Leadership

If developments this century in the business world could be summarized by one word, it would probably be “leadership.” The early ‘00s saw the rapid rise of for-profit schools offering Masters degrees in leadership, and thousands of books have been written over the past two decades on the topic of how to lead effectively. But what might leadership mean as a character strength rather than as business tool? And how might we consider it even to be good spiritual fruit? These are the questions we’re going to explore in this week’s post.

According to the VIA Institute on Character Strengths, leadership “As a character strength, leadership refers to the tendency to organize and encourage a group to get things done, while maintaining good relations within the group.” While it is similar to teamwork in that it focuses on a group’s goals, it differs from it in that leadership takes responsibility for the group’s proper functioning: “Leadership involves setting goals and accomplishing them, enlisting effective help, building coalitions, and smoothing ruffled feathers. Effective leaders are able to provide a positive vision or message that inspires dedicated followers who feel empowered and perhaps even inspired.” Niemietz and McGrath add that leadership requires “good social awareness, and a high level of flexibility in approaching different personality styles” (The Power of Character Strengths, 178). Being a good leader involves bringing out the strengths and leadership of other team members.

The benefits of good leadership are obvious to anyone who has ever worked in an office or been involved in any kind of community. Groups need strong leaders in order to help define and achieve their shared goals, and so cultivating this strength can be a boon to community growth and development. On an individual level, leadership is associated with such traits as emotional stability, openness, social intelligence, and conscientiousness. And, of course, good leaders receive social benefits, such as respect and opportunity. 

It’s important to note that leadership isn’t just for people who are people-managers at their jobs or in the church. It’s possible to be a leader at any role in an organization. And, a foundational principle of leadership is that a leader must first lead him-or-herself before they can lead others. And so leadership involves self-efficacy, the ability to get things done, and — ideally — self-actualization, the ability to truly show up as one’s best self.

Leadership has not historically been among the virtues promoted within Christianity. This shouldn’t be surprising, since the word itself is only two hundred years old. But, of course, leaders have always been around, and the Scriptures do talk quite a bit about what a good one looks like. Perhaps the fullest exploration of what we would call leadership in the Hebrew Bible comes from Proverbs:

The human mind plans the way,
    but the Lord directs the steps.
Inspired decisions are on the lips of a king;
    his mouth does not sin in judgment.
Honest balances and scales are the Lord’s;
    all the weights in the bag are his work.
It is an abomination to kings to do evil,
    for the throne is established by righteousness.
Righteous lips are the delight of a king,
    and he loves those who speak what is right. 
(Proverbs 16.9ff)

Here we see that a good king, the consummate leader in that context, is: devoted to God, exercises good judgment, is honest and doesn’t show favoritism, works to do good, and appreciates honest feedback and input.

In specifically Christian context, leadership is defined as service: A true leader understands themselves as a servant of the team rather than its master. As Jesus famously said:

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many (Mt 20.25ff).

As important as leadership is, it can go wrong in some very obvious ways. A lack of leadership is a kind of blind compliance, doing what one is told without understanding or agreeing with the group’s vision or mission. The opposite of leadership involves such traits as sabotage, actively working against a group and trying to make it fail, and obsequiousness, a fawning deference to leadership. At the other end of the spectrum, unhealthy leadership is despotism, and perhaps less obviously, messianism. The latter can be seen not just in political or business leaders who think they are some kind of “chosen one,” but also more subtly in leaders who think they have the capacity or responsibility to fix all of a group’s problems on their own. This describes a lot of clergy I know, well-meaning and compassionate men and women who feel the weight of their ministry heavily on their shoulders and take on too much.

How might we improve our healthy leadership skills? Here are some ideas:

  • Organize an event for family or a group of friends
  • Volunteer to lead a project at work, or another community or faith organization, and be intentional about bringing out the strengths of the team
  • Make a list of your leadership role models and consider what traits they exhibited that make you admire them.
  • If you are in a position of leadership, ask those you lead how they might better use their strengths in their roles.
  • Lead yourself.

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