Leadership: Thinking Christianly, Thinking Theologically

Leadership: Thinking Christianly, Thinking Theologically

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 purposewhat sort of effort, anwhat 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.


Organizations & the imago Dei

Organizations & the imago Dei

In Genesis, we find the origins of human organization: work and society. Humans are created with the divine mandate to multiply in number, have dominion over the earth, engage in work using the resources of the earth, and to do all of this in community with others. The capacity for meaningful work is a part of creation itself. God called this human organization that He created “good” because it is a reflection of his own nature as a active creator. Mankind was also created as an inherently social creature. It was not just the single individual in isolation given “dominion” over the earth, but the family unit, and, by implication, society itself. Working in community with others is an integral part of what it means to be a human being.

Therefore, human organizations are not merely human constructs. The concept of ‘organization’ is not something mankind invented nor is ‘organization’ a merely impersonal structure useful for little more than accomplishing certain tasks. Organization (and organizations) are an indispensable part of the fabric of human life. And no domain of life is unaffected by some form of social organization, be it family, political, business, or cultural. Human organization reflects the community and order found in God himself. Creative collaboration, growth, productivity, and creation of wealth/resources are all a part of divine creation and purpose.

Genesis 1-3 gives us the profound truth that organizational identity is ultimately rooted in the transcendent nature of God himself. There is more to the identity of an organization than merely a collection of bodies. The Bible speaks of a unity in plurality, a BODY made up of many parts (1 Cor. 12:12-31) and treats the BODY as if it is something discernibly different than just the collection of people (Eph. 4:16). The exact nature of this entity is perhaps elusive, but it nonetheless is a prominent fact in the biblical text. There is a completeness to the human person when connected in relationship to others (Zizioulas, 1997); i.e., to be a person means to be in relationship with others. This is the essence of any organization: a network of people interacting in intentional and purposeful ways. Because humans themselves are created for community, any organization, however small, is something profoundly more than just the sum of its parts.

Organizations — because they are human creatures made in the image of God — become dysfunctional or destructive when they attempt to establish their organizational identity and engage in their own purposes with no regard for the person of God. Organizations, like individual people, begin to drift, decay, or atrophy when they disconnect from the divine purposes of human organization and activity.

The creative origin of human community means that human activity is intended to be a) collaborative, b) productive, c) good, d) sustaining, and e) related to the management of natural resources. An organization is free to experience its full purpose and success when the people (both leaders and followers) who make up that organization seek to corporately live out those activities in light of a harmonious relationship with God the Creator. Organizations rooted in a biblical worldview can more fully nurture the significance of its work, the stewardship of its resources, and the spiritual, economic, physical, and social welfare of its people.



The world doesn’t need “great” leaders

The world doesn’t need “great” leaders

Leadership will not be successful ultimately because leaders are smarter, better informed, more experienced, or more creative than others. True success comes when leaders become empty, willing, attentive, and obedient vessels. In the Bible, the ultimate success of leaders came from obedience to the voice of God. One of the main lessons from biblical leaders such as Moses, Joshua, David, Samson, Saul, Solomon, Peter, or Paul is (more…)

Biblical leadership: where do we find it?

Biblical leadership: where do we find it?

I am drawn to complexity theory as a very useful way of understanding organizational life. For one thing, I largely reject the idea that leadership is primarily about an individual with certain traits and characteristics who leverages these in order to get people to follow the leader’s vision. The underlying premise is that followerss wouldn’t otherwise know what to do or where to go. Thus, requiring the leader to show and motivate them in the right direction. Barker makes the case that almost all current leadership models are basically some variation on this theme. I generally agree.

I’m especially interested in biblical models of leadership. Overall, a key central biblical/theological conception of leadership is (more…)

The Ego of Servant Leaders


I ran across this post arguing that ego-less leadership is a myth.  (Interesting read. You might check it out before continuing on here.)

Ego-driven leaders ultimately exist to be served by people.

We all have an ego–that’s a normal part of th human psyche. To sagely argue that egoless leadership is a myth is somewhat of a straw man argument. It’s a myth simply because there is no such thing as someone without an ego.

Ego is one’s sense of self, a self identity.

The question is not whether a leader has an ego, but what kind. It is possible for us to be leaders whose sense of self and identity is oriented outward to those around us and to the good of our organization. (more…)