Performing in the Circus: Resources to Help Leaders (and Followers) Play Their Part with Excellence

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In a recent interview Michael Jinkins compared his experience as the President of Louisville Seminary to serving as a “ring leader for a big circus.” In such a circus, there are lions and clowns, tightrope walkers and elephants, acrobats, and contortionists. Everybody has a part.

Undoubtedly, orchestrating the roar of lions, the dancing clowns, the sound of the band, and the delicate high wire walk is an incredibly difficult task. Yet a circus is comprised of more than a ringleader and our experience in institutions may often be characterized as playing our ‘part’ in the circus rather than orchestrating the circus. Although we may not always find ourselves leading an institution, we likely regularly participate in them.

Just as leading institutions is comparable to orchestrating a circus, inhabiting institutions can often times feel like performing in the circus. Whether as the ‘clown’ who dances, the ‘lion’ who roars, or the ‘vendor’ who sells cotton candy, we each play an interrelated part. And not only so, but the particular part we play contributes to the larger performance of our institutional circus. The ‘ringleader’ may garner more attention and is often placed at the center of the spotlight, but those who fall outside of the spotlight’s gaze contribute equally to the ongoing institutional performance that the ringleader directs.

Many resources are available about effective leadership strategies, but what enables the rest of us to play our ‘part’ in our particular institutional circus? What resources are available to enable followers to follow and perform their roles with excellence? Two interrelated lessons have emerged from my experience inhabiting different institutions and playing different roles:

Learn to Value Your Role

As I talk with others who inhabit or participate in institutions, I sometimes encounter a general disenchantment with their role in the institution. “The institution is too big” or “I don’t have particular influence,” they say. Such statements express a common sentiment that they feel as if their particular institutional circus will carry-on just fine without their particular contribution to the show.

Indeed, we are all dispensable in an institutional context. The maxim remains true: “Nobody is irreplaceable.” However, as long as we inhabit an institution, we contribute to the constitution of the institution in a particular way. To utilize a phrase from neuroscience, we are each “co-constituted” in relation to the institutions we inhabit and the institution in relation to us. Just as we each derive meaning and value from the institutions we inhabit, institutions assume particular meaning and value according to the people who participate in them.

This is not to say that we each possess the same influence in an institution, but rather, to observe the least common denominator across all institution: they all include and engage human beings. As such, as long as we participate in a particular institution, our participation has the capacity to inform the character and content of the institution we inhabit. To use Andy Crouch’s language from Playing God, we each possess power within our institutions.

This means that each role matters. As I have played many different roles institutions (fundraiser, student, intern, consultant, donor), I have tried to do so with a conviction that my particular role matters. As a result, I have sought to understand my role, listen for the appropriate cues, and contribute constructively to the particular institutions I inhabit. Believing that even my sometimes-simple role matters, I try to perform my role with excellence.

Learn to Play Multiple Roles

Yet the experience of inhabiting multiple roles often complicates the part we play in our own institutional circus. To extend the analogy offered earlier, there are times when one’s position requires one to play the role of the clown and then, moments later, the part of the tight ropewalker too. This can produce a confused, and sometimes, conflicted experience.

My experience in institutions has been characterized by playing multiple, sometimes conflicting, roles. As a student and a fundraiser at the same institution, I often navigate the conflicted space between my two roles. While my role as a students asks me to devote my time to study and utilizing academic language, serving as a fundraiser and grant writer requires devoting time to proposals and employing simple, concise language.

Inhabiting multiple roles includes both challenges and opportunities. At times, the experience transitioning between different roles feels awkward and produces confusing dynamics. Sometimes I feel out of place in the role I am playing and more comfortable playing a different ‘part’ in a given scenario. At other times, I feel as if I forget to ‘switch costumes’ and come ‘on stage’ as an elephant rather than as a clown.

Yet opportunities also exist for my experience inhabiting different roles enables me to perform the responsibilities associated with each role with greater effectiveness. By understanding the experience of being a student, I am able to speak to students’ experiences with more clarity when fundraising. By understanding the complex institutional dynamics of my particular institution, I am able to pursue my studies with greater awareness as a student. In this way, each role uniquely broadens my imaginative horizons within my institution.

As I seek to play multiple roles with excellence in my particular institutional circus, I find inspiration from the great witness of Christians throughout history. As beings who live in the world but are not oriented by earthly loyalties, Christians life is characterized by the sometimes conflicted experience of occupying a conflicted space in one’s earthly existence. Christians live, as Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon have aptly stated, as “Resident Aliens.” Such an experience uniquely forms Christians to inhabit similarly complicated roles in their institutional contexts.

Though institutional leadership and participation may sometimes feel like going to a circus, we each have a part to play. By drawing on the Christian tradition, Christians can learn to perform their role(s) with excellence. The extent to which we learn to do so will impact our institutions and those served by them.

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