Confessions of a Recovering Leader (Part I)
What it Means to be a Leader of No Reputation
I need to begin with a confession. When I look back on much of my past leadership I believe I was wrong. That is the most accurate statement I could make in summing up my experience in leadership.
Mind you, I was not wrong about everything. I could make the usual list of ‘legacy’ items that we do in justifying our time in leadership. Yet at the very heart of my reflection on my service lies this one major conclusion… I was wrong.
I was wrong in my understanding and preconceived notions of leadership in Christian ministry. I was wrong in my expectations of others and myself. And I was wrong in my motivations, which may be the hardest thing to admit.
I look back and wonder why I was so wrong. My career path had certainly prepared me for leadership in an educational setting: 12 years of fundraising experience, a Ph.D. from a leading school in Great Britain, work in educational administration and a knack for strategic planning and vision casting. I had good experience in managing effective teams and working with not-for-profit boards. And my four years as a seminary VP for Advancement had introduced me to the idiosyncrasies of theological higher education, which I felt I had negotiated quite well. There was no lack of preparation for the task.
Nor was there a lack of motivation. I had long believed that God had gifted me for leadership. I rose naturally and quickly into key leadership positions wherever I had gone. It felt right, seemed natural and was usually satisfying and challenging. So it was a logical move to take a top spot in leadership.
My problem was not with preparation, motivation, or even with a sense of true calling and a sincere desire to serve God with the best of my skills and abilities. The problem lay solely with my pre-determined understanding of what Christian leadership is really all about.
On my first day in office, if you had asked me for a Scripture that epitomized the leadership ideal, I would likely have pointed you to Nathan’s directive to King David,
“Whatever you have in mind, go ahead and do it, for the Lord is with you.” (2 Samuel 7:3)
I could identify with David as ‘God’s man at God’s time’ and I believed that God would pour out his wisdom and favor if I could be such a man. After all, there were kingdoms to conquer and people to be led. There were great things to be done for the Lord and no vision was too limited and no goal too small.
Now, reflecting back on my time in roles as president and CEO, and on the leadership I have witnessed in my years of consulting work, I would point to a different verse. In speaking of Jesus’ incarnation, Paul tells us,
“he made himself a man of no reputation, taking on the very nature of a servant.” (Phil 2:7)
The verse does not say that Jesus became a man of bad reputation, or questionable reputation, but simply of ‘no’ reputation. That is, reputation, image, prestige, prominence, power, and other trappings of leadership were not only devalued, they were purposefully dismissed.
Jesus became such a man. Not by default or accident, but by intention and design. And it was only in this form that he could serve, love, give, teach, and yes, lead.
I have come to believe that true Christian leadership is an ongoing, disciplined practice of becoming a person of no reputation, and thus, becoming more like Christ in this unique way.
In his reflections on Christian leadership, Henri Nouwen refers to this as resisting the temptation to be relevant. He says,
“I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self.” (1)
In my past, I have rejected this idea outright. In doing so, I was wrong. Today I see and affirm this important notion that lies at the heart of godly leadership.
I will speak to five areas where I have begun to learn what it is to be this sort of Christian leader. In each area I found that I began with a misunderstanding of what true Christian leadership looked like, and I have been on a journey of transformation, introducing me to a new way to serve as Christ taught us to serve.
1. Anointed vs. Appointed
I know of few Christian leaders today who were anointed before they were appointed. We have employed the business model of doing careful searches looking for Christian leaders whom we can appoint to office. We check their credentials, put them through rigorous interviews, and even give them psychological tests before we make the critical appointment. Once in place, we then anoint them and ask God to bless their work.
The Biblical evidence seems to indicate that God selects leaders in the opposite order. Samuel anointed David before appointing him King. The selection criterion for leadership was not based on who would most likely get the appointment, but whom God had anointed for this task. And appointment without anointment always led to disaster.
In 1997, I was satisfied that I had met the criteria for the job and was pleased to be appointed for the position of president. And while our board said a lovely prayer and laid hands on me, in retrospect I think the process was backwards.
No one asked me if I sensed God’s anointing for this position. I don’t know what I would have answered, but the issues and criteria to consider in forming an answer to this question were ones that I never considered in my response to my appointment.
The reason that anointing is so critical to the task of Christian leadership lies in its nature as the most unique form of leadership on earth. Christian leadership requires nothing less than a complete, wholesale sell-out of your life in service to God and God only. It is the ‘losing of your life’ to the work God will do in you to benefit your institution, school, church or organization. And the stakes are high. Nowhere else in the Christian life will the price for divided loyalties be so costly for so many for so long. Ineffective and fallen leaders compromise kingdom work, and the effects are eternal. Therefore, it is a field that must be entered with the utmost seriousness, and only when one has clearly been anointed for the task.
With God’s anointing comes God’s power and presence. There is a special blessing bestowed on God’s anointed. It is the blessing of God’s power manifest in ways only seen through the work of God’s chosen.
God’s anointed shout and walls fall. They lift their feeble staff and seas part. They speak God’s word boldly and movements are begun that free men’s souls. God’s anointed do the miraculous because they are the servant of the Almighty. There is a unique presence of God in the lives of those God anoints and calls to leadership through that anointing. Without it, we are continually thrown back upon ourselves to make things work. With it, we have the resources of heaven at our disposal if we will be the faithful servant.
