Building beneath the surface – the Leader’s inner life


Brooklyn Bridge is a famous landmark spanning the East River in New Your City. At the time it opened (1883), it was the longest suspension bridge in the world – 50% longer than any previously built. For several years the towers were the tallest structures in the Western Hemisphere.

When the bridge opened there were many sceptics who claimed that such a large structure could not long remain suspended by cables. It could not bear the strain of traffic or wind and weather. Before long it would collapse into the river. Yet for well over a century it has served as a major transportation artery connecting the boroughs of Brooklyn and Manhattan.

During the early stages of constructing the New York tower progress was not apparent. Local citizens complained about the passage of time and the absence of any visible development. In response, the Chief Engineer wrote: ‘To such of the general public as might imagine that no work had been done on the New Your tower, because they see no evidence of it above the water, I should simply remark that the amount of the masonry and concrete laid on that foundation during the past winter, under water, is equal in quantity to the entire masonry of the Brooklyn tower visible today above the water line.’

The Chief Engineer’s statement illustrates a vital truth about leadership: it is the work that is done inside the heart and mind, where people cannot see, that determines whether a leader will stand the tests of time and circumstances. It is the inner life, where only God sees, that informs, stabilises, sustains, or weakens and corrodes the visible aspects of leadership. This inner work is accomplished by worship, devotion, prayer and reflection about ethics, morals, and values.

Today one hears a lot about leadership strategy, leadership vision, the marketing and communication of leadership ideas. The risk is that a person may spend all his time on these leadership concepts and forget that character-building is the first priority for leadership.

Jesus spoke in graphic terms about the contrast between the outer and the inner life. (See Matthew 23:13-18) The outside of cup and platter may be so clean as to glisten in the sun but the inside is full of corruption and excess. Religious leaders might be as attractive as newly-painted tombstones in a well-manicured cemetery but the inviting exterior only hides inner decay. This is the tragedy of leaders failing to recognise the importance of the inner life.

On another occasion Jesus spoke about the influence of one’s life. ‘On the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’ John 7:37, 38 NKJV

What Jesus is saying is that if you want your life to be influential, the first thing is to make sure it is connecting to the right source. Perhaps the leadership principle that is most important for spiritual leaders is that ‘when you guard your secret life with God, your public life will take care of itself.’ Jesus assures us that if we are connected to Him, the visible effect of our lives, however small, will be a blessing to the world.

Far too often news headlines these days describe the moral downfall of persons who have hitherto carried enormous responsibility and enjoyed public trust. And then to everyone’s amazement the corroded inner life of such a leader is exposed – perhaps an act of financial fraud, failure to tell the truth in a moment of crisis, unfaithfulness to a spouse, or the cancerous effects of a private habit such as pornography. Leaders of religious organisations are not immune to public failure. The environment of power and the accolades of colleagues can easily blind a person to the risks that accompany position and prestige. It requires the inner life to anchor the public life.

How then do we attend to the inner life, the character-building work that is so essential to survival in public leadership? It happens primarily in what we do with our quiet time – those moments of the day that are reserved for feeding and focusing the mind. Those periods in private when we wrestle with huge questions: what kind of person do I want to be? for what purpose am I living? to whom do I turn for mentoring? what are the values by which I live?

It is a myth that a crisis develops character. It does not. Crisis only reveals character. The urgent lesson for leaders is that in changing times. In moments of crisis. Strength comes from one’s spiritual discipline. These habits are not developed on the spur of the moment. They yield their fruit only when carefully cultivated with consistency and honesty.

And there is a marvellous assurance that the inner life of dependence upon God will have its beneficial effect in one’s public life. Jesus affirmed that in His statement about a person, who believes in Him, becoming a river of living water.

Ellen G White cautioned and encouraged leaders that, ‘It is not the capabilities you now possess or ever will have that will give you success. It is that which the Lord can do for you. He longs to give you understanding in temporal as well as in spiritual matters. He can sharpen the intellect. He can give tact and skill. Put your talent into the work, as God for wisdom, and it will be given to you.’1

Building beneath the surface is the most important work that any leader can do.


1 Ellen G White, Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 146.

By Lowell Cooper, Leadership Development Journal, 2012, p. 52


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