Sometimes, I hear people reason like this. They say “the NT teaches that we are prone to self-deception. Therefore we need to be accountable to others and especially the leadership of the church.”
This sounds good at first. However, all 6,000 years of recorded history — as well as the Scriptures themselves — reveal something very incomplete about that thinking.
I’m not against accountability. But something is being left out, and it is this: the most important form of accountability is the accountability of leaders to those they are leading.
In other words, this new movement in the church seems to be placing the emphasis on followers “submitting.” But the lesson of human history and the Scriptures is that the first and greatest priority is for the leaders to submit to the followers by seeing themselves as servants who are accountable to them.
We see this in world history, where we learn that power has a tendency to corrupt people — and therefore must be limited and kept accountable. For example, the basic premises behind the structure of the United States, learning from what went before in the over-reaching governments of history, is that even more important than getting the right people into power (as important as that is) is having mechanisms of accountability for those in power, regardless of who they are.
The reason is that even good people are often corrupted when they get into power. The temptation to please others and fall into group-think are great. Hence, the integrity of formal authority needs to be based not only in the character of the individuals, but also a system of checks and balances that checks and limits the authority.
This is also true in the church, and is seen in the Scriptures. The chief opponents to the prophets (in the OT) and Jesus and the apostles in (in the NT) were not the people, but the leaders. Further, God holds people accountable for whether they go along with over-reaching leadership or stand up to it. For example, in Jeremiah 24:10-11 we read: “Many shepherds have destroyed my vineyard; they have trampled down my portion; they have made my pleasant portion a desolate wilderness. They have made it a desolation; desolate, it mourns to me. The whole land is made desolate, but no man lays it to heart.” Note that it is the shepherds — the leaders — in this passage who destroyed God’s flock, and God laments the fact that no one (that is, not even the non-leaders) lay it to heart and thus do something about it.
Likewise, in Isaiah 3:12, God says “O my people, your guides mislead you.” He then continues “the Lord will enter into judgment with the elders and princes of his people” (Isaiah 3:14). In the NT, we see leadership often using their authority to oppose the doing of good. The Pharisees, for example, claimed it was contrary to proper rules for the disciples to pick grain on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1-8) and for Jesus to heal a man on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:9-14). And, of course, they ultimately used their authority to crucify Jesus.
The notion of “submit to those in authority” can easily be a recipe for overlooking these important realities of how authority is often abused, and how we therefore always have a responsibility to use our critical judgment to “examine all things” (1 Thessalonians 5:21), including the use of authority.
It is certainly important for individuals to keep themselves accountable as part of a good circle of Christian fellowship. But let’s not forget that leadership also needs to keep itself accountable. Let’s make sure we don’t fall into a one-way notion where we forget that accountability equally (in fact, more fully) applies to leadership. To view the accountability of individuals to leadership as the key solution to individual self-deception is simply to set ourselves up to repeat the mistakes of the middle ages and corrupt governments, by handing over more authority to leadership than it is designed by God to have.
Let me be clear that I am not against authority, and submission to authority. Rather, I am saying two things. First, true submission to authority recognizes that authority itself needs to acknowledge its accountability. It needs to acknowledge this not just in the sense that it will be accountable to Christ at the last judgment, which can be easily abused, but in the sense that they are also accountable here and now to the people they lead. This creates an accountability loop that affirms the dignity and equality of the followers and tends to check corruption.
Second, I am saying that authority is best exercised when it recognizes its limits. In the church, the limits pertain chiefly to primary doctrines — not secondary doctrines. That is, it is not over-reaching to seek to hold someone accountable for rejecting a primary doctrine of the faith, such as the Trinity or justification by faith alone. But when authority seeks to “keep people accountable” in relation to secondary issues, they very often by definition step outside of the realm of their legitimate authority and wreak havoc. This brings people into bondage and hinders the advance of the gospel and the joy people are to have in their salvation.
Further, the entire notion of “being submissive” can sometimes end up being understood in a way that diminishes the competence and freedom of the individual before God — which are important truths that we especially learned from the Reformation.
Leaders are not somehow better or more important to God than those they lead. The people they are leading are incredibly competent and amazing in their own right. Leadership that does not acknowledge this at its very heart and does not lead in such a way that centers on affirming and building up the dignity and competence of the individual is not true biblical leadership.
The proper use of authority is a beautiful thing. A truly wonderful, beautiful thing. Common grace and the Scriptures teach us that the chief and proper use of authority is to defend people’s freedom. That’s how Jesus used it (Matthew 12:1-21; Galatians 5:1) and how Paul used it (Galatians 2:4-5; 5:13). Let’s get back to emphasizing this important truth.
