my freshman year of college. That was a little unusual—there weren’t many freshmen from Stanford at Urbana. I came back knowing that the next Urbana conference would be three years later and wanting to help other students go. I worked to categorize Urbana as our student organization’s leadership conference at Stanford, and we were able to secure about $10,000 to send students to Urbana. It was just something that I wanted others to be able to do, but the financial gap was a roadblock. It became a huge joy—the staff was kind enough to let me give out the scholarships, and I still think of it as one of my favorite experiences. I got to pave the way for other folks to experience God in a way that had transformed me.

In hindsight, that’s become my modus operandi—thinking about leadership as paving the way. It combines vision for an organization, removing the obstacles in front of us and setting people free to walk. I want to get people to the feet of Jesus. What Jesus does once we are there is up to him, but I am called to help point them there—to create space for them to get there.

What have you learned about creating those kinds of spaces and opportunities?

This work for leaders largely focuses on removing obstacles. Sometimes it’s through good organizing or how we shape a space. It is often a proactive, very strong and forward-looking ministry of hospitality—shaping a space to meet people’s needs. Sometimes people think of hospitality as passive, but it’s not. There is a kind of hospitality that leads, that is innovative and pioneering. That kind of hospitality creates spaces for each person that says they are welcome and invites them to bring their full selves—everything they have to contribute.

My question as a leader is, “How do I create spaces for people to participate, communicate and know where they are supposed to show up? How do I help people be present and show up as their full selves?”

It’s design, really. There is a technical component but an artistic component, as well. That’s how I see leadership—half artistic, half operational. Rapid prototyping engineering means innovation that is not theoretical. You mock up an idea and try it, learn and redesign, and fix assumptions. You drop a lot of different versions and learn very quickly. The focus is on speed. You let it be quick and scrappy. I like that kind of innovation. Trying something new can be powerful leadership.

Give us a snapshot of your work right now.

I’m executive director of Evangelicals for Social Action and the Sider Center at Eastern University. ESA is a historic organization, one of the first to usher in categories of social justice engagement for the church during the 1970s when that still felt threatening to many evangelicals.

Here’s the reality of our time: The word “evangelical” is up for grabs right now. What it means to millennials, to political pundits, to newspapers are all different and often not descriptive of our history or belief. The word has moved from a theological category to a social and cultural one. Resisting that is one of the interesting opportunities I have right now. ESA has programs that help people think through what Christian discipleship looks like, intersecting areas of life that many people don’t think about or even ignore in relation to their faith in Jesus, such as initiatives for social justice, animal welfare, thinking through the morality of our food sources and so on. Jesus has dreams for humans as his image-bearers and how we are to interact with the world and all its creatures. Evangelicals need to engage that.

There are opportunities for us right now to step into the conversation as a centrist evangelical organization to help different sides talk to each other. What does it mean to be Christians in America in this time and place? ESA is very globally engaged—and American Christians need to reconnect with what is really going on with the global church. It helps us understand our context, our luxuries and privileges. It also helps us understand our responsibilities.

Tell me more about how you see the core responsibilities of a leader.

Thinking through this with an executive coach sparked a bit of a journey for me to consider what is really unique about Christian leaders. I observe that the church went through a season, much of it good, of learning a lot about leadership from the business world. This was the big, booming, pastor-as-executive season. That brought a lot of rigor to a conversation that had been pretty mushy before.

I wonder, though, if the pendulum has overswung that way. There are very real distinctives between what a business or secular leader should be and what a Christian leader uniquely is and should do. One of the core things that a Christian leader does is intercede—for the mission, the church, their people. That was something that was impressed upon me when I was program director at Urbana. The responsibilities were absolutely overwhelming. Someone who was very wise said this to me: “Ninety-five percent of your job, someone else can do. Five percent? Only you can do. You need to aggressively delegate to protect that 5 percent.”

Much of that 5 percent was intercession—in prayer and in protecting the mission, advocating for what was necessary to our call. That is a potent distinctive of Christian leadership. It implies interpreting reality for your people—pointing out what God is doing in our story as it relates to Scripture. We can allow Scripture to do the heavy lifting, but we need to lead in interpretation of what we are experiencing and what faithfulness to Jesus looks like in light of his Word.

What are some common ways Christians talk about leadership that give you pause?

One of the key ones is “servant leadership.” Maybe servant leadership is a really helpful corrective thing for white male leaders. I don’t want to downplay that. And of course, Jesus says that leaders among his followers won’t be like leaders outside the kingdom. His servant language is helpful. My hesitations are less theological and more cultural—how the term interfaces with real life and ministry today. On that front, two things trouble me a bit about the servant leadership idea: first, what the leader is doing, and second, their internal view of where they are coming from.

Regarding what they are doing: Servant leadership implies that much of the action remains the leader’s role. While leaders ought to be very active, a Jesuslike leader doesn’t do everything. They empower. They give their leadership and authority away.

Second, I wonder about the self-image of many servant leaders. It’s easy, especially for white males, to focus on how much they are giving up or sacrificing in order to lead as a servant instead of a tyrant. For any of us, that kind of thinking can easily morph into a self-understanding that we are martyrs to our mission, not in an honest and connected way, but in a self-focused or even self-deceptive way. We see ourselves as giving up much that wasn’t ours to keep in the first place, and patting ourselves on the back for doing so. The image can indirectly assume and affirm a whole hierarchy of privilege that doesn’t belong in Christian leadership. It can’t really criticize itself. It can’t question the status quo. It’s stuck. As a result, it squelches innovation, creativity and empowering of others.

What other common leadership ideas would you encourage us to evaluate?

Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, talks about a Level 5 Leader. He looked at organizations in different sectors then at a comparable organization in the same sector and time, using metrics like profit and growth to track success. He was asking what sets truly great leadership apart from good leadership, of course. The “a-ha” that came for me out of that research was this: The kinds of people that we usually consider to be great leaders—the bold, brash, charismatic, powerful presences that command a room and articulate people toward a vision, the exaggerated leaders that we are drawn to—aren’t really great leaders.

The numbers say that truly great leaders have a totally different set of qualities. They tend to be modest and humble. They work behind the scenes. In fact, after “great,” charismatic leaders leave, organizations tend to crash. Truly great leadership is different than the surface might indicate. The fruit of it often happens when a leader isn’t there. It might manifest when you’re gone.

If much of what you do gets undone when you leave, that just tells me that people were scared of you. It doesn’t mean you’re a good leader, and certainly not a great one. You didn’t have the power you appeared to have. Truly great leaders anchor things in a culture and an ethos. People get it. They can carry it on when you’re not there.

So some of the questions that I ask myself as an executive are, “How do people experience my presence? How do people feel when I’m not there?” If they’re relieved, that’s a terrible sign. If they act a certain way when I happen to be there, then what’s happening might not be about leadership at all, but control, intimidation and fear.

Really great leadership is anchored. Deeply. Sometimes the fruit of that is manifest after the leader is gone.

Don’t miss part 2 of the interview with Nikki Toyama-Szeto, in which she talks about authenticity in leadership, developing younger leaders, the leadership gender gap in the church, and more.

Paul J. Pastor is editor-a-large for Outreach magazine, and author of The Listening Day: Meditations on the Way (Zeal Books). He lives in Oregon. For more: PaulJPastor.com