Some Thoughts on Leadership

We’re coming to the end–at least I hope we’re coming to the end–of a series of scandals involving America’s corporate leadership. CEOs, corporate boards, top management everywhere–they have all come under suspicion, if not investigation, for their leadership practices.  No one paid much attention during the roaring 90s, but when the economy soured and the stock market tanked, suddenly corporate leadership had a lot of explaining to do.

Roman Catholic leaders still seem not to grasp the depth of the anger and distrust among church members in the wake of revelations about sexual abuse by American priests.  The crisis has not been managed well, and the leadership of the Catholic Church now has a tarnished reputation, one that may take years to restore.  I sense some of that distrust of church leaders has spilled over into the Protestant world as well.

A number of seminaries are looking for people to teach leadership. The question that occurs to me as I read these help-wanted ads is, Who is qualified to teach leadership?  What credentials do you need?  Will a Ph.D. make you an effective teacher of leadership?  And if you’re a teacher of leadership–at a seminary, business school, or anywhere else–does that imply that you were once an effective leader?  Can you teach leadership without ever having led anything?

I don’t know that I paid much attention before, but recently I’ve become aware that the Bible is filled with stories and reflections on leadership.  There are stories about leaders–in both Old and New Testaments–but there is also advice about how leaders should lead, and about characteristics to look for in good leaders, mostly having to do with moral character.

Over the years one of my favorite stories about leadership has been from Exodus 18. Moses, we learn there, is exhausting himself with the work of leadership.  His problem is that he is micro-managing the affairs of his people, and so Moses’ father-in-law takes Moses aside one day and gives him a lesson in how to delegate responsibility.  The suggestion turns out to be a classic, hierarchical management structure. But it is striking that the advice came from someone outside the faith community, someone not a part of the people of God.  Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, was a Midianite, not an Israelite.  Yet early on, at least, Israel’s leadership structure was Jethro’s idea.

That story set the pattern for people of faith for centuries to come.  Our leadership models have almost always come from the outside.  First the people of Israel and then later the Christian church took leadership models from elsewhere and adapted them for their use, though–and this is important to notice–not always with happy results.

The Roman Catholic Church seems to have taken its leadership model from the Roman Empire.  Their thinking–and it’s hard to fault it–was, “Well, it’s working for them.  Why don’t we give it a try?”  The Presbyterian Church in this country developed its own leadership structure at about the same time the United States was born, so it’s no surprise that the form of government in the Presbyterian Church closely parallels that of the federal government.  (There are always a few proud Presbyterians who will tell you that this country’s founders modeled the civil government on the ecclesiastical, though I don’t know if that’s really true.)

Back in the 1950s, the Presbyterian Church, along with several other mainline churches, had its corporate headquarters in New York City, just like a lot of other big corporations at the time, and the national leadership structure looked a lot like the leadership structure of General Motors–very bureaucratic. In recent years, things have started to change for Presbyterians.  The headquarters relocated to Louisville, and instead of trying to look like corporate America, the leadership now is trying to look like . . . well, that’s just the point.  It’s not clear what we’re trying to look like.  What is clear is that we’re living at a time of leadership transition.  The old models are being set aside, but new models are sometimes hard to come by.

When I started out in ministry, I worked as an associate pastor with a very fine senior pastor who learned his leadership skills in the United States Air Force.  During the Vietnam War he was an officer, and he was very comfortable with the role.  I’ll never forget my first day at the church.  He told me–with no trace of humor–that when he said “Jump,” I should ask “How high?” on the way up. For the first year or so, that model worked just fine for me.  After all, I had a lot to learn about ministry, much more than I imagined. But it wasn’t long before I began to chafe.  I wanted something a little more collegial, and after a few years I moved on.  I couldn’t imagine giving orders to my staff today.  I don’t think they’d stay around nearly as long as I stayed in my first church.

Today, the leadership emphasis–not just in the church, but in the corporate world as well–is on empowerment, teams, shared responsibilities, flattened organizational structures, and so on.  The information age has had as much to do with this change as any other single factor. Andrew Groves, founder and chairman of the board of Intel Corporation, prides himself on having an office cubicle alongside, and the same size as, the other employees in his company.  In Silicon Valley, as I understand it, that isn’t at all unusual.

What does Christian faith tell us about leadership?  Is there something in scripture that we should be paying attention to?

I’ve been preaching a great deal lately from John’s gospel.  A few weeks ago I used a lesson about Jesus as the Good Shepherd which made an impression on me–Jesus is the leader who lays down his life for the sheep.  He’s the very model of a servant leader. Last week I preached about Jesus as the True Vine. Once again I sensed that the text I had chosen had something to teach me about leadership. In these and other instances, John’s gospel suggests that leadership has a highly personal quality. 

I’m not sure that the references to leadership, as John develops them, apply to large structures or organizations.  But they’re obviously applicable to individual relationships–to parents and children, for example, to teachers and students, or even to church leaders and church members. The ideal of leadership–in an intimate setting like the family, the classroom, or the church–is one that connects, one that is life-giving and life-affirming, one where the sheep know the leader’s voice, one where the leaders lay down their lives for the sheep.

Over and over again the word that’s used in the NRSV to describe Jesus’ relationship to us is “abide”–as in, “abide in me as I abide in you.”  The word for “abide,” however, turns out to be a tricky one to translate precisely. Some translations favor “remain.” Maybe Eugene Peterson gets at the sense of intimacy best when, in the The Message, he translates the word as “make your home.”  So, “make your home in me just as I do in you.”  The relationship, we are told, ought to be as tight as it can possibly be.

Last spring, during the NBA playoffs, thirteen-year-old Natalie Gilbert sang the National Anthem before a game between the Portland Trailblazers and San Antonio Spurs. She had earned the right to sing because she had won a Toyota “Get the Feeling of a Star” promotion.  In other words, she had performed the song flawlessly a half dozen times.

Toward the end of the song, however, Natalie suddenly froze, and the look on her face said, “I wish the earth would open up and swallow me right now.”  The earth didn’t open, but immediately Maurice Cheeks, the coach of the Portland Trailblazers, walked over, put his arm around Natalie Gilbert’s shoulders, and started to sing.

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lie Gilbert found her place again and started to sing along with Maurice Cheeks. And finally–this was truly moving–all 19,980 people who were in the arena that night started to sing too.  After the song, the two of them walked off the court together, and Maurice Cheeks leaned down and said, “Don’t worry, kid.  We all have a bad game once in a while.”

Most people there that night (or who saw the incident later on video tape) agree that Maurice Cheeks will never win a singing contest, but he demonstrated something that leaders need to pay attention to.  Leadership–Christian leadership, the kind John’s gospel talks about–is intimate.  It walks up, puts its arm around us, and starts to sing–sometimes off key.  It respects us and wants the best for us.  It believes we can find our way with just a little help.  It hurts when we hurt–and of course, celebrates when we celebrate.

Anyone who is called to be a leader–a parent, a teacher, a pastor or an elder–needs to offer leadership in this kind of intimate, life-giving, life-affirming, self-sacrificing way.

Douglas J. Brouwer is Pastor and Head of Staff at First Presbyterian Church in Wheaton, Illinois.