W hen I was six years old, I regularly took the string pull with the plastic knob from the curtains in our living room and transformed it into a microphone. I would sing, tell stories, and hold fast-fire interviews with whoever was willing to answer my questions in a “late night” talk show style. In eighth grade—despite the myriad of insecurities I struggled with—I ran for student body president. My only opponent was Jennifer, who ran with the popular crowd. Actually, she was that crowd. My campaign consisted of homemade posters taped to school walls and buttons that read “Zeiger is your tiger.” Despite my best efforts, I lost the campaign.
During my senior year of high school, I would invite friends over on Friday nights after the varsity football game. What started as six or eight kids soon grew to over 70 people in my basement. At first glance, it might seem that the never-ending Totino’s pizza rolls or my mother’s chocolate chip cookies held the allure, but a wider lens reveals that something else was happening. Influence was happening. Invitation was happening—the invitation to participate in something more expansive, a larger narrative of hope and creativity and reconciliation and longing and loss. Leadership was happening.
It was the ongoing, deliberate practice of leadership—adaptive leadership—that guided my next faithful step. Adaptive leadership is different from technical leadership. It embraces those challenges for which there are no easy answers. It recognizes that environments are ever-changing, relationships and systems are complex, and information is often ambiguous.
I began to “try on” my leadership in places like mission trips, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, broadcast journalism, and speaking in chapel at college. I wouldn’t have thought it as significant then, but I was experimenting on the margins. I was deconstructing mental models of what leadership was, and I was beginning to lean into my own sense of self as a leader. I was exploring my own capacity for vulnerability—to show up courageously and unapologetically as my authentic self. New York Times bestseller and pioneering psychologist Angela Duckworth defines grit as “passion and sustained perseverance applied toward long-term achievement, with no particular concern for rewards or recognition along the way.” I was nurturing my grit.
In addition, I was finding trusted mentors and sponsors to be with me on my journey toward advancing leadership. Mentors like Tony and Nancy had knowledge and life experience, and they could give me the feedback I needed to hear but did not want to hear. On the path, God also provided sponsors (different from mentors) like Mary and Jim with whom I was in relationship. They used their senior position and social capital to advocate for me. For these leadership “giants”—to borrow from Max DePree—I am incredibly grateful.
What about you? Do you have people around you to encourage you, give you hard feedback, and talk to you about your development gaps? Do you have people in more senior leadership who can advocate for you? Are you a sponsor? What would it take for you to move up on the sponsorship spectrum and utilize your relational and positional authority to vouch for another’s capacity?
The journey of leadership is itself that—a journey. Thousands of moments throughout my life where I leaned in, got in the mix, listened, and valued the dissenter in the room, failed and failed again. All the while, I kept asking these questions: What am I good at? Where is there a need? How can I help?
Leadership is energizing a community of people toward their own transformation in order to accomplish a shared mission in the face of a changing world. That’s why I resonate so deeply with the preacher in Hebrews who invites us to meet together for the purpose of disruption. We are to stir up a greater love and deeper transformation in the world—to lead with adaptation—for the glory of Christ alone.
*An extended cut of this conversation—initiated by RCA Next Generation Engagement—further explores leadership, from mental models to women in leadership, from key characteristics of leaders to leading together across generations. Listen here.
Jill Ver Steeg
Rev. Dr. Jill Ver Steeg is the chief operating officer of the Reformed Church in America. She is an ordained minister of Word and sacrament and has previously served as teaching pastor at Meredith Drive Reformed Church (Des Moines, Iowa) and as chaplain at Hope College (Holland, Michigan).