My husband is a boxing and MMA fan. This means that from time to time, to be a loving wife, I am subjected to a few hours of wincing and mild nausea. Every so often, there will be a pair of girls who jump into the cage and try to tear each other apart. It just feels awkward to watch them going at it—sensitive body parts flashing across the camera in between blood sprays, swinging hair and swelling faces. I do not enjoy it.
I’m not the only one. Female fighters aren’t really embraced by womankind. Fighting is not really a feminine characteristic, unless its in defense of your babies. Most girly images are soft and gentle and sweet. Femininity and confrontation just seem to be an uneasy marriage.
Whether it’s a friendship that is going sour or a team member that is sliding further away from their commitment, we all face potential confrontations at some point or another. We have two choices. Walk away, or have the awkward and costly conversation. Most of us girls lean away from smell of a fight and want to back away slowly. The tension in those conversations is stressful and unpleasant, and we don’t want to make things worse than they already are.
It can be tricky finding the sweet spot between being a pushover and being a b****.
In Judges four, the Bible described two women who went to battle. The first was Deborah, a judge in Israel. In Deborah’s time, the people began to have a defeatist attitude. They had been defeated by Jabin, king of the Canaanites, and as victims of these circumstances, their warriors began to be half-hearted and lazy. They did not even attempt to defend what they had, much less move forward. Deborah stood up as a prophet and rallied an army to go and win back their independence. She literally went into battle with the guys, but she was still fully female. She is referred to as a mother in Israel, not as Xena, the warrior princess.
The Bible describes four things that Deborah did as a foundation for her leadership. We can use these principles today to help us find the right balance between strength and sweetness.
In the time of Shamgar son of Anath,
and in the time of Jael,
Public roads were abandoned,
travelers went by backroads.
Warriors became fat and sloppy,
no fight left in them.
Then you, Deborah, rose up;
you got up, a mother in Israel.
God chose new leaders,
who then fought at the gates.
—Judges 5:6-8 MSG
Be willing to mother more than your own gorgeous rugrats.
The Bible says Deborah rose up as a mother in Israel. She got involved in people’s lives at the level a mother would. Deborah spent somewhere around 30-40 years sitting under a palm tree nearly every day, available to chat with people and help decide their disputes. Mothers are involved—loving, looking after, training and directing. They get incredible joy out of their children’s successes, and are willing to sacrifice for them.
For us to lead well, we have to be as involved as a mom is in people’s lives and be willing to be accessible. The level of our confrontation needs to be at the level of connection we have to people. As a leader, I have to be able to recognize at what level I’m leading an individual and moderate my confrontation to the level of my leadership. If someone is distantly connected to me, the tension of heavy confrontation is going to tear the fragile threads that connect us. For someone else that is in my world daily and I’ve invested heavily in, the complex web of our relationship can handle more pressure. It takes time and investment to earn people’s trust.
Let God rise up new leaders around you.
Deborah’s leadership produced more leaders. God chose new leaders who fought in place of the old, tired ones. The people who came with us this far may not go the next leg of the journey with us. Confronting half-heartedness in old leadership is risky—those team members may not make it through the conversation. If we haven’t made room for new leadership, the thought of losing those old leaders may make us hesitate to confront where we should. Making room for new leadership and trusting new leaders isn’t easy for us.
My Chinese sister-in-law, Ying, observed to me recently that “best friend” to Americans really means, “oldest faithful friend.” We place high value on relationships that have stood the test of time. The process of building and leaning on new relationships is long hard work full of awkward conversations. Our attitude about that journey makes all the difference. We can be open and engaging, or keep our world small and insular.
Be willing to rise up and confront sloppiness.
More times than I can count, I have been up late at night, thinking or worrying about a situation that needs addressing. I can try to ignore it, but it just wriggles in the back of my brain trying to get my attention. In my early years of ministry, I relied on my husband to do the confronting for me. He would sense my distress or discomfort and would rally to my defense. The thing is, when he got involved, it never actually helped people buy into my leadership at any greater level. Those moments established his authority and his leadership—not mine, even though the conversation was with someone in my area of responsibility.
If I am going to wear the title of leader, I have to do what Deborah did, and get dirty with the conflict. It’s up to me to sort things out, as uncomfortable as it may be and as unprepared as I may feel. If we don’t confront at all, we will hesitate to give people responsibilities that really matter in case they mess it up. If we over-confront, people resist our leadership.
I frequently get asked the question, “What should I confront or not confront in my new team members?” Confront new team members and new leaders at the level of their commitment. This requires clear conversations about expectations early on, from attitudes to preparation. Tension arises when people don’t deliver on what they have committed. Deborah confronted the warriors who gave themselves permission to become fat and lazy. They were not doing what they had committed to do—defend Israel.
If someone committed ten hours and is delivering five, have a conversation about it. If they have committed to come to a rehearsal prepared, knowing their songs, and they don’t; let’s talk about it.
Be the purple velvet hammer
So how strong should we be in those conversations? How intense should we be?
Deborah leaned on the people’s commitment to God in her conversations. The way we serve reflects on our relationship with Jesus. I do not confront anyone without reminding him or her about why we serve.
I love the story of Jael, another fierce chick from Judges five.
Most blessed among women is Jael,
The wife of Heber the Kenite;
Blessed is she among women in tents.
25 He asked for water, she gave milk;
She brought out cream in a lordly bowl.
26 She stretched her hand to the tent peg,
Her right hand to the workmen’s hammer;
She pounded Sisera, she pierced his head,
She split and struck through his temple.
27 At her feet he sank, he fell, he lay still;
At her feet he sank, he fell;
Where he sank, there he fell dead.
–Judges 5:24-27 NKJV
Jael was the purple velvet hammer. She was gentle and hospitable, and when it came time, she handled her business without any excess drama. We can be purple velvet hammers too—soft and pretty, but with an iron core. We don’t have to confront harshly or argue.
The point of confrontation is not that I’m right and you’re wrong. Good confrontation offers a truth, a tool that will help you become who you already want to be. We can be gracious in these conversations because every one of us has blind spots that need someone else’s coaching to overcome. As female leaders, our femininity can be disarming and help lower defenses so that the truth can be welcomed. We can tell people difficult truths, but with a lovely smile and a hug.
Deborah’s song encourages us to be like the sun. It’s warm, bright, and nourishing, but it’s also unrelenting and incredibly strong.
But let those who love Him be like the sun
When it comes out in full strength.
—Judges 5:31 NKJV
Girls, we can be both strong and sweet!