In Tempered Resilience (IntraVarsity Press: 2020), author Tod Bolsinger presents an extended metaphor for leadership development based on observing—and trying—blacksmithing. He sees in the smith’s forge an intensity of stresses that can shape and strengthen leaders as they respond to change. Bolsinger delves into the following stages:
- Working: Leaders are formed by leading
- Heating: Strength is forged in self-reflection
- Holding: Vulnerable leadership requires relational security
- Hammering: Stress makes a leader
- Hewing: Resilience takes practice
- Tempering: Resilience comes through a rhythm of leading and not leading
Bolsinger also ties into Martin Luther King, Jr.’s aspiration that we might be able to “hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.” Bolsinger encourages his readers that, by enduring the forging process he describes, they can become leaders strong and resilient enough to lead the church and the culture through periods of necessary change.
Bolsinger’s exploration of the “holding” stage of the process offered particular fuel for my own reflection on this topic. He notes that when metal has reached a super-hot “oozy” state, it’s uniquely prepared to safely change its shape—provided the smith sets it on a secure enough foundation. Strong and committed “backstage” and “off-stage” relationships with mentors, spiritual directors, therapists, family, and close friends, Bolsinger says, are the anvil on which a leader enduring harsh challenges and reflecting deeply on themselves in the process can safely endure the hammering that will re-form them. He notes that “all leaders need people who are more concerned about us than even the cause or the movement” (p. 121).
A potential application of this insight could be in the design and implementation of mentoring, supervisory, and, perhaps especially, disciplinary processes. It seems critical that the primal human need for belonging remains, at the deepest level, unthreatened when a leader is in a vulnerable state. Models that provide strong relational security while re-shaping the people going through them seem more likely to yield genuinely transformed leaders.
I found particularly valuable Bolsinger’s account of seeking help from a mentor. He shares his email exchange with Steve Yamaguchi, asking Yamaguchi to coach him in developing “cultural competency.” Yamaguchi replied that he would be willing to help, with an adjustment to the expectation. “Let’s not assume that I can coach you into cultural competence. Frankly, I don’t believe you will ever be culturally competent, but we can talk about developing cultural humility” (pp. 59-60).
This blind spot of Bolsinger’s low awareness of marginalized spaces and leaders presents the main obstacle I encountered in trying to relate to his examples or to imagine applying many of his recommendations. It seems that, even knowing his numerous privileged identities are far from normative, the author sometimes still can’t help recommending that any leader in any role can find success if they just plow resolutely forward toward the change they envision.
Bolsinger reflects, however, on suffering and the language of lament in a way that can be particularly useful to preachers in the present context of so much conflict and loss. He looks more closely at the structure and content of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, noting that its central theme was first about broken promises. Facing the reality of what’s broken in the world and in our lives with honesty creates a context for carving out the hope that exists within the despair. For preachers, the entire book demonstrates the power of a vivid metaphor as a teaching tool.
Like the central image of explorers adapting to unexpected terrain in Canoeing the Mountains, in Tempered Resilience, Bolsinger identifies a rich core image that leaders in many contexts can reflect on and apply. The stages metal goes through in the forging process form a vivid and encouraging framework in which to place one’s own experiences of harsh challenge in leadership, to see it as part of a process that can temper and strengthen us to mine the hope that exists in the massive amounts of stress and anxiety of our changing environments.
The reviewer, the Rev. Tracie Middleton,is the Past President of the Association for Episcopal Deacons.