Fighting the Temptations of Successful Leadership

Article
04.02.2020

Good leadership aims for equality. The trouble is, good leadership creates clout, which strongly tempts leaders to forget the aim.

Let’s make sure we understand the aim, then we’ll turn to the temptation.

The child is not the equal of the parent in wisdom, strength, or responsibility. Nor is the worker to the manager, or the member to the pastor. But a good pastor, parent, or manager labors to that end—to train and grow the one underneath up into equal wisdom, equal strength, equal responsibility, if not surpassing measures of them.

This aspiration to equality isn’t everything to be said about leadership. We need leaders to lead. To stand at the head of the phalanx. To point the wagon train in a good direction. To take responsibility and all the praise or blame that comes with it. God has established real offices like parent, pastor, or prince that come with real authority.

Yet the point of authority is to author. To create. To plant and grow and build up (read 2 Samuel 23:3–4 and then Psalm 72). Which is what I mean when I say, good leadership will aim in some sense at equality. If you’re a leader, you’re always looking to replace yourself. Even when the offices are fixed, as with a husband and wife, a good leader aspires to partnership. A good husband won’t direct the wagon train one inch without his wife’s full participation. “Teamwork makes the dream work,” says he.

We might even say that the aspiration to equality is built into the trajectory of redemptive history. God created Adam and Eve in his image for the purpose of ruling over creation. He was saying, “Represent me. Stand in my stead.” At the consummation of creation, likewise, we will “reign with” Christ (2 Tim. 2:12), a phrase which translates literally as “be kings with.”

No, the creature never becomes the creator or deserves the creator’s worship. But still, God invites us to reign with him? To become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4)?

Lord, what is man that you are mindful of him!

EXPERIENCE, GIFTEDNESS, AND THEIR IMPLICIT TEMPTATION

That word “equal” came to mind as I was reflecting on the recent spate of fallen pastors and other ministry leaders as well as the dynamics of leadership and aging generally. I want to take the principles above and apply them to the aging pastor or institution leader.

The older you get, the harder it becomes to work at treating those “under” you as equals, and reasonably so. You really are wiser. The younger often aren’t. And the gap keeps widening because 21 is always 21, even as your clock ticks upward and the doctor appointments become more invasive. The young keep getting younger, as they say.

Not only that, your stature in the community will grow, especially if you’re a good pastor. It will be easier for you to get your way. People trust you, and rightly so.

And if you’re a somewhat talented pastor or institution leader? Like the valleys and ridges of topography carved out by wind and water over decades, so the natural accumulations of clout and capital will accrue to you, and more with every passing year. More and more, your words will carry the day because you are you. This, I believe, is a sociological reality of people in groups.

NEEDED: A GROWTH IN HUMILITY TO MATCH A GROWTH IN AGE & TALENT

Such accrual is not all bad. Let the proven leader lead. My point is, the higher your mountain of clout rises, whether through age or talent or both, the harder it becomes to keep your eye on the ball of pushing toward equality. A sense of privilege or entitlement easily sets in, together with the many traps and landmines Satan has quietly laid for you and your church. Plus, you’re a little tired. It’s easy to get your way with the wave of the hand. You reason, “Why not stay home from the battles this summer?” as old King David did.

But there’s a lesson here from that old king’s downfall: the higher that mountain of clout rises, the more you must strive for humility. If you pumped two gallons of fuel into your fight for humility at age forty, pump four gallons in at age sixty. After all, you will have double the authority, and if your growth in humility doesn’t keep up with your growth in authority, Satan will find it much easier to trip you off the mountain into the yawning canyon beside it.

Here’s my point as an epigram: the more talented the pastor, the more humility he needs. The longer he serves, the more dangerous his pride can be.

Other battles in life might grow easier, and other realities of age let you slow down. But not the fight for humility. If you would presume to continue leading a church or other ministry over decades, your fight must not slacken, but increase. Don’t be like David or his son Solomon. Both were godly and talented men. But both grew complacent with age, to the hurt of their nation.

KEEP YOUR EYE ON THE BALL

One component of this battle, to return to where I began, is to keep your eye on this ball: leadership aims for equality.

