A few months ago I was invited to speak to a group of university faculty on “Building and Leading Teams.” This caused me to reflect a great deal on lessons I’ve learned about leadership over the past three decades. Then last week I had the chance to visit one of the best leaders I’ve ever worked under, who reminded me again what great leadership looks like. He was a balance between two extremes, both of which are unbiblical and unhealthy approaches to leadership. In this post I summarize these three types of leaders as we seek to think Christianly about leadership.
One Extreme: Command-and-Control Leadership
I’ve had a few supervisors of this sort. They lead by telling their staff exactly what to do and how to do it, because only they know the best way to get the job done.
Some take this position because they are new to their jobs, and believe they must “prove themselves” as leaders. Others are insecure personally and so any questioning of their point of view cannot be tolerated. Leaders of this sort would respond to my ideas with, “We tried that before and it didn’t work” or “That’s not your concern —I’ll make that decision.” Under these leaders I felt under-valued and belittled. I wilted personally and professionally, and was not nearly as productive as I could have been.
Yet as I studied the Scriptures I discovered this is contrary to a biblical model of leadership. This is the approach Moses was taking in Exodus 18, trying to “do it all.” Jethro, his wise father-in-law, saw this was unhealthy and said, “What you are doing is not good. You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone.” (Exodus 18:17-18)
All too often this approach is driven by the leaders’ pride. Proverbs 16:18 warn us that, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” Jesus identifies this model as the way non-believers in his day were leading, and compares it to how His followers are to lead: “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant” (Mark 10:42-44). Similarly Peter exhorts leaders to lead by “not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples…” (I Peter 5:3).
The Other Extreme: Laissez-Faire Leadership
It is easy to go to the other extreme. Unfortunately, I’ve had a few supervisors of this persuasion as well. These leaders provide very little direction or supervision to their staff, which is equally harmful to their staff’s development and the accomplishment of the mission.
Sometimes they take this approach because they are newly appointed leaders who don’t feel they have anything to offer, especially to more senior staff now under their supervision. Other times they are veterans who have only a few more years left and are “sliding for home.” It just takes too much energy to provide good leadership and direction to staff, and so they provide as little as necessary. Whatever the reason, when serving under laissez-faire leaders I did not flourish either. I was not developed, trained, or mentored, and so was not very productive.
Again, as I studied the Scriptures it became clear that neither was this a biblical model of leadership. Proverbs 27:23 reminds leaders to "Be sure you know the condition of your flocks, give careful attention to your herds." This includes being involved enough to give helpful and constructive input and counsel: “Like apples of gold in settings of silver Is a word spoken in right circumstances.” (Proverbs 25:11). Nehemiah provides a great example of this in his leadership of the rebuilding of the wall of Jerusalem. He was certainly present and giving direction, far from a laissez-faire leader.
The Middle Way: Servant Leadership
In fact, Nehemiah, Jesus, and other great leaders all find this “middle way” of leadership. This results in their staff flourishing and accomplish the organizations’ goals and objectives. I’ve had the benefit of serving under several supervisors who lead this way, such as Roger Hershey, Cam Anderson and Danny McCain.
They were not laissez-faire. They shared their vision of what could happen in our department, group or ministry, and their vision was infectious. As Antoine de Saint Exupery said, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” This they did.
They then helped me define clear goals that would help me excel in light of this overall vision. They were very involved in giving me direction and input as often as needed along the way. They answered my questions, processed options with me and discussed concerns I shared with them. They helped me understand the “boundaries”—what tracks I needed to stay on in working toward accomplishing these goals.
When I made mistakes they were there to help me think through what went wrong and learn from those mistakes. When I hit a rough patch they “had my back” and did whatever they could to help me work through the problem. They followed Jesus’ example of assigning others important tasks, coaching empowering and encouraging them to succeed and then debriefing with them when the task was completed (for example, in Luke 10).
However, they did not go so far as to “command and control.” They were mature and humble leaders. They didn’t have to be the ones with all the answers, be the best at everything or be the ones who always got the recognition or glory. They understood the biblical doctrine of the body (Romans 12)—we each have unique gifts and abilities, the leaders’ role is to help everyone work together, expressing their own gifts, which creates synergy and the accomplishment of the mission.
As a result, Roger, Cam and Danny were able to lead with great care and wisdom. They understood their role was to define the “ends” and empower me to exercise my own freedom and creativity in determining and implementing the best “means” to accomplish these ends. They helped me understand how I could do this in light of who I was—my unique gifts, abilities and experiences.
Under these leaders I flourished both personally and professionally. I learned how to be better and better at my craft under their tutelage. And in the process I was encouraged and built up, being believed in and affirmed as a colleague working together toward a common objective, bringing my unique contribution to the effort. This results in goals being achieved and the organizations’ mission being accomplished.
In sum, these men modeled Servant-leadership. It is what Jesus models by being the Ultimate Authority yet choosing to humble Himself and serve us: “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant…” (Philippians 2:6-7). He exhorts us to lead in this same way—“the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves” (Luke 22:26). As Max DePree summarizes, "The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.”
Aristotle talks a lot about the importance of “exemplars” that help us live well. Having role models such as Roger, Cam and Danny has been a great blessing to me personally and professionally. Keeping in mind these men who exemplify great leadership helps me exercise my current leadership responsibilities each and every day.
I hope you can also identify those who have led you well, and seek to be like them as you lead in your home, department, division, company, church and community.
Until next week, grace and peace.
For further reading I suggest Jim Collins’ Good to Great, Chapter 2: “Level Five Leadership”