For this reason, God’s anointed are incredibly unique people. God’s anointed will do anything God asks… anything. God’s anointed will seek God’s will with a passion. They will not move without it and they will not be diverted from their course once they have it.
God’s anointed will love what God loves and hate what God hates. That means loving God’s people, God’s church, God’s environment, God’s resources, and God’s plan. It also means hating sin in every form and coming against anything that stands between God’s loving plan and its accomplishment.
God’s anointed are people of keen discernment, they are branches who are solidly engrafted into the true vine. God’s anointed are servants first, last and always. And God’s anointed have only one passion, to know and do God’s will that He might have the glory. In this way, God’s anointed are people of no reputation.
I did not come into my leadership position with a clear sense of anointing, but I have come to better understand and value the distinction between appointment and anointment.
2. Fighting the Need to Increase
When John the Baptist saw Jesus walking in his presence, he made the declaration, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Most Christian leaders would say that in their hearts they would wish that Jesus would increase and they would decrease. But it is hard to decrease in a leadership position.
There are natural trappings that distinguish those in leadership such as salary, title, prestige, priority, power, influence, honor and advancement. And in each area there are tempting opportunities for increase. There are also pressures to increase and motivations to build a kingdom in which we house our growing collection of leadership trappings. This desire for the fame and fortune of leadership must be met not only by resistance, but, according to John Adams, we must have “a habitual contempt of them.” (2)
Nouwen is even more direct,
“The way of the Christian leader is not the way of upward mobility in which our world has invested so much, but the way of downward mobility ending on the cross… Here we touch the most important quality of Christian leadership in the future. It is not a leadership of power and control, but a leadership of powerlessness and humility in which the suffering servant of God, Jesus Christ, is made manifest.” (3)
Perhaps the hardest place to decrease is in the influence and the power we hold over people and decisions. For this reason we find Christian leaders who are overly directive at best, and autocratic at worst. And as a result we produce churches and ministries that are rife with ‘learned helplessness’.
By overestimating our own worth, we help our people depend on us for everything. And that dependence feeds into our need to be needed, to be the “idea person” and visionary, and to be in control. We tell ourselves that the more we lead in this way, the more our leadership is valued and our presence desired.
Of course, this is not real leadership, but a counterfeit that gives us our increase and expands our kingdom. It also, however, does a terrible disservice to our people, leaving them uninvolved and under-developed. It wastes resources and limits our ministry, all under the guise of strong leadership and the use of our God-given talents for ‘getting things done.’
Robert Greenleaf reminds us that the difference between a true servant-leader who is servant first, and the leader-servant who seeks leadership first, lies in the growth of the people who serve under them. The test question is, “do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?” (4)
For this reason, leadership bent on increasing the leader lacks integrity. Integrity is the attribute of honesty, moral behavior and a value-centered life. Integrity witnesses externally all that we are internally. And for that reason, godly integrity begins with our inner life in God.
Stephen Covey sees integrity as, “the value we place on ourselves.” (5) By that he means that we first must keep faith with ourselves if we are to be trusted and trustworthy to those around us. We must keep promises we make to our own value system.
For the Christian leader this means that our self-confidence must be founded in our faith in Christ and our desire to be like Him in every way. We must seek to be Christ-like in our inner being and be confident that,
“He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it.” (Philippians 1:6)
If Christ is truly living in us, as Paul reminds us, then we can in turn live for others in our work. We will have no need to seek for increase in our positions of power. We will have no desire to build our own kingdoms and advance our own reputations.
Our lives are hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3) and therefore it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us (Galatians 2:20). It is only with this kind of godly integrity that we can seek to decrease as Christ increases in and through our work as leaders.
Truly godly leaders empower their people, give away authority, value and involve others, seek the best in and from their people, and constantly seek to lift others up, push others into the limelight, and reward those they lead. All so that God’s will might be done in a more powerful way.
They seek no glory for themselves, but find great joy in seeing others prosper. They take no account of their reputation, but seek that Jesus’ face be seen in all they do.
Max De Pree’s famous definition is worth repeating, “The first responsibility of the leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the leader is a servant.” (6)
I have come to understand that godly leadership is a call to a lifestyle of an ever-decreasing thirst for authority, power and influence, where the quest for reputation is replaced by the power of God’s anointing.
Are you seeking God’s anointing for your role as a leader?
Are you willing to decrease in your role as a leader that Christ may increase in you and through you?
**Click here to read the full article: Becoming a Leader of No Reputation (R. Scott Rodin, 2012)
1 Henri Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus (Crossroads: New York, 1996), p. 17.
2 John Adams, in David McCullough’s John Adams (Simon and Schuster: New York, 2001), p. 19.
3 Nouwen, pp. 62-63.
4 Robert K. Greenleaf, The Servant as Leader (Greenleaf Center: Newton Center, 1970), p. 7.
5 Stephen R. Covey, Principle-Centered Leadership (Fireside: New York, 1990), p. 61.
6 James O’Toole, Leading Change (Ballantine Books: New York, 1995), p. 44.