You don’t have to be a hero or a genius to lead, but you do need to be a servant.
By Mark Sayers
Today’s leaders—whether in the board room or behind the pulpit—are influenced by two competing visions of leadership they may not be aware of or completely understand. These two visions began to emerge in Western culture in the 18th century during the Enlightenment and its countermovement, Romanticism.
The Enlightenment produced a set of leadership attributes we will call “the mechanical,” and Romanticism produced a grouping of attributes we will call “the organic.” These two visions of reality offer us two types of leadership and influence, but neither lines up with a truly biblical understanding of leadership.
The mechanical vs. organic leader
In the imagination of the Enlightenment, with its mechanical values, the leader par excellence is a successful hero figure: powerful, commanding, and conquering, creating with determination, organization, and systems as powerful as the hero himself.
Romanticism attempted to create an alternative to the mechanical worldview. The Romantic vision, with its organic values, imagined the leader and the influencer to be not the achieving hero of the Enlightenment but the creative genius who influences through innovation, art, and dangerously brilliant ideas.
The Romantic vision imagines the creative genius as a heretic, always pushing boundaries and breaking taboos. Thus, in the organic vision, creatives create, but they also tear down.
These two visions have been battling for supremacy in our culture for centuries. They’re still at war today, and they’re responsible for much of the cultural storm of chaos that confronts us.
Our current view of Christian leadership was also shaped by this battle between the mechanical values’ model of the successful hero who builds and organizes and the organic values’ vision of the creative genius who ideates and critiques.
A Christianity that attempts to model itself on the hero or the genius will be a faith that has little potential to speak good news to the West. Instead, we must rediscover the truly radical vision of leadership found within the pages of the Bible.
A model of leadership born out of a revolutionary truth that was repellent to pagan ears. A truth that dared to proclaim in pagan streets and squares that God had lowered Himself to come and live in the mess and muck of human life, within history, in time, in human flesh.
The pagans wished to leave this world, to cross the divide between human and god. Whether through power or pleasure, they wanted to get out. But the gospel taught that the central organizing principle for leadership, for life, for the universe, was the truth that God had come to us.
That He had died upon a cross, spilling His blood in love, paying the price for our sins before rising from the grave and ascending into heaven where He lives and reigns forever. All leadership must pass through this narrow gate of suffering before glory. This truth jarred the ancient pagan world, and it still rocks our modern world today.
The cross and the mechanical leader
On the cross, Jesus does not just die—the myth of the heroic pagan god who will save us through a kind of earthly power dies. Instead, the God who leads by serving saves by dying.
Those who bow their knee at the foot of the cross admitting the absurdity of their own efforts to be godlike, who confess the chaos and sin within them, now enter into a new way of being—one driven not by striving, agenda, or applause, but by sacrificial love.
When leaders die to pushing their own agendas and realize leadership is the art of dying to self in public, those around them are profoundly transformed. Selfless leadership opens a space for God to flow into.
For a Western culture drowning in the attempt to find rich, rewarding lives while maximizing personal autonomy, one of the greatest gifts leaders can give those we lead is our example of selflessness.
The cross and the organic leader
From the comfort of our couches, we can sit and watch our Twitter feeds, critiquing the methods, models, and ministries of others, speculating on how they could have done better.
And we can devise all kinds of theories, read all the right books, engage in online debate, blog our opinions, yet the whole time be disconnected from actually having skin in the game. Even when our heart is for God’s kingdom, if we’re not careful we can find ourselves critiquing from the sidelines.
There’s a world of difference between pundits and prophets. The gospel shows Jesus was willing to wade into the mess of human sinfulness on His mission of redemption. He didn’t sit on the edge of the human drama commenting, speculating, or offering opinion.
Instead, He offered His life. Isaiah prophesied that the followers of the Messiah would rebuild the ancient ruins. The organic leader who bows before the cross is turned into God’s rebuilder.
A better way forward
We find ourselves, then, in a strange place today. Our public lives are now lived under the heroic myth. Buildings keep getting built, our smartphones keep getting smarter, technology continues its march toward the horizon, and we have the freedom to indulge our desires. Yet, while our public life is ordered, many of our private lives reflect chaos.
We can be successful in our jobs, yet our private lives can be filled with addictions and anxiety. Our search for absolute freedom has left us feeling empty and trapped. Our skyscrapers stand tall, but the winds of cultural chaos, whipped up by our own narcissistic desires to go it alone, lash at our souls.
In such a time and place, the healing power of biblical leadership is desperately needed. In a world in which individual pleasure is everything, and pain is to be avoided at all costs, the biblical leader with eyes upon the cross walks hand in hand with God into suffering and pain.
In a culture that is increasingly fragmented and confused, the biblical leader acknowledges a sweeping cosmic drama, a narrative that binds together the universe.
In a time in which the primacy of the individual’s rights and desires is unquestioned, the biblical leader lives as a slave of Christ, looking to His guidance rather than personal preference when making decisions.
In a society that reduces everything and everyone to the superficial, the biblical leader cultivates an inner world, born out of communion with the living God. The biblical leader’s words, actions, attitudes, and behaviors are a witness to Jesus’ victory on the cross and His resurrection on the third day. The kingdom of God has come, transforming worldly notions of success and leadership.
The truth is, we are not powerful heroes. Nor are we creative geniuses. We are sinners who live and lead by the grace of God. This grace, this gospel of Jesus Christ, produces servant leaders willing to die to self in public, and that’s just what our chaotic, hurting world needs most.
MARK SAYERS is a pastor and author living in Melbourne, Australia. He is the author of Facing Leviathan: Leadership, Influence, and Creating in a Cultural Storm.