Leadership is much in the news these days because of presidential elections and the controversies associated with them. There are all kinds of things being said about leadership. There are different styles, different personalities, different approaches and different philosophies of leadership being discussed.
As I’ve listened to the debates and comments on this subject — who is good, who is bad, who is successful, who is dynamic, who is failing — I thought of the story attributed to General Dwight D. Eisenhower. General Eisenhower was asked what he thought about leadership. The general took a simple piece of string to demonstrate the art of leadership. He put it on a table and said, “Pull it and it’ll follow wherever you wish. Push it and it will go nowhere at all. It’s just that way when it comes to leading people.”
That is a very simple way of saying that leadership is not just a leader pulling on ahead, it is people following along, voluntarily sharing in the task of a mutually agreed upon goal out ahead. There is a vital relationship between leadership and follow-ship.
Jesus was a leader who drew people around Him and sought to instill in them His principles and goals. He demonstrates His leadership in His determination to go to Jerusalem. “And He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He spoke this word openly. And Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him. But when He had turned around and looked at His disciples, He rebuked Peter, saying, ‘Get behind Me, Satan! For you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men’” (Mk. 8:31-33).
Jesus returned to this fact again and again. Through the gospels, this is a recurring fact after a certain point in His ministry. Jesus was preparing His followers for what was going to happen to Him. As human beings, we are slow to learn. We like things as we have them. We don’t like to change. Mark records this theme again in 9:31-35. Note that “they did not understand this saying, and were afraid to ask Him.” They argued about who was the greatest, but they were afraid to ask Jesus the meaning of what He said about His suffering. It is not in human nature to make that inquiry. They wanted to know who would have the best position, the most influence in the new kingdom. Jesus openly expressed His view on this, saying to the 12 disciples, “If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all” (Mk. 9:35).
First, we need to define leadership. What is leadership? The worldly, fleshly idea of leadership is very different from that of Jesus Christ and His Church. The Gospels specifically outline for us how Jesus saw leadership and how He demonstrated it.
Leadership is being alone and ahead of the crowd. There must be balance in our lives. There needs to be balance — aloneness and social contact. All through the Bible, you find leaders who were forged in the times apart from the crowd — Moses in the wilderness, Elijah alone with God, Jesus alone in preparation for the cross. There must be this special, preparatory time in the life of every leader. Then there must be that time when leadership is demonstrated in the social context.
James McGregor Burns stated there are two types of leaders — “transformational” and “transactional” leaders. The “transformational” leader has an all-consuming passion. He leads by calling his followers to a transforming vision, a grand plan. He is charismatic in personality, dynamic in manner. He is a George Washington, an Abraham Lincoln, a George Patton, or a similar kind of leader. This kind of leader must be inspirational, visionary. He is a leader for the crisis hour.
There are the “transactional” leaders who can draw out group goals, negotiate the agreement of different personalities. This is the leader for the calm period of time.
Neither leadership style is right for all situations. In a crisis time, people look for transformational leaders; in calm situations they look for transactional types. We need to have both in our work. We need to build a team approach to work and leadership where strengths are realized and weaknesses compensated for. Otherwise we become cannibalistic in our behavior. This is precisely what Paul dealt with when he said, “But if you bite and devour one another, beware lest you be consumed by one another” (Gal. 5:15)!
On the road to Jerusalem and the cross, Jesus walked ahead of the crowd, alone in the position of a transformational leader. He is determined to reach Jerusalem. Isaiah’s prophecy dealt specifically with this time in Jesus’ life as he put these words in the Messiah’s mouth — “I set my face like a flint...” (50:7). The writer of Hebrews reflected back on this scene and said that Jesus was the “author” or the “pioneer” of our faith (Heb. 12:2).
Second, leadership is maintaining courage in the face of fear. Jesus was courageous in going to Jerusalem. There are three emotions in this passage — amazement, fear and courage. Jesus illustrates the courage of a true leader. He doesn’t fear what is ahead and he isn’t amazed. The disciples are amazed at what Jesus says is going to happen. The crowd is afraid. A leader who has courage isn’t one who is oblivious to fear and amazement. He isn’t overcome by either of these.
In the Spring of 1992, I was privileged to attend a White House briefing conducted by Jack Kemp during the Bush Administration. We spent almost a half hour with Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas at the Supreme Court discussing leadership, citizenship and the courts. We were with Sen. Al Gore for almost 45 minutes talking about leadership. I was impressed by the influence of these leaders, but what most impressed me was reading a story on an inscription in the National Guard Memorial Auditorium illustrating true leadership: A young army officer in Korea led his command up a hill into the face of enemy fire. He was shot, but he kept going. He didn’t quit. He carried his battle to the enemy and into the trenches at the top of the hill. If he had fallen, others would have fallen also. In our lives we need that kind of determination. We need the determination not to fall. Others may fall, others may fail to be faithful, fail to give, fail to serve, but we must determine to continue serving, doing the right thing for ourselves, our families and our country.
It takes courage to keep going. A true leader continues on with courage in the face of fear. Jesus made some astounding claims for us. He said, “Lo, I am with you always” (Matt. 28:20). He said that He would go with us through the deep valleys, the dangerous places. We can take courage and keep going because He has promised to be with us.