Flourishing Cannot Exist Without Suffering. Here’s Why

Last month, we introduced a new blog series focused on clarifying the meaning of the words we use. Over the next few months, this series will aim to redefine some of the most frequently-used language at the heart of the faith and work conversation.

Flourishing can occur in many different contexts. In our next few posts, we will focus specifically on three:

  1. Flourishing as a leader
  2. Flourishing as a system
  3. Flourishing as an organization

Today, we are jumping into the deep end with a big word: Flourishing.

Inherent within the idea of leadership is an outward-focused mentality. Leaders cannot be effective if they only focus on themselves. At the same time, a leader must act out a strong internal sense of identity and purpose. Leaders cannot be effective if they do not know who they are and why they do what they do. The tension between an outward and inward orientation makes the concept of flourishing as a leader difficult to define. Does a flourishing leader benefit at the cost of his followers, or does he suffer by drowning under organizational pressure?

In his book Strong and Weak, Andy Crouch delves headfirst into this idea of flourishing as a leader. Crouch bases his work off of a simple concept: Flourishing comes from being both strong and weak. This idea is somewhat counter-cultural; great leaders are commonly associated with ruthless strength, authority, and power. However, Crouch asserts that leaders only flourish whenever their strength is balanced with appropriate weakness.

Crouch defines flourishing according to a 2 x 2 diagram in which authority is crossed against vulnerability.

Adapted from Strong and Weak by Andy Crouch © 2016.

He offers specific definitions for these two loaded terms. True authority is defined as “the capacity for meaningful action.” True vulnerability is defined as “exposure to meaningful risk.”

This 2 x 2 grid creates four quadrants in which humans have a tendency to live, depending on their capacity for authority and vulnerability:

First, where authority is high and vulnerability is low, exploiting abounds. According to Crouch, exploiting is found anywhere people seek to maximize power while eliminating risk.

Second, at the low end of both scales, no authority and no vulnerability create withdrawing. We all start our lives in this quadrant, but as innocent newborns this space is called safety. Crouch writes that in today’s America, withdrawing can be easily found through the technological barricades that allow people to isolate themselves from society.

Third, opposite from exploiting, with high vulnerability and low authority, falls the quadrant of suffering. No matter how privileged or powerful a person may be, everyone will experience suffering at some point in life.

The fourth and final quadrant is the quadrant of flourishing. Flourishing occurs at the intersection of true authority and true vulnerability. Crouch writes, “In a world where many people simply withdraw into safety, where others are imprisoned in the most extreme vulnerability, where others pursue their own unaccountable authority, anyone who seeks true flourishing is already, in many senses, a leader.”

The heart of Crouch’s model, however, appears one step further, as he introduces the concept of “Hidden Vulnerability.” By definition, leaders have authority. But in order to lead well and to flourish as leaders, they must also bear hidden vulnerability, the weakness and the risk that no one else sees. This, Crouch says, is the drama of leadership. The willingness to not only bear the inevitable suffering that leadership requires but even more, to actively choose to embrace that suffering, knowing that it is the pathway to flourishing for the community is THE common characteristic we see in the most effective leaders. The biblical imagery of the vine and the vinedresser in John 15 is perhaps the most poignant. In order to produce ripe luscious grapes, there must be the hard work of pruning and shaping. Every leader worth following has actively embraced the hardship and the pruning, the pain and the suffering, necessary to become a leader who creates flourishing for her teams, organization and community. Embrace suffering and flourishing will follow. This is the true paradox of leadership.

This article was curated by Bethany Wilson, Grove City College.