HomeInterviews › Nikki Toyama-Szeto: Authenticity Creates Credibility

Nikki Toyama-Szeto: Authenticity Creates Credibility

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

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Who were your key mentors?

I had wonderful mentors, including InterVarsity staff, from the time I was in college. They let me journey alongside them and learn how to be a leader. I owe them all so much. A man named Paul Tokunaga helped me understand the implications of race for leadership and the Jim Collins’ Level 5 Leadership concept. Another key figure was a woman named Jeanette Yap, who is an extraordinary leader—often the first or only Asian woman in many Christian evangelical circles. She affirmed my leadership in a way that resonated with my Japanese-American heart. I felt able to be who I was with her and to see what some would consider liabilities as leadership assets. She helped me recognize that showing up as an Asian woman might be my best gift to a group rather than trying to be a faux white man.

I’d make a terrible white man. [Laughs]

[Laughing] I’m glad you’re not trying! What do you think makes a great leader?

Great mentors, and going through the fire. Let me explain.

It’s really helpful for a leader to be mentored by someone culturally different than they are. I have benefitted tremendously from that kind of leadership and discipleship in my own life, and that has become a prerequisite for me as I interview people for significant leadership positions. Someone needs to have been blessed in that kind of way—receiving leadership from a different gender, culture or ethnicity. That helps us unlock our own leadership in compelling, Christlike ways.

But you actually have to lead, too. Leadership is easy when all the information is there. It’s not hard to take action, even if the risks are big, when you have clear insight into what is happening. But what every leader goes through—like an initiation—is having to make “the call” when you don’t have all the information. Sometimes you have to act even though you don’t have what you need. That is the moment you truly become a leader. You take on the responsibility for moving forward. A leader can learn a lot by asking what to do in that moment when they don’t know what to do, but action is needed. That’s crossing of the threshold from responsibility to leadership.

What are you learning about developing younger leaders?

Internal transformation is an end in itself for younger leaders. That changes as you mature. At this point in my life, it’s only about half the gift. Many younger leaders want to sit around and have coffee, learning about abstracts and getting more information or experiences. They’re OK with not getting their hands dirty. That’s why I believe so strongly in developing leaders in the context of mission and doing the thing we’re talking about. Leadership development happens best not around the coffee table but in the field—working together, debriefing.

There’s another dynamic here, too. I long for all leaders, but especially younger ones, to have more self-reflection and engagement. Today, there’s an epidemic of platform without presence. Leadership has become equated with platform. But platform doesn’t equate to leadership expertise.

I’m concerned about younger leaders who have a platform that is bigger than their lived experience with the faithfulness of God. It is too easy to preach things that haven’t gone through the fire. What I get worried about is when people look to someone with a large platform as though they automatically have leadership expertise.

When a younger leader has platform influence but little presence, they don’t have a safe place to fail. They can’t experiment or make mistakes. I think of the old Hollywood wisdom about the “curse of the child star.” Get fame too young and it will destroy your career. You won’t have a safety net to be able to have bad ideas and learn from them. “Living out loud” fights the quietness a developing leader needs.

It’s common today to hear talk of a “leadership gap” in the church. What’s your take?

The church’s lack of imagination for what leadership looks like might be contributing to the perception that we have a leadership gap. People complain all the time about how “there aren’t enough leaders.” But if our churches saw themselves accurately, they would see that they are actually full to overflowing with effective leaders. They just don’t recognize them. If we allowed all people gifted for leadership to bring their full selves regardless if they fit our expectations or not, we might be surprised by how God has provided for us.

Most of what I’ve learned about leadership has been birthed out of my wrestling with it as an Asian-American, female leader. Early on, I felt so disqualified for leadership because I didn’t look like Jack Welch. I couldn’t command a room like a traditional male leader does. I had to learn that who I am is not a liability.

People almost never know that I’m a speaker when I go to conferences. Sometimes that’s hurtful or demeaning, but it’s always interesting. I get to see how people treat “nobodies” before I get up and speak, which is always different than how I am treated after I give the keynote talk at a conference. It’s enlightening, to say the least. I was at an event recently where I am on the board of directors for the host organization. They called the board to the front, so I went up. When I returned to my seat, the lady I was sitting by said, “I saved your spot. I thought you were going up because I thought you were part of the worship team.” She meant it kindly, I’m sure, but seriously? It’s no wonder that Asian-Americans or women feel like they are not leaders. We aren’t perceived as leaders.

Everything changed when I began to realize that there are amazing qualities for leadership in me because of who I am. God made me to lead. My gifts might look different, but they are real. As I learned to bring my full self, I realized that God was giving things to my community through me. People’s perceptions of me didn’t determine reality.

Leaders, you should go deep with the things that God has given you. It may feel useless at first, or too specific to be useful. But if that’s what God has given you to give to others, then it’s what you need to do. You don’t need to be anyone you are not.

To lead, go deep into your own story. To lead, be you.

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

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