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Leadership re-examined

| by John B. MacDonald

What is leadership? If you were teaching on leadership in different cultures on different continents, what and how would you teach? For me, this is not theoretical.

Here are two basic questions I ask:

• What is a leader or leading?

• How can you be a better leader?

I’m not even sure these are the right questions. So, I go 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.

1. The word "leadership"

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

Here's a quick survey of the occurrence of “leadership” in some common English Bibles:

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 or concept 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.

2. Non-biblical authorities

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 recently. 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 "wisdom" to the authority of the Bible, the person and work of Jesus Christ, and the character of God’s love.

3. Cultural presumptions

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

This question is particularly relevant when speaking into another culture whether on another continent or ours. Am I being faithful to God and to these people, or am I 'baptizing' and imposing 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 Scripture and 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.

Three ‘take-aways’ for re-examining and testing how we teach about leading:

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

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

3. Be biblically and culturally aware and sensitive – listen and learn.

John B. MacDonald

Dr. John B. MacDonald has served for decades as a lawyer and pastor-teacher. He is an associate with Outreach Canada and focuses on equipping and encouraging others to become more like Jesus Christ and to live all of life with God-honoring competence and joy.

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