Acknowledging Jesus as a Failed Leader

Leadership is a hot topic today. Colleges and universities and seminaries and churches and Christian organizations of all varieties are developing leadership programs. I cite my own denomination, the Christian Reformed Church. To celebrate its 150th anniversary, it is raising millions of dollars to launch a leadership institute. My alma mater Baylor University has recently established a school of leadership. The list goes on and on.

I myself jumped on the bandwagon several years ago when I proposed a course on leadership at Calvin Seminary where I was teaching. I would approach the topic from a biblical, historical, and biographical perspectives; seeking to identify role models. It was not until I was teaching through the course a second time that I realized what a crock this whole topic is. It’s phony from beginning to end especially as it relates to biblical models.

That Jesus was a failed leader both by example and by teaching is something we already know at least unconsciously. Jesus taught that the first shall be last; take up your cross and follow me; to be a minister or to be great in the eyes of God is to be a servant. His teaching on leadership was upside-down and backwards. Indeed, it was no leadership teaching at all. We all know that, but we easily try to fix Jesus’ teachings or put the prefix servant in front of the word leadership. But the effort falls short.

It falls short because with Jesus we get a lot more than theory. He modeled his teachings. He was a servant, to be sure. But he was not, I argue, a servant leader.

First, let me seek to define leader or leadership. I’m not breaking any new ground here. I look to others. Malcolm Forbes offers the most basic stock definition: "No one™s a leader if there are no followers.†Peter Drucker agrees: “The only definition of a leader is someone who has followers.â€

Others have emphasized influence. But we all know there are many people of influence – scientists, authors, musicians – who have great influence but are not leaders in any sense of the term. The dictionary examples of a leader are typically conductor, guide, and military officer.

Let’s look at Jesus within the framework of this definition and these examples.

True, Jesus had 12 disciples who were followers. But 12 is a low number by leadership standards, and the followers were fickle at best. One betrayed, one denied, one doubted, the rest hid out. None of the followers have a profile that a conductor, a guide, or military officer would put up with.

As for the leader, Jesus is executed in his early thirties. Not exactly a demonstration of leadership success.

This model of leader/followers is hardly one that would serve today’s leadership seminars. Something is dramatically wrong with the picture. Plain and simple, Jesus was a failed leader though it’s critical to point out that Jesus did not aspire to leadership.

But Jesus has become the ultimate model for many Christian leadership gurus today. Books and websites abound. The Leadership Lessons of Jesus: A Timeless Model for Today’s Leaders by Bob Briner and Ray Pritchard is just one example. Of hundreds of websites one is "58 leadership secrets of Jesus."

Both the secular world and the Christian community have drifted far off course on the matter of leadership. That is the subject of my soon-to-be published book: Leadership Reconsidered. My emphasis in that book is not merely the wrong-headedness of leadership training, but the right emphasis that must take its place that of legacy.

The heart of the gospel and how it relates to us is not that we should follow Jesus who shows us a pattern for leadership. Indeed, leaders are as fickle as are followers. News stories of political and business and religions leaders feature that profile every day of the week. A leader’s star rises as quickly as it falls.

Legacy is what matters. Obviously no one will every match Jesus in the realm of legacy. But as we contemplate our pilgrimage in life, we must get over the self-serving concept of leadership and set our hearts and minds on legacy.

9 Responses to “Acknowledging Jesus as a Failed Leader”

  1. Interesting post! You definitely have some good points. I too believe that the world could never adhere to the leadership of Jesus. Even though, you find Jesus as a failed leader based upon today’s standards, I would like to challenge that view. If one believes in “proof-texting” (taking passages of scripture out of context to make our view fit with the Bible) there is definite failure. By failure I mean, one’s presupposition is completely antithetical to how one should exegetically discover the principals of the Bible. Our paradigms are too muddied and cluttered with failed experiences and wrong perspectives that when we approach the Bible with our idea of leadership, we can very easily either find that Jesus was a success or a failure.

    However, we are to read the Bible in light of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The Bible is not a novel that has empty words. The Bible is alive and when read will impact the reader forever. However, if we read the Bible trying to validate our principles and perspectives we FAIL to be changed and to allow the LIVING WORD to take over our lives.

    When I read through the Gospels I see Jesus effectively influencing a period of time. Your definition and explanation of leadership and Jesus’ leadership can be seen as shallow. The theory behind leadership is followership; however, the practical implications of leadership is what you addressed earlier, LEGACY. Leadership is influence, relationships, shared purpose, etc. It is more than having followers. We must not forget the crowds, the disciples, the angels, the demons, the Pharisees, and other religious groups. Each group including the demons and Pharisees were very concerned about His influence and His followers’; therefore, they devised a plan to kill Him.

    What “leader” in today’s culture do you think has had such a following as Jesus?

  2. Yes, and thank you Ruth!

    All of this “practical” application of biblical persons and situations… to “train” people how to be “successful” is just disgusting.

    As in Isaiah 52:13, the servant would “act wisely” “prudently” etc… then chapter 53 goes on to describe the “suffering servant” as the one who was acting prudent. Who is going to write that model to emulate?

    All of this stuff is simply redressed charismatic legalism. “If you get it all right, and do it all right…God will be forced to bless you!”

    The special Greek word for this is the Greek word, “baloney.”

  3. I’m not sure how i can agree with your definition of a leader. You can’t simply base leadership on how many followers you have. That’s terribly illogical. Also, you can’t judge Jesus this way. He was not sent to the world to be the all powerful Hitler-type person. Now this doesn’t mean that Jesus wasn’t a leader. Just because he had 12 core followers doesn’t mean he didn’t have a following elsewhere. After Jesus left, his followers spread the gospel far and wide, making Christianity one of the most popular religions in the world. Sounds like a darn good leader to me.

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