Many of us carry around a model of leadership that grows out of our childhood and is modeled on our parents. Parents have all the answers — at least for a while. They are big and powerful, can solve any problem, and provide us with everything we need. In adulthood, we find plenty of leaders who promise these same things. But inevitably, they cannot deliver on their promise. And in trying, they leave us as children.
True leadership is not really ever about being powerful, but rather about channeling the power of God.
Jesus models a different kind of leadership — one that is uniquely suited to the challenges of our post-modern world. Christ-like leaders don’t pretend to be what they are not, but act out of complete authenticity. They don’t give people pat answers, but challenge them with good questions. They don’t focus on getting to the goal, but invite people to be part of a journey. They don’t just seek followers, but develop others as leaders.
Some years ago, pastor-author Brian McLaren wrote a wonderful little article exploring leadership in the post-modern world. (McLaren, “Dorothy on Leadership,” Rev. Magazine, Nov./Dec. 2000.) He admitted how exciting and depressing it was for him to attend the leadership seminars taught by some of the country’s most successful pastors. They seemed larger than life and supremely confident in their approach to ministry. McLaren said he left those seminars feeling like David going out to fight Goliath in Saul’s over-sized armor.
Authenticity is a key attribute of effective leadership. King David cannot be Saul; he can only be David. His strength as a leader comes from his willingness to be himself and to let his leadership flow from that. Authenticity is quickly recognizable and is a compelling force, even if it is not always immediately rewarded.
Jesus’ authenticity is evident throughout his ministry. You never see Jesus act one way in public and another in private. You never see him strategize about how something should be presented or how to “spin” his message so it would be heard in the right way. Jesus “is who he is” in the same way that God is “I Am who I Am.”
A second attribute of effective leadership is that it is less about having the answers than it is about asking the right questions. Recently, Bishop John Schol said, “The church is in decline because it stopped asking the right questions and started dispensing answers.” McLaren notes how this is evident in the way we refer to people who aren’t regular church folk as “seekers.” The unspoken implication is that church people have all the answers.
We should all be “seekers” who never stop learning about God, probing the depth of scripture, or exploring our own character. Look in the scriptures at how Jesus teaches. He asks questions and encourages reflection. “Who is my neighbor?” asks the lawyer. Jesus responds by telling the story of the Good Samaritan and putting the question back to the lawyer: “Now who acted like a neighbor to the one who fell among the thieves?”
Answers, by definition, limit; questions expand. Answers define; questions invite. The role of a powerful leader is not to tell people what they should be doing, but to encourage people — through questioning — to explore their own answers for themselves.
A third aspect of effective leadership is that it is more about creating a quest than about getting to a goal. Moses spent his whole life leading the people to a land that he would never enter. Jesus invites people on a journey of exploration. What does Jesus say whenever he meets someone who is receptive to his message? “Follow me.” The “where” is not important. Just the “follow me.” We’re all going on a journey. The journey, which is one of self-discovery, is more important than the goal.
Finally, effective leadership is not about having people follow you, but about creating other leaders. Real authority comes not from hoarding power, but from sharing it; for when you share power through expanded leadership, you create more power.
At the end of the Gospel of John, Jesus says to his disciples, “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.” Jesus did not leave the world with a group of followers but a group of leaders who, transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit, move out to transform the world. True leadership, after all, is not really ever about being powerful, but rather about channeling the power of God.