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HomeInterviews › Nikki Toyama-Szeto: Authenticity Creates Credibility

Nikki Toyama-Szeto: Authenticity Creates Credibility

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Don’t miss part 1 of the interview with Nikki Toyama-Szeto, in which she talks about her transition from engineering to the nonprofit sphere, common misconceptions Christians have about leadership, and the core responsibilities of a leader.

How does the Christian story ground your thoughts about leadership?

I think about Jesus here. If Jesus had come today, he could have reached far more people than he did. Through the advances in communication, social media and global reach, he could have spread his message so much farther. Just think of a simple thing, like a microphone—how much power and intimacy it can provide for a speaker. But he chose to come at a certain time and a certain place.

It would be easy to feel as if that wasn’t the most strategic time or place. And that checks my temptation to feel as if my leadership is about maximizing. It’s not. My leadership is about being truly and courageously faithful to a specific invitation.

If Jesus was about maximizing and growth, he chose his methods and people poorly, even for his time. Just look at those scrappy disciples. Half of them hated each other. That is not strategic team-building, in any kind of traditional leadership sense. But Jesus’ story and mission was for a totally different set of goals than we typically have for our organizations. He constantly modeled stepping aside from expectations. Jesus did not consume people or burn them out to accomplish his ministry.

Sometimes, if people have a strong maximizing orientation, or an “infinite growth” orientation, it can be easy to scare, bully or intimidate people—usually accidentally. Why? Because the true invitation—faithfulness—is being lost. Do we have categories for this kind of leadership? If we don’t, we need to ponder the example of Jesus a bit more.

The questions I ask try to be in line with the values I see in the ministry of Christ. What is someone’s experience when they are in my presence? How can I pay attention to people’s transformation and not just work for their compliance?

I hear links between authenticity as a leader and authority here. Unpack that for us.

The best leadership comes from bringing your full self. Authenticity establishes credibility for authority. The model that I don’t like is accomplishment leadership, a triumphant conquer-the-hill leadership. I don’t see that in the ministry of Jesus. The idea of bringing your whole self is much healthier. David is a great example of this. He is a biblical figure who made truly terrible choices, but his inner orientation always drew him back. He was a man after God’s own heart.

Our addictions to perfectionism or image come out of a framework that is accomplishment- and achievement-oriented. We need to understand how those often undermine being people after God’s own heart.

Leadership transforms the leader. It can even serve the transformation of a community. But much of that comes from a leader modeling being their full self. That includes vulnerabilities. Being vulnerable doesn’t mean manipulating or crying on shoulders to use others’ sympathies for our ends. It means authentically believing that as much comes from our questions as our answers.

Right now, I am both a mother and a leader. Lots of people see those roles as a liability to each other. But I want my organizational leadership to be better because I am a mother, and my motherhood to be better because I am a leader. It’s healthy to ponder all our roles in life through this lens and offer them to be reclaimed as an asset for leadership. If we don’t do this, it’s all too easy for our leadership to get out of balance. You’ll know this when you begin sacrificing other important things in your life to “win” at leadership. If that happens, our leadership becomes idolatry instead of transforming us to be more like Jesus.

Tell us more about moving into that “full self” space.

If someone feels like a fraud—teaching something that they aren’t sure that they believe—they need to hear a very simple message: We do not need to pass along the things we do not have. Instead, leading from your full self starts with asking what you have. Do you have questions? Lead from those questions. Do you have a struggle? Maybe that’s the gift that God has given you for your community. Steward it authentically and well. Don’t cover the gift over. Steward it in faithfulness. In our leadership, God can redeem the things that you feel you have to hide and cover up. What if those things were God’s best gift for your community, and God chose you to be the best steward of them?

Today’s leadership world is pretty toxic. Social media and our curated lives set up standards that fight going deep into this quest for fullness. We each need to seek what unique thing we have been given. There is something in each of us that uniquely brings God joy.

God could have chosen anyone in the world to lead your community, and he chose you. Why is that?

As a leader, how do know if your presence is blessing people?

Unspoken cues are important. For instance: What happens when I walk into a room? Where do people’s eyes go? What is the first thing they do? Later, when I leave, do I suspect there’s going to be a sigh of relief when the door closes after me?

But I also know because I ask. I ask clear, intentional questions of my staff. Language like: “Hey, I’m committed to creating a space you can flourish in. Are there things I’m doing that feel oppressive to you?” I try to be aware of things about myself—like how I externally process ideas—that are not bad in themselves but stress others out. I seek to understand others, and then prompt them to communicate in ways that feel like “home” for their personality.

I love studying different cultures and personalities. It is absolutely essential for a leader to be able to understand where their people are coming from. For example, if you ask an Asian person, “Are you fine?” they’ll nearly always say, “Yes,” because we’re a communal, face-saving culture. But if you rephrase the question a bit: “It seems like this is hard for you right now. Can I help?” they’ll also say, “Yes,” and you will have gotten to a first step for their real flourishing.

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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