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Thoughts on Tempered Resilience

Resilience in the smithing process

The Rev. Dr. Jennifer Browne shares a review of Tempered Resilience: How Leaders Are Formed in the Crucible of Change by Tod Bolsinger. 

Clergy Assistant to the Bishop, Michigan Area

Best-selling author, Presbyterian minister, and leadership expert Tod Bolsinger has given us another vivid image to guide us as we try to lead congregations and organizations through these confusing, challenging, exhausting, ripe-with-potential times. Bolsinger’s 2105 book Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory helped us acknowledge and accept that we were ill-prepared to lead the church into the future. We had been canoeing well, or at least well enough, but there were mountains ahead, not rivers, and neither our paddles nor our expertise would be of any use in the future.

His 2020 publication, Tempered Resilience: How Leaders Are Formed in the Crucible of Change, presents us with a new image, the blacksmith’s forge, as a trope for the process by which leaders become strong enough and flexible enough to be effective leaders for the long haul. The image works well. Bolsinger successfully uses the process by which blacksmiths melt, shape, and harden their raw material into functional tools to describe how people are made and re-made into resilient, effective, even visionary leaders.

But while I read Canoeing the Mountains enthusiastically, underlining important points and adding notes in the margins, I read Tempered Resilience while simultaneously conducting an internal argument with myself: Did this book have anything to say to me, or was I simply learning how Tod Bolsinger got to be where he is?

At first glance, Bolsinger and I have a lot in common – we’re both white, heterosexual, mainline Protestant clergy. Heck, we both have California roots. (I left as a teenager; he’s still there.) But the distance between us became increasingly evident, and the argumentative questions in my head became increasingly strident as I made my way through the chapters.

There are good reasons for reading this book —

For those who preach, there is some interesting and creative biblical exegesis here that could help with sermons on change, the significance of community, the nature of leadership and the divine call to leadership, and the absolute necessity of being grounded in faith and the grace of God. In addition, well-chosen and useful quotes from leaders like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, family systems expert Edwin Friedman, and others are liberally sprinkled throughout.

For those living through their own fiery experience of a change-resistant congregation that says it wants something new but behaves otherwise, Tempered Resilience might provide encouragement and motivation to hang in there, stay calm and connected, remember that it’s not all about you, and keep moving forward. There’s nothing new in that message, but it can help to hear it said in new ways.

For those who are hoping that reading books on leadership can, in fact, produce leaders, Tempered Resilience is a cold dash of reality in the face – leaders become better leaders only in the practice of leading. It’s only as we feel the heat of a challenging situation, rely on a broad “anvil” of support from others, allow ourselves to be shaped by external forces, and live through the rhythm of stress and rest that we become better, more effective, more resilient leaders.

I appreciated that last point most of all, and yet it was also the point that caused me the most consternation. Because it’s easier to practice leadership when you fit the cultural image of a leader: a straight, white male with screen-worthy good looks, a successful long-term marriage, and an impressive educational background. It’s easier, for example, to live into the rhythm of rest and work that Bolsinger describes as necessary for leadership development when you have a cabin in the mountains of Idaho to which you can retreat.

Bolsinger would agree with me, I think. At his best in this book, he notes the importance of humility and self-awareness; he acknowledges the harmful effects of racism and other systemic injustices. He remembers that not all pastors or entrepreneurs are male, even if most of his examples don’t help us remember that. I was especially impressed with the story about his presentation as a keynote speaker to the Upper New York Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. His talk was centered on Canoeing the Mountains, but protesters side-tracked his plans by insisting that he hear their concerns about the use of two slave owners (Lewis and Clark) as models of leadership. Bolsinger relays how hard it was to manage his emotions, set aside his agenda, and work on developing “cultural humility.” Good for you, Tod! Acknowledging that plenty of leaders don’t have to develop cultural humility because they were born into it, I’m still glad he’s working on it.

This brings me to the waffle iron.

I started the last chapter with renewed enthusiasm for finishing the book after the keynote speech story and reminding myself that I would probably buy a cabin in the mountains if I thought I could afford it. The topic was tempering: the process of stress and rest that builds the strength and flexibility that bring resilience. Bolsinger points to Bill Bowerman, a famous track coach from the 1950s and ‘60s who, along with popularizing the training method of rotating hard days with easy days, also invented the modern running shoe. “He used his wife’s waffle iron to create the first wide rubber-soled shoe,” Bolsinger writes. His wife’s waffle iron? Even if Mr. Bowerman never used it (this was many decades ago), surely it didn’t belong only to Mrs. Bowerman.

Oh dear, I thought. Tod Bolsinger still lives in the world where the kitchen equipment belongs to wives: the world where the cultural privileges that make leadership easier (not easy, just easier) are invisible to those who enjoy them; where the stories of leadership by those who enjoy none of those privileges are less frequently told. That will need to be my next leadership book.

Last Updated on February 22, 2022

The Michigan Conference