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What is leadership?

If you were to teach on leadership in a different culture on a different continent, what and how would you teach?

For me, this is not theoretical. I’ve been asked to do this in two months. 

These are the preliminary questions I want to answer:

  • What is leadership?
  • How can you be a better leader?

I’m not even sure these are the right questions. So, I want to be well-prepared and flexible. I need to be learning at least as much as I’m teaching.

The subject of leadership is not new for me. It was part of my doctoral research. I feel a fresh approach is required. Here are three reasons. 

The word "leadership"

First, have you noticed that we often use the word “leadership” but the Bible doesn’t?

A quick survey of the occurrence of the word “leadership” in some common English Bibles results in the following:

  • New King James – zero;
  • New American Standard Bible – once (Exodus 33:1);
  • New International Version – four times;
  • New Living Translation – six times.

Translation issues aside, this suggests the Bible doesn’t focus on the position of “leadership” as much as the qualities of leaders and the activities of leading. So my emphasis will be more on the character of leaders and the dynamics of leading. 

Non-biblical authorities

Second, an abundance of “Christian” resources on leadership use non-biblical authorities.

I receive and read a lot of leadership materials, particularly on “Christian” leadership. More often than not, their authorities are people and institutions such as Harvard University, American Management Association, John D. Rockefeller, Kouzes and Posner, Daniel Goleman, Seth Godin, and so forth. 

When the Bible is referenced, it is often used to serve the non-biblical authority. This is done by picking a verse to confirm a statement, or a biblical incident to illustrate a principle, propounded by a non-biblical authority.

I acknowledge that there are many things we can learn from non-biblical resources. My concern is that we are accepting these authorities with little or no consideration as to whether they are biblically valid or not.

My approach is to subject the non-biblical “wisdom” to the scrutiny of the Bible – rather than the other way around.

Here’s a case in point. In the context of Christian leadership, I received a message this week. One authority was a report from the American Management Association: “an overwhelming majority of the 200 managers who participated in the survey agreed that the single most valuable ingredient – the ‘paramount skill’ – was the ability to get along with people.” 

Does the Bible teach and validate that getting along with people is the “paramount skill” of a godly leader? Did Jesus comment on this (compare Mark 10: 35-45)? Do we see this as the “paramount skill” in leaders such as Moses, David, and Paul?

We need to subject non-biblical authorities to the authority of the Bible, the person and work of Jesus Christ, and the character of God’s love (see: “Is that you God?”). 

Cultural presumptions

Third, how much is my understanding of “leadership” encrusted with (post)modern Western culture?

This question is particularly relevant when speaking into another culture, such as the one I’ll be visiting. Am I being faithful to Scripture and to these people, or am I importing modern North American leadership theories? This can be difficult to discern.

Two attitudes that will help counteract this cultural tendency are: (1) being aware the problem or issue exists; and, (2) listening well and being open to learn from the ‘other’ culture.

Of course, the ‘other’ culture should also be aware that it may have ‘baptized’ non-biblical, even abusive, models of leadership – and be open to listen and learn.

My three 'take-aways'

As I'm starting over on leadership, I’m going to keep these three points before me:

1.         Concentrating on the character of leaders and the dynamic of leading rather than “leadership.”

2.         Drawing on the authorities of the Bible, the person and work of Jesus Christ, and the character of God’s love. Subjecting non-biblical materials to those three authorities.

3.         Being culturally aware and sensitive.

Indeed, these three principles can be applied beyond “leadership” to most areas of our lives.

In the next few weeks I’ll be writing about what I’m preparing.

Send me a comment if there's anything you would like to add?  



Photo credit: mgysler via / CC BY-NC-SA

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