This is a very helpful video animation summary of Daniel Pink’s superb book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.
Many have probably seen this, but this is worth bringing out again. The concepts of intrinsic motivation that Pink outlines need to permeate the way every manager thinks.
If you are actually going to make a difference for good and obey God (the rules you are supposed to obey), then you have to know which rules not to follow.
In other words, you have to have a well-thought-out philosophy of rule-breaking.
This is not about breaking legitimate rules, being a pest, or being rebellious. The example here is Jesus, who broke man-made rules that hurt people, in order to bring true help to people.
If you are actually going to make a difference in the world, you need to be willing to break those sorts of rules. There are no exceptions, and this is why many people in Jesus’ day didn’t like him.
The greatest irony is that if you don’t break the rules that hurt people when called upon, you aren’t actually a “rule follower” at all. For in thinking you are keeping the “rules,” you are actually breaking the greatest rule of all — the command to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
Again, I’m not advocating disrespect or disregard for legitimate authority. Once again, Jesus is the example here who, for example, healed people on the Sabbath even though it was against the rules of the Pharisees. Jesus recognized — and was teaching us — that the letter of the law is never to overcome the spirit of the law.
If you break a rule to stand out, or make yourself look good, that is the wrong reason. If you break an ethical rule, that is also wrong. I’m talking here about manmade rules that seem “reasonable” but in actuality keep people down and cause harm. There is a time and place to break such rules, just as Jesus did. The ethical thing to do with such rules is to break them when necessary for the good of others.
So this is not about reducing ethics; not in the slightest. It is about elevating ethics by refusing to allow bad rules to get in the way of doing the right thing.
Sometimes, authority is used (even inadvertently) to institutionalize the doing of harm. When this happens, don’t let the fact that something is a “rule” distract you from that. Do the right thing.
Mark Batterson has an excellent article on this over at Catalyst which I have now adopted as an excellent summary of my own “philosophy of rule-breaking.” It is worth checking out.
One clarification: Let me add one clarification, which I think is important. What if you work in an organization that has really bad policies. Am I saying you should break those policies? The answer is no (unless they are unethical). But I am saying this: you need to work for their change. That means talking to your boss, or whoever, and making an intelligent case for change. Don’t just let the policies be. Seek to change them.
Bad policies need to be obliterated. And that starts with speaking up (in a winsome, respectful way) instead of robotically accepting their existence.
In addition to this, though, more people need to recognize that in most cases, their company is not intending them to follow the letter of the law when it clearly results in bad things for the customer. In other words, most of the time companies expect their employees to exercise judgment. Learn what your company expects of you there, rather than assuming they don’t want you to exercise any judgment at all. Then, use your judgment.
Warren Bennis, one of the fathers of modern leadership thinking, died a few weeks ago. The NY Times gives a great summary of his thinking and impact. Here’s the start:
Warren G. Bennis, an eminent scholar and author who advised presidents and business executives on his academic specialty, the essence of successful leadership — a commodity he found in short supply in recent decades — died on Thursday in Los Angeles. He was 89.
The University of Southern California, where he had been a distinguished professor of business administration for more than 30 years, announced his death on Friday. He lived in Santa Monica, Calif.
Professor Bennis wrote more than 30 books on leadership, a subject that grabbed his attention early in life, when he led a platoon during World War II at the age of 19.
“I look at Peter Drucker as the father of management and Warren Bennis as the father of leadership,” William W. George, a professor at the Harvard Business School and a former chief executive of the medical device company Medtronic, said in an interview in 2009.
As a consultant, Professor Bennis was sought out by generations of business leaders, among them Howard D. Schultz, the chief executive of Starbucks, who regarded him as a mentor. Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Gerald R. Ford and Ronald Reagan all conferred with him.
As an educator, he taught organizational studies at Harvard, Boston University and the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management.
Professor Bennis believed in the adage that great leaders are not born but made, insisting that “the process of becoming a leader is similar, if not identical, to becoming a fully integrated human being,” he said in an interview in 2009. Both, he said, were grounded in self-discovery.
In his influential book “On Becoming a Leader,” published in 1989, Professor Bennis wrote that a successful leader must first have a guiding vision of the task or mission to be accomplished and the strength to persist in the face of setbacks, even failure. Another requirement, he said, is “a very particular passion for a vocation, a profession, a course of action.”
“The leader who communicates passion gives hope and inspiration to other people,” he wrote.
