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Leadership and spiritual formation have a symbiotic relationship. Both, by their very nature, require the production and experience of continuous change.

Discussion Board 3

Leadership and Spiritual Formation

Andrew Seidel

Leadership is one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth.

—-James MacGregor Burns, Leadership, 158

Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.

—John 13:14-15

Leadership and spiritual formation have a symbiotic relationship. Both, by their very nature, require the production and experience of continuous change. From one perspective, spiritual formation involves individual change while leadership involves group or organizational change, which also requires individual change. Certainly spiritual transformation in a group or ministry setting requires effective spiritual leadership. But the most critical element of the symbiotic relationship is that effective transformational leadership1 in any environment, religious or secular, requires the spiritual transformation of the leader. As leadership studies have progressed over the last few years, the role of the inner life of the leader is becoming more commonly recognized.

Even with the avalanche of new books on leadership, there is still no common agreement on the meaning of leadership. A surprising number of these new books claim to provide the “secret” to effective leadership, as though there is some previously undiscovered simple key to leadership success. Definitions of leadership seem to multiply at an alarming rate, with each mutation focusing on the particular writer’s own perspective or reflecting the values of the current culture. The frustration with so much detail but so little definition is expressed by one of the leading researchers in the area of leadership: “Four decades of research on leadership have produced a bewildering mass of findings. … It is difficult to know what, if anything, has been convincingly demonstrated by replicated research. The endless accumulation of empirical data has not produced an integrated understanding of leadership.”2

While the lack of resolution is frustrating, what is encouraging is the fact that more and more writers in the area of leadership are recognizing the importance of the inner life of the leader. Leading “from the inside out” has become a recurring theme, even in the secular arena. The inner motivations of the leader are not hermetically sealed in a secure place within the leader. Rather, they stretch far beyond the leader and have a powerful impact on the followers as well as on the organization as a whole.

Jim Collins, in his excellent book, Good to Great, notes that one of the key factors that enable good companies to make the transition to become great companies is the presence of what he calls “Level 5 Leadership.” His researchers noted a striking similarity in the great companies studied: all the CEOs of these companies possessed two traits in common. They were not charismatic personalities; none were favorites of the media, and their names were not commonly recognized. But they were characterized by the two qualities of “extreme personal humility and intense professional will.”3 Together, these qualities describe the inner motivation of a leader who focuses his strong passion on the good of the company he leads, not on his own personal ego needs. In contrast, for self-centered leaders “work will always be first and foremost about what they get—fame, fortune, adulation, power, whatever—not about what they build, create, and contribute.”4

Collins might have called this type of leadership “servant leadership”; in fact, some of his researchers suggested that he do so. But the title was rejected because of the current common use of the term. In fact, “servant leadership” has enjoyed a resurgence in the secular leadership literature. Robert Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership, published in 1977, began the current interest in the connection between leadership and servanthood. Writers, both secular and Christian, now focus on servant leadership. The connection between leadership and servanthood moves the leadership discussion into the inner life of the leader. No longer can the leader’s inner life be crowded out by the pragmatic emphasis on the skills of leadership.

The Meaning of Servant Leadership

Servant leadership is a biblical concept that Jesus worked diligently to impress on his disciples. They, like us, had a difficult time with it. Jesus’ last and clearest statement of servant leadership occurred on the way to the garden of Gethsemane shortly after the Last Supper. By this time the disciples had been with him almost three years. They had seen him heal the sick, raise the dead, and cast out demons from afflicted people. They had heard his teaching, experienced close community with him, and, only a few moments before, reluctantly allowed him to wash their feet.

But as they walked toward the garden that night, they went back to a common issue among them: they got into a heated argument about which one of them was regarded to be the greatest! If it were not also so true of us, we might chide them, wondering how they could possibly be so blind and self-centered.

And there arose also a dispute among them as to which one of them was regarded to be greatest. And He said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who have authority over them are called ‘Benefactors.’ But it is not this way with you, but the one who is the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the servant. For who is greater, the one who reclines at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at the table? But I am among you as the one who serves.” (Luke 22:24-27 NASB)

With great patience Jesus draws their attention to the self-centered leadership of the Gentile political leaders of their day, leaders who had the audacity to require their subjects to call them “benefactors,” while these same leaders selfishly used their subjects and lorded it over them. This kind of leadership is better described as self-serving leadership. Jesus challenged his disciples to be different; in his view the leader is to be like a servant. While there is much talk about servant leadership today, there is also much confusion. Some suggest that servant leadership is simply a passive style of leadership in which the leader has no agenda. But Jesus himself was anything but passive, and he certainly had an agenda.

Servant leadership is not a style of leadership at all; it is much more foundational. Servant leadership is primarily expressed in the inner motivation of the leader. Stated simply, a servant leader is not motivated by personalized power or benefit. A servant leader is primarily motivated by two things: (1) the fulfillment of God’s mission for his or her ministry or organization and (2) the fulfillment of God’s purpose in the lives of the people who are part of the ministry or organization. This means that the passion of this leader is not focused on his or her power, benefits, reputation, perks, or privileges; it is on the fulfillment of a godly purpose and on the good of the people being led. This is a high and unselfish focus. No wonder we, like the disciples, have such difficulty living it.

How God Develops His Servant Leaders

Servant leadership is so critical to God’s purpose in the world that God will go to great lengths to develop it in his followers. The missionary statesman J. Oswald Sanders comments, “It has been said that in achieving His world-purpose, God’s method has always been a man. Not necessarily a noble man, or a brilliant man, but always a man with capacity for a growing faith. Granted this, there appears to be no limit to the pains God is willing to take in his training. He is limited by neither heredity nor environment.”5

In the past several years, leadership training has concentrated on knowledge and skills. But from a Christian perspective, there is more to leadership development than knowledge and skills, as important as both are. God is more concerned with the development of the person of the leader. Through the course of life, God works in our lives to mold and strengthen us, to prepare us to be his leaders. God either brings or allows experiences into our lives; some are pleasant and enjoyable, and others are excruciatingly painful and anything but enjoyable. Either way, God uses our experiences to work on our heart. He orchestrates our experiences as challenges to mold our heart, to jar us out of our comfort zones, to shake up our complacency, to make us look inward, deep into our heart, until some crisis shows who we have become. God focuses his effort on our heart, because, at its core, leadership is more a matter of heart than it is of knowledge or skills.


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