There is a lot of talk about leadership today. The leadership discussion has also swept into the Church as well, and for good reason. The Church is an organization, and where you have an organization, you need leadership.
One question we need to ask is ‘how do we evaluate leadership as a church?’ Are there different standards of leadership? Are they all equal? Are there versions of leadership that are injurious to the Church or morally wrong? We need to think long and hard about this. It is easy to nod the head and adopt language, ideas, theory, and method without deep evaluation that are possibly contrary to the mission of Jesus.
Jesus put his Church on a mission, and wherever there is a mission, there is leadership. You first have to own it, then you have to execute it. Execution is impossible without ownership.
Jesus was absolutely clear about his mission. He was sent by the father. It was his sole purpose in life. Jesus said, so “for this reason came I into the world.” (John 18:37) Jesus had a purpose and plan. He assumed total ownership of his mission. And that is why he was able to stand firm and confident in face of overwhelming opposition.
1. The Effective Leader Knows Who He is — Another way to say this is: the effective leader knows his own identity. For the Christian, that means he knows who he is in relationship to God. It is to truly know one’s place in the this world and how to appropriately relate to it. While this may seem obviously straightforward, it is not.
Perhaps my favorite leadership quote of all time goes something like this: I do not take my failures too seriously and I do not take my successes too seriously either. This touches upon a fundamental problem with most of us; we entirely take both our successes and failures too seriously. What this means is that we import value to our lives because of the things we do.
This also means he knows both his strengths and limitations and is entirely comfortable with them. He is ok with failure. It does not define him. But neither does he set himself up for a big fall with his successes. We are prone to inflating our sense of self when we have success, lifting us higher only to fall farther when we fail again.
For the Christian, the quick path to a balanced understanding of identity is the Gospel. Man is created in the image of God, of inestimable value. We are valued by God regardless of our success or failure. And yet our failure serves to keep our self-opinion sober and humble. We relate to God as pure infants—as helplessly treasured.
2. The Effective Leader Knows his Mission — Leadership is defined when there is a goal or new future in mind. Leadership is always intentional. If it’s not intentional, it’s not leadership. Whether it is leading an organization, a church, special forces unit, youth group, or parenting, there must always be a newly imagined future in mind.
An active parent envisions how she or he wants their child to turn out, what skills she or he will learn, and the kind of person they will become. If the parent does not envision this future, at least in the minimal sense, and then take steps to correct behavior and direct them in the right way, then that future will not be realized.
Jesus knew his mission and he could not be derailed from it. The biblical leader has to be sure about what he or she is called to do so when adversity comes, they persevere. No mission, no perseverance. The missionless leader is not, but adrift at sea.
3. The Effective Leader Knows and Acts on His Principles — Every leader’s mission must be supported by principles. The mission is the map giving direction—it is where he and those whom he leads are going. A mission or goal is a point of reference to keep the people and mission on course. Along the journey there are unforeseen difficulties and obstacles. The leader’s principles are the standards to make critical course corrections when the mission destination is challenged.
For the Christian, the big mission is the Gospel, and an individual’s personal mission is where she or he fits into the Gospel with his or her respective gifts. Our operative principles then are the commandments of God’s word. When the chips are down, God wants followers who want and do what God’s word commands, even at personal cost. God wants faithfulness even if it is costly to reputation, career, and even the comfort of the local Church. The Biblical leader acting on principle is faithful, not fantastic.
4. The Effective Leader Can Stand Alone — The test of any person’s leadership is, “can you stand alone.” Lets be frank; this is not easy. If you have buckled under pressure, that is ok; that is part of the growth process. I know what it is like to stand alone, maligned, unsupported, and given-up on. When you are in this place, you have to possess the first three to exhibit the fourth. In order to stand alone under fire, you must: 1. know who you are, 2. believe in your mission, and 3. act upon your principles.
Without these it is impossible to stand alone. To lead well, you need to believe that who you are, what you are doing, and principles you stand on are right. That is the only way to stave the onslaught of public opinion.
A leader’s metal is not truly tested until everyone forsakes you. Moreover the default thinking for most people in our democratized culture is that the majority is right. In the Bible, it is the one standing alone who is right. Moses had to do this; Elijah, Elisha, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Paul, most of the Apostles, and Jesus too. All the great leaders of the Bible had to stand alone for truth against a mob that was wrong!
There is good explanation for this when you study the psychology of human relationships. In high school it is called peer pressure. But in more sophisticated terms, it is called fusion and group togetherness. Fusion is the phenomenon when people borrow “identity” or “pseudo-self” from others, including the group. It works like emotional super glue.
Think about this: if you could hold your personal identity in your hands, and someone tried to swipe it, would you give it up easily? You would fight for it wouldn’t you? Well that is how group identity works; Group identity is a coercive force. If you get you identity from the group, there will be overwhelming pressure to conform to the expectations of the group to maintain acceptance. This is precisely where our integrity crumbles under the force of public opinion. If you get identity from a group (and we all struggle not to) then the greatest temptation will be to compromise our principles when our acceptance is threatened.
Fusion, the “tug,” as Edwin Friedman calls it. It is like little spider web lines connecting people emotionally. If it is just a few, then they just snap. But then picture hundreds or thousands of these, like Frodo caught in Shelob’s web. This makes people stick together emotionally. They cannot pull themselves away from the tug of the group. This fusion or “togetherness” results in group think. And group think is fueled by fear.
This is precisely what Moses is dealing with in the desert, a fearful people who have succumbed to the overpowering influences of fear. One or two key anxious voices step up to “hold the leader accountable for his actions.” In typical fashion, anxiety moves around the system like a virus. This is usually carried on the winds of complaining. The test says they “grumbled” (Exod. 15:24; Num. 14:26–30).
The Ability to Stand Alone
The leader’s ability to stand alone is called differentiation. The higher the differentiation, the greater the capacity to make decisions based upon principled thinking rather than the pressure of the group. This brings us back to principles 1–3, namely the leader’s identity, mission, and principles. The Questions are this: Is his or her identity based upon the resurrected Lordship of Jesus? Is his mission the mission of God? and Are his operative principles based upon the Word of God.
If the leader does not have a strong sense of personal identity, mission, and principles, he will be vulnerable to the powers of public opinion and group think. He will become an appeaser, a double-minded man tossed with every wind of doctrine (James 1:16).
At the beginning we considered the issue that not all principles of leadership being peddled today would meet Jesus’ standards of approval. Remember Jesus’ organization imploded before the crucifixion. Fear and reactivity swept through like a plague and the sheep scattered. Jesus remained steadfast, alone, and resolved.
Why was Jesus resolved and immovable in his mission? Why did he make deliberate decisions resulting in his crucifixion rather than triumph? Why was he not swept away in the slush of pragmatism? Jesus knew who he was, his mission, and his principles. When tempted by power and comfort, he rejected the easy way for the difficult road of greater good (Luke 4:1–13). Jesus’ yes were not on the now, but on the kingdom. Real leadership knows that a better future courses a difficult path.
This flies in the face of the popular opinion of today that leadership is unqualified influence. There is no doubt influence plays some role. But in Jesus’ execution of leadership, influence gave way to truth (principle). Jesus, like Moses and the prophets, was unwilling to sacrifice God’s will for a compromised group cohesion.
In sum, “influence” as it is peddled today, does not make a first round draft pick for Jesus’ model of leadership. Integrity is doing what is right regardless of public opinion or personal cost. The question the Christian leader needs to ask is this: What standards of leadership will God judge me by? That is the only question that matters.