Integrity, he said, is imperative: “The leader never lies to himself, especially about himself, knows his flaws as well as his assets, and deals with them directly.”
So, too, are curiosity and daring: “The leader wonders about everything, wants to learn as much as he can, is willing to take risks, experiment, try new things. He does not worry about failure but embraces errors, knowing he will learn from them.”
But Professor Bennis said he found such leadership largely missing in the late 20th century in all quarters of society — in business, politics, academia and the military. In “On Becoming a Leader,” he took aim at corporate leadership, finding it particularly ineffectual and tracing its failings in part to corporate corruption, extravagant executive compensation and an undue emphasis on quarterly earnings over long-term benefits, both for the business itself and society at large.
He worried until recently about what he called a “leadership vacuum” in America, a problem he said was caused to a great extent by a lack of high-quality leadership training at the nation’s business schools.
And perhaps one of his most important points:
A dearth of visionary business leaders, he said, meant that companies were being led more by managers of the bottom line than by passionate, independent thinkers who could steer an organization effectively.
“We are at least halfway through the looking glass, on our way to utter chaos,” he wrote in “On Becoming a Leader.” “When the very model of a modern manager becomes C.E.O., he does not become a leader, he becomes a boss, and it is the bosses who have gotten America into its current fix.”
From Hans Finzel, in his excellent book The Top Ten Mistakes Leaders Make.
How dictators operate:
- They hoard decisions.
- They view truth and wisdom as primarily their domain.
- They restrict decisions to an elite group.
- They surprise their workers with edicts from above.
How facilitators lead:
- They delegate decisions.
- They involve others as much as possible.
- They view truth and wisdom as being distributed throughout the organization.
- They are developers.
- They see people as their greatest resources for ideas that will bring success.
- They give their people space to make decisions.
- They let those who are responsible decide how jobs will be done.
We often think that the autocratic, top-down leader is a mean person with bad intent. Hence, when it seems that a leader is nice and genuinely wants the good of the people he is leading, we can easily fall into the notion that he must therefore be a servant leader.
But this is actually incorrect. It failures to recognize what autocratic leadership really is and, conversely, what servant leadership really is.
Being an autocratic leader is not first about being mean, and being a servant leader is not first about being nice.
Rather, the difference lies in the way you view the scope of your authority.
The Heart of Servant Leadership: Recognizing Your Limited Authority
The essence of servant leadership is not being in charge but just being nice about it, but rather recognizing the limits of your authority and that people are capable of and deserving of being self-directed. The servant leader thus seeks to empower rather than control.
Autocratic leaders, on the other hand, think they have more authority than they really do. They don’t realize the limits of their authority. Further, they often think that as long as they seek to use their authority for good, that that is enough to make them a servant leader. But it is not, because to think you have more authority than you really do is, by definition, domineering — regardless of your intentions for how you will use that authority.
Here is an example from the world of government. Let’s say the US was a monarchy and we had a king. Now, let’s say the king decided that we could read certain books, but not others. Further, let’s say this king has good intentions in his decree. He sincerely believes that if people are able to read the books he has banned, it will harm them. He has issued his decree for the good of his people.
Is this monarch a servant leader, or a dictator?
He is a dictator, because he has exceeded the scope of his authority. It does not matter that his intentions are good; he is exerting authority in an area over which he does not have any. That makes him a dictator. He may be a benevolent dictator, but he is still a dictator.
From this we see that the essence of being a dictator lies not in your intentions, but in your whole approach to leadership — whether you accept the God-given limits on your power.
Though of course our nation has its problems, our democracy (republic) is a helpful example of institutionalized servant leadership. The president does not have unlimited authority over us; there are limits on his (or her!) power. Further, we believe that these limits aren’t simply chosen by convention, but arise from real natural rights that people have, and which not even government has the right to infringe.
The Corollary to Limited Authority: Respecting People’s Rights
This is the essence of servant leadership, and it applies to all areas of leadership, not just government — organizations, churches, non-profits, and everywhere else. The servant leader respects people’s rights. The servant leader recognizes that all humans are created in the image of God and thus have a certain right to self-direction over which the leader has no right to infringe.
The essence of servant leadership is to realize that having true intentions for the good of those you lead means respecting that reality about people. In other words, truly seeking the good of the people you lead means that you don’t simply have a good end in mind, but also good means in your leadership. And good “means” in leadership means leading in a way that acknowledges and fully respects people’s independence and initiative. It means you seek to therefore lead chiefly through influence and principles, not control.
