What does it mean to think Christianly about leadership? What does it mean to lead as a Christian?
Well, first of all, what is leadership? Answering that in a universal way is a veritable sort of holy grail in leadership and organizational research. For every writer, consultant, scholar, or researcher in the field, you can find a different definition. Leadership is nothing and it is everything. Leadership is the most essential thing we can do, but maybe leadership doesn’t really even exist. Perhaps its little more than a synonym for the myriad of activities that take happen as a group works toward a goal.
We find all of these sentiments and arguments out there in the field. But ultimately the search continues because, however much we struggle to understand or grasp what leadership is, we know that there is something there for which we are seeking a name. And whatever that something is, it is pervasive and crucial. Even if we can’t define it to everybody’s satisfaction, we all certainly can tell when it’s not present. And, ironically, we often learn as much if not more about the phenomenon by studying the consequences of its absence, as if its void is easier to measure and analyze than its shadow, effervescent presence.
I would argue that in its most basic essence, leadership is about the coordination of the purposeful, shared efforts of group of people. But, as with any of the hundreds of other definitions of leadership, we immediately run smack into the challenge of defining any complex concept such as love, happiness, beauty, or, yes, even, leadership; namely, the inverse relationship of universality and applicability. The more you have to particularize a definition in order to apply it, the less universal it becomes. And the more universal you make it in order to transfer to a wider array of situations, the less applicable it becomes.
That’s the dilemma in leadership. To apply it, we must particularize it to a specific setting, population, set of goals, limitations, and realities. But in order to better understand how to apply it, we have to generalize. And in generalizing, we lose a lot of the particularities that make leadership what it is in any given context.
The Christian worldview and theology offers us a framework and language to help relieve some of the tensions of this dilemma, at least to a worthwhile degree. For it lets us talk in more particular but conceptual ways about the core elements that make up the milieu of leadership: what kind of coordination, what central purpose, what sort of effort, and what nature of people. These core elements — coordination, purpose, effort, people — are not completely abstracted in this approach. Christian theology adds some essential and necessary concreteness to these words. This concreteness, in turn, gives us a more robust starting point in particularizing the practice and application of leadership. There is a useful sameness to which we can turn as we move from context to context within this definition. Regardless of the context, we can speak of an underlying principle of coordination. We can talk about a particular core of purpose for activity. We can speak of specific dynamics of effort and behavior which are universally envisioned in the group of people no matter the setting. Ultimately and most helpfully, we can make assertions about specific underlying truths about the nature of these components that are legitimately transferable.
Now, this doesn’t mean that leadership defined from a Christian theological standpoint looks the same or is applied the same in every circumstance. Not at all. But that there is a more specific set of governing principles and truths from which our application can be made. That, in turn, ought to help us be both better students and better practitioners of leadership. Better students because we have a fixed starting point from which we can evaluate, analyze, and understand. Better practitioners, in turn, because we have a more rigorous, principled framework that we can confidently apply in any situation.
A working Biblical definition of leadership
So here is one possible definition of “leadership” from a Christian theological point of reference: Leadership is the ongoing, dynamic, Spirit-guided organizing of personal interaction and potential towards a divinely-appointed end (teleos)
INTERACTION | Occurs in a network of relationships, contexts, cultures, needs, abilities, resources. Activity encompasses the full range of human life: physical, emotional, intellectual, social, spiritual. What kind of interaction is good and leads to a desired outcome? Human reality is people interacting with God, each other, and their world. Christian theology and a Christian worldview defines the boundaries and freedoms of these interactions in concrete ways.
PERSONAL | What do we assume to be true about the people involved or what is the potential for the people involved? The core of this interaction are human persons (hence, person-al) in a web of relationships that are both individual and social/communal. Outside of this point of reference, there is no such thing as leadership. Our starting point for Christian leadership is in human interaction and our ending point is always people in relationships.
DYNAMIC | Is leadership something that is imposed from the outside onto a static group of people or is it something that grows from within and adapts with the group over time? This interaction is constant, moving, changing, and complex. This does not suggest instability and unpredictability, but affirms that because people grow, change, mature, are born and die, life itself is dynamic. There is no such thing as a “one-size-fits-all,” static approach to leadership. In essence, leadership is a way of thinking and living, not a set of skills to master.
ORGANIZING | For there to be meaning and purpose to human life, there must be order and structure. The primary role of leadership is to organize the various structures needed to sustain and nurture all the different levels of interactions in the community. The Christian leader recognizes the presence and role of the Holy Spirit in this process. There is a divine intentionality that underlies human interactions.
LEADERS | those vested with the responsibility & capability of coordinating interaction and resources, and helping group stay focused on the collective goal. Leadership is not synonymous with leaders. A leaders plays a role, which, in and of itself, is incomplete without others. Leader roles are formal and informal, fixed and ad hoc, centralized and distributed. No one single leader carries all the weight.
FOLLOWERS | all persons involved in personal interaction; the heart and soul of the process. Can legitimacy be synonymous with “members”. Leaders are also followers, of other leaders, of shared roles, and ultimately of the Holy Spirit.
The order and structure in human interaction has a specific purpose. Interaction is circular, the back-and-forth of relationships, and linear, moving towards a goal, destination, or some other desirable future state. Usually, this goal is the reason for the interaction and organizing in the first place. For the Christian, all of human life and interaction is moving towards the eternal Kingdom of God. Biblical theology speaks of the teleos (“the ultimate end”) of Scripture as being God’s people living eternally in obedient fellowship with God, harmonious fellowship with God’s people, and responsible enjoyment of God’s world.
This broad biblical vision of a community of people engaged in divinely ordained activity in obedient fellowship with God as ruler is the basis for the entire range and scope of human activity in the biblical worldview. It is not relegated to a sacred space nor is its implications for human life limited to the realm of the religious or spiritual. Rather, from a biblical worldview, this is the fundamental shape of reality itself.
As such, those who live out of a biblical worldview are intended to have a radically transcendent view of all reality, one which places the fundamental components of leadership — coordination, purpose, activity, and community — squarely in its center. And, more to the point for the purposes of studying and applying leadership, defines those in concrete, positive ways that are both universal and applicable.
In short, what does it mean to lead with a Christian mind? It starts by recognizing that very essence of Christian faith is to think fundamentally different, to think transcendentally, about the very nature of the definition itself.