3 More "Weaknesses" of Great Leaders
Leaders rule the world. Quite literally.
They’re on our TV’s, flooding social media, and likely up front each Sunday at your church. Leaders set direction, teach and train, and help people. At least, that’s what God has designed them to do.
However, fame, praise, and power are nasty intoxicants. They cause us to forget the we lead for the sake of others, not ourselves. And they cause us to forget who we are—weak, broken humans in need of God’s grace.
We already talked about how Jesus has taught us that his leaders govern through weakness. “Greats” in the eyes of the world enforce their will, but not Jesus’ people. Like servants, they walk in confession, vulnerability, and humility. Let’s look at three more “weakness” of truly great leaders.
4. Great Leaders Walk in Risk
When we lead, we become invested in the outcome. It’s easy to dream up what could happen and then slowly begin to make sure that happens. But leaders following Jesus don’t manipulate, and they know they cannot be in control.
Leadership is risky if you’re doing it right. The risk involves being willing to hear others’ perspectives and ideas as well as dealing with conflict. It means welcoming disagreement for the sake of coming to the best decision. It means allowing people to make decisions for themselves within community. Dan Allender describes it as “taking the greatest risk of all—inviting dialogue, creating context for story, living into tension and ambiguity, blessing chaos as the context for brave souls to find a way through the complexity,” in Leading with a Limp. That sounds scary and out of control to me. Yet, that is where leadership lies- out of my control. So even when I think I know what’s right, I’m called to listen, love, and lead relationally. This is much messier than control.
Admitting this is risky means we also admit we cannot fix it all. We cannot make it better. We cannot know it all. We do not know what is going to happen, nor do we know another person’s heart and motives. We’re not called to repent because we cannot do all this. We called to repent because we’ve tried, Zach Eswine explains in The Imperfect Pastor. We were never designed to do all of this, and when we’ve tried, we have been pretending to be God, with power and knowledge that we do not have. For this attitude, we’re called to repent. We don’t play God. Instead we trust him and walk in risk.
Leading in risk means letting go of power, control, and finding the freedom of being led.
Henri Nouwen writes in In the Name of Jesus that Christian leadership has been a “long history of people ever and again tempted to choose power over love, control over the cross, being a leader over being led.” Leading in risk means letting go of power, control, and finding the freedom of being led. We do not need to worry about what others say or do, because we believe that God is the one in control, who is ultimately leading. We love and lead behind him who is the best Leader taking us and others in his direction. When we do this, people look less like obstacles to take charge of and more partners in life and the kingdom.
5. Great Leaders Walk in the Ordinary
Sometimes “great” leaders want to do only the tasks that feel important. They try to protect themselves from the ordinary and from the “little people” who could distract them from the “eminent” work. They ask for separate entrances and freedom from conversations that could keep them from the substantial work.
Yet, it seems that leadership in God’s eyes is not about moving on from people and the ordinary. “Because almost anything in life that truly matters will require you to do small, mostly overlooked things, over a long period of time with him,” Eswine says. It’s actually ordinary, daily, small things that are the kingdom building ones. Conversations, loving service, another meal. It’s always serving and caring for people, no matter how “important” they may be in the eyes of the world. It was often those that everyone else ignored that Jesus pursued.
Jesus’ leaders walk in the ordinary, because they know that “obscurity and greatness are not opposites.”
6. Great Leaders Walk in Service
When we lead, power can be a crazy-making temptation. It allows us to masquerade in a divine role for a few minutes. When we meet with someone, our first consideration can be how well we achieved our goal for that session, how they may evaluate us, or, in contrast, it can be how well we served them. That is the daily temptation for us to choose—will we overlook our calling to serve? This is how Jesus defined leadership for his people. Is that what marks our leadership?
An example of this is busyness. Busyness is often a marker of importance in our culture. But busyness is not always good. It can be the antithesis of service for the reason that our busyness in ministry pushes out the value of people whom we’re called to serve. With ministry goals and dreams, we often forget what Zack Eswine wrote so clearly: “God has given you a handful of persons whom you are meant to love. You needn’t become somebody else or constantly look over the shoulders of those people who are right in front of you. Attending to God’s work among the faces, names, and stories where you are is to do already what God considers significant.”
In contrast to this, Jesus always walked his life headed to the cross. His life wasn’t about amassing power for himself, but service and sacrifice. He was not overcome with busyness, but within a busy life, he took the time to serve the individuals that Father gave him to love. When we remember that our calling is service, we can see those in front of us without the ambition to find a way up the ladder of importance. We can slow down and lead in love.
Jesus our Example and our Leader
The “great ones” Jesus spoke of exercised their authority over others. Instead, if you want to be great, be a servant, he said. If you want to be first, be a slave.
“For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Mark 10:45
We are leaders who follow Jesus. We walk in weakness knowing that we do not need to be discovered or made great in the eyes of the world. Jesus sees it all, and he walks with us in the risky, ordinary, and serving life. He has already discovered us.
Three books I’ve read in the last few months have added to my thoughts on this.
In the Name of Jesus by Henri Nouwen, Leading with a Limp by Dan Allender, and The Imperfect Pastor by Zack Eswine. All three had great insights into leadership.
There are some issues of theological disagreement I have with Nouwen and Allender, but in humility I believe we learn from people with whom we disagree. Leaders read with discernment and with a biblical lens. As many of my professors have said, but one repetitively and clearly “Read outside your tribe. Read with discernment. It will teach you much.”