This brings us back to the benevolent dictator. Though he may have had good intentions, his approach is not even going to have good results. It won’t have good results because it goes against people’s God-given rights. By failing to respect their autonomy, it fails to respect their judgment. It will therefore fail to develop mature individuals. It will create a dependency on him as the leader, rather than growing up people into maturity — which is the true aim of leadership.
I hope to blog on the difference between autocratic leadership and servant leadership more in the coming weeks. But from this, note at least this key point: if we think the essence of servant leadership is simply that the leader has good intentions, we have misunderstood the real nature of servant leadership. That is why autocratic leadership often goes undetected — we too easily think it simply means having bad intentions in leadership (or being mean) and have failed to realize that at its root, autocratic leadership is about leading chiefly from authority rather than influence.
Don’t fall into the benevolent authoritarian view of leadership. Realize that truly seeking the good of those you lead means seeking to lead through empowering them, not controlling them.
The saving of our world from pending doom will come, not through the complacent adjustment of the conforming majority, but through the creative maladjustment of a nonconforming minority. ― Martin Luther King Jr.
Here’s another way to say it: God doesn’t call us to defend the status quo. He calls us to defend and pursue what is right. Sometimes, that’s the way things are currently done. But many times it isn’t.
We need to be able to identify the difference, and have the courage to create change where it is needed.
In his excellent book The Conviction to Lead, Al Mohler has a great section on “the two cultures of modern Christian leadership.”
The first group knows a lot of theology, but not so much about leadership:
The problem is that the evangelical Christian world is increasingly divided between groups we might call the Believers and the Leaders.
The Believers are driven by deep and passionate beliefs. They are heavily invested in knowledge, they are passionate about truth. They devote themselves to learning truth, teaching truth, and defending truth. They define themselves in terms of what they believe, and they are ready to give their lives for these beliefs.
The problem is, many of them are not ready to lead [emphasis added]. They heave never thought much about leadership and are afraid that thinking too much about it will turn them into mere pragmatists, which they know they shouldn’t be. They know a great deal and believe a great deal, but they lack the basic equipment for leadership. As one proverbial deacon said of his pastor, “Oh, he knows a lot, but he can’t lead a decent two-car funeral procession.”
This is a big, big problem in my view. There are lots of reasons, but one of the biggest is that good theology actually gets discredited when nobody who holds that theology can actually lead. For example, when you are able to make great and true statements about the great doctrines of the Bible, but the things you say about leadership are completely wrong, it undermines your credibility. (Let me also add that just because you understand theology, it does not automatically follow that everything you think about leadership is right just because you think it; leadership is a discipline in its own right, and you need to learn it.)
Further, if people with good theology don’t know how to lead, then the church will eventually be led by people with bad theology. Hence, people who care about theology ultimately have no choice — they have to learn about leadership and learn to do it well.
On the other hand, there are many in the church who care much about leadership, but aren’t as clear on what they believe. Mohler continues:
The Leaders, on the other hand, are passionate about leadership. They are tired of seeing organizations and movements die or decline, and they want to change things for the better. They look around and see dead and declining churches and lukewarm organizations. They are thrilled by the experience of leading and are ardent students of leadership wherever they can find it. They talk leadership wherever they go and are masters of motivation, vision, strategy, and execution.
The problem is, many of them are not sure what they believe or why it matters. They are masters of change and organization transformation, but they lack a center of gravity in truth. They often ride one program after another until they run out of steam. Then they wonder, What now?
What’s the solution? The solution is that these groups need to come together. The believers need to learn more about leadership (and stop making fun of it! it is not mere pragmatism) and the leaders need to recognize the great value in diving deeper theologically (it does not have to distract from loving people or turn you into a rigid dogmatist).
Some people will always be more leadership oriented, and others will always be more doctrinally oriented, but at the end of the day the amazing thing is that good, biblical leadership is actually very theological — and good theology is also very leadership-oriented.
Here’s how Mohler brings things together:
You deserve to know exactly who I am and why I am writing this book. I want to turn the Believers into Leaders and the Leaders into Believers. My goal is to knock the blocks out from under the current models of leadership and forge a new way. I stake my life on the priority of right beliefs and convictions, and at the same time I want to lead so that those very beliefs are perpetuated in others.
If our leaders are not passionately driven by the right beliefs, we are headed for disaster. At the same time, if believers cannot lead, we are headed nowhere.
My goal is to redefine Christian leadership so that it is inseparable from passionately held beliefs, and to motivate those who are deeply committed to truth to be ready for leadership.
I want to see a generation arise that is simultaneously leading with conviction and driven by the conviction to lead. The generation that accomplishes this will set the world on fire.