The temptation of aging is to do what you’ve always done—to avoid risks and play it safe. On many days, this is wisdom. Yet the work of raising up your lessers to be your equal is inherently risky. It means taking a chance on the young Turk, giving him the microphone, or letting him drive, even though you know you could do a better job and make less mistakes. You would get it right the first time. He will bumble through and leave a mess.

When you were 30 and the people in the pew were 30, it was easier to ask for their counsel. It’s harder when you’re 60 and they’re 30, as I’ve said. But your task is the same: to grow them in maturity and wisdom. Therefore, give them a chance. Befriend them. Lower yourself (see Luke 14:7–11). Be one of the guys. Don’t lord it over. No more pretension.

Yes, you must also maintain a discerning eye for immaturity and folly. You must draw boundaries and keep it contained so that it doesn’t harm the body. Much of your shepherding ministry will be spent using your rod to whack wolves and your staff to corral misguided sheep.

Still, how can you give the benefit of the doubt, and treat those under you as your equals? Maybe do what Paul says: consider others better than yourself—as a general posture of heart. Then, use your leadership position to do what Jesus said: don’t look to be served but to serve. This doesn’t mean you don’t lead. Jesus led. It means not clinching your leadership with a tight fist. Instead, you’re always preparing to give it away, to it let go, even to the point of your death. You know God will raise you up in due time, and so in the meantime you give yourself entirely to raising them up—to be your equal, or even your better.

A WORD FOR THOSE AROUND SUCH LEADERS

Are there any lessons here for those of us whose lives or work puts us around such leaders? Our job is to balance two things: giving honor to whom honor is due (Rom. 13:7), while treating no man as God, meaning, beyond reproach (Acts 12:22–23).

That means, sometimes, when occasion permits, in spite of how scary it might be, we must be willing to challenge leaders. One should do so respectfully, carefully, and calibrated for their own weaknesses. If you know challenging “Joe” will go better in private than in front of the staff, then, by all means, do it privately. The point is, you are called to love your leaders and love those they lead, not just to preserve yourself.

Sometimes I push myself to disagree out loud with my boss, Mark Dever, simply because I know it’s good for my own soul and good for him. Gratefully, he is a humble man who receives it. And I pray that, as he ages, he will continue to receive it. If he does not, it will be to his and his church’s harm. Therefore, one of the many bullet points in my job description, insofar as the Lord has given me the stewardship of Mark’s friendship, is to help him stay practiced. [smile] Now, I can do that like an arrogant college student, who always knows better than dad. Or I can do that carefully and respectfully.

What if you feel like your leadership doesn’t humbly receive challenges? It may be that your counsel is wrong. Part of good leadership is sorting through good and bad counsel. It may also be that your counsel is reasonable, but you’ve overestimated your relationship with the leader. Mark can hear my challenges, in part, because trust has been built over years. And, frankly, it’s not reasonable to expect the leader of any organization to hear everyone equally, especially the larger the organization gets. Leaders are human, too, and need some allowance for whom they do and don’t listen to. My guess is that you don’t listen to everyone in your life equally.

Yet, finally, of course, it may also be the case that a leader is unteachable, vindictive, and proud. Your years of experience and position might make you the ideal person to offer a loving challenge, but you fear, say, for your job. Yes, there is always a risk, and wisdom must determine one’s course. Sometimes you take that risk. Sometimes you realize that a leader’s pride is unassailable, nothing but harm will come from a challenge, and walking away is best. Think of a woman in an abusive marriage. She may need to flee. If you attend a church or work for a ministry where the leadership is unassailable, you might rethink your long-term prospects there (see 1 Cor. 7:22).

I cannot offer counsel for every situation. Yet here’s a take-away for everyone: insofar as God allows, we should all aspire to join churches, work for organizations, and (for women) marry men who recognize that leadership aims for equality. It is in these churches, organizations, ministries, and marriages where, ordinarily, you will most grow and flourish.

What do you do if you are genuinely stuck with a leader who is only out for himself? Ask God either to (i) change the heart of the leader, (ii) change your circumstances, or (iii) do what he so commonly does in our trials: make you look more and more like Jesus, who suffered, and was then exalted (Phil 2:5–11).

By:
Jonathan Leeman

Jonathan Leeman is the Editorial Director of 9Marks, and an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church in Cheverly, Maryland. You can find him on Twitter at @JonathanLeeman.