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.â€ Peter Drucker agrees: â€œThe 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.