Big Picture Leadership

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The irony is arresting. Books, manuals, programs, seminars, and studies abound on numerous topics, and yet the reality of the issues they purport to address looks so different. For example, there have rarely been so many studies of ethical matters, particularly bioethics, and yet a simple moral compass regarding the issues is elusive. Or consider the wealth of tools for Bible study, but polls show a remarkable lack of biblical knowledge in the general populace. There have never been so many diets and exercise methods, and yet so many Americans are overweight and unhealthy.

From infomercials to FAQs, to the “For Dummies” series, to walkthroughs, to myriad how-to books, we are surrounded with data, but seem to have less and less sense of how to put it all together. In short, there has never been such a profusion of guides for living and so little wisdom to live by.

In his prescient 1934 poem “The Rock,” T.S. Eliot wrote this:

Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

What would Eliot say today in the age of Twitter, Facebook and the internet?

The same could be said for leadership: There has never been such a profusion of studies on leadership, but such a lack of great leaders. Of course, there are some exceptions. We might think of the remarkable Chancellor of Germany, the Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel, who has deftly led her country and much of Europe through the recent refugee crisis and the Greek economic collapse. Still, it may be a sign of my age, but I look around and ask, “Where are the Churchills? The Lincolns? The Martin Luther Kings?”

If we lack great leadership, it is certainly not for the dearth of materials on the subject. Consider the business sector, where countless guides set forth the traits of good leadership in business. A recent article in the Houston Chronicle (Chron) has identified four qualifications for good team leaders in the business world. They must be (1) able to make decisions, (2) familiar with the team, (3) able to lead by example, and (4) able to solve problems.

These are uncontroversial, if not rather prosaic. But how do they compare with biblical principles?

Biblical Precedents

If we are looking for biblical precedents for great leadership, we will no doubt encounter leaders with these aptitudes. A number of them were perhaps not naturally gifted in these areas, but had to learn them. Moses, for example, was quite reticent to confront Pharaoh with the demands of liberation for his people. He did learn, he was certainly familiar with his people, he led by example, and was able, with God’s help, to solve problems. David and Daniel seemed to have had more natural aptitude for leadership. Somehow, though, the typical, modern American descriptions of leadership in business do not quite capture the uniqueness of the great biblical leaders. Few people think of Moses as a “problem-solver,” although undoubtedly he was. It’s an odd way to qualify this preeminent Old Testament figure.

“The second ingredient for successful leadership, often missing in our politicians and business captains, is the ability to look at the big picture.”

Yet something more was present in the great leaders we find in the Bible. The contemporary designation of the term “servant-leader” is one attempt to identify a leadership trait more significant than business acumen. Surely the heart of true leadership involves the right kind of humility. This popular phrase was no doubt coined by Robert Greenleaf in his influential booklet, The Servant As Leader. The idea seems incontrovertible: If one wants to lead, one should first want the best for those who are led; this is expressed by Greenleaf as the “servant first” mentality.

The servant-leader thesis has been endorsed by many, including Ken Blanchard, M. Scott Peck and Margaret Wheatly. They call on us to emulate the greatest leader of all, Jesus Christ, who, they point out, came to serve and not be served (Matt 20:28). They also invite us to avoid a one-dimensional interpretation of servanthood, namely codependency. There is an important difference, they point out, between serving the needs of others and being a servant of the needs of others. The first requires recognizing our neighbors’ real needs and helping them to meet them with a view to their flourishing, whereas the second means we do everything to satisfy our neighbor’s needs, whether they are in line with God’s will or not.

The Full Picture of Good Leadership

Still, something is missing from these often wise insights into leadership. Servanthood is no doubt an important component of good leadership, but it is only part of the full picture. Two others things are required in my view. The first is that the good leader should be surrounded with trusted counselors. The popular saying, “It’s lonely at the top,” is actually a distortion of the biblical ideal of leadership. While we are used to quoting Harry Truman to the effect that “the buck stops here,” there is seldom wisdom in going it alone. Many social commentators, from Os Guinness to James Hunter, have reminded us that history’s greatest reformers were surrounded by a network of supporters who were ready both to encourage them and, where necessary, to exhort them to think differently. People such as William Wilberforce, who led in the abolition of slavery, could not have functioned as they did without the Clapham Group, as well as key friends in the Parliament.

In a recent European Leadership Forum seminar, Jeremy Peckham skillfully reinforced this point. Responding to the pervasive problem of loneliness among leaders, he first discerns various causes for the ailment of loneliness, including misguided heroism, Western individualistic culture, and concealing vulnerability as though it were a shameful weakness. He then counters the popular notion that leadership must be lonely, reminding us that Jesus surrounded himself with his disciples who, though they were not always faithful to him, were a crucial part of his ministry. The Proverbs put it succinctly: “Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety” (Prov 11:14). Without speculating too much, can we not see that God himself takes counsel before making crucial decisions? For example, when he determined to create mankind after his image, he said, “let us make man in our image” (Gen 1:26). The plural is significant.

The second ingredient for successful leadership, often missing in our politicians and business captains, is the ability to look at the big picture. This is difficult to achieve since the immediate needs are so pressing. A crisis in unemployment, an attack on a school, a faltering market, and so many issues assail our leaders from every side. How can they face them with resolve and yet keep looking at the larger picture? Recently, world chess champion and director of the Human Rights Foundation, Garry Kasparov, pleaded for the United States to be less tactical and more strategic. Using an analogy from chess, he said that dictators have a temporary advantage over parliaments: they can be desperately tactical without worrying over long-term strategy. He praised the American foresight that led to the Korean War and thus to the long-term freedom of the South Korean people, but suggested we were losing that kind of vision.

Here is where the biblical model really helps. While the great prophets such as Elijah, Isaiah, Habakkuk, and the others certainly did respond to the immediate needs, particularly when Israel had departed from its calling as God’s people, they always called on the people to lift their heads and see where things stood from a divine perspective.

Isaiah is one of the most severe critics of the decadence of God’s people. He proclaimed God’s judgment on Israel, a vineyard which though carefully nurtured, did not bear fruit and thus would be destroyed (Isa 5:1-7). And yet the Lord’s judgment would be on all the nations, not only Israel (24:1-3). And in the end he would provide his Suffering Servant to bear the sins of his people and then usher in a new heavens and a new earth where all the nations will be brought in (53:10-12; 65:17; 66:20). Jesus himself, though confronted with the ultimate immediate crisis-- his condemnation to death-- nevertheless reminded all who heard him that the world as they knew it was coming to an end, that his kingdom is not of this world, and that in the meantime they should go to work making disciples (Matt 24; John 18:36; Luke 24:44-49).

As we listen to the endless rhetoric from candidates for the presidency, we will want to pay special heed to those who face the daunting issues of our time with resolve, but also who call on wise counselors and who will cast a larger vision than simply fixing the economy or ending gun violence. What is America’s place in current history? Where has the world been since the miracle year of 1989? What are the deepest challenges to democracy and civility? What worldview can hope to contend not only with the redefinition of marriage and the crises of unemployment, the national debt, drug trafficking and the like, but also the call to understand God’s perspective on all of human history, including our own history? Who will call on us to be strategic and not merely tactical?

- William Edgar is Professor of Apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.