Wineskins Archive

January 21, 2014

Stepping Down to Lead (Apr 1993)

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by John Harris
April, 1993

Somebody needs to lead. How is it done without it going to the leader’s head? How can one have the power to get things done and not be corrupted by it? Should I ever lead or hold power? Can anyone be trusted with power?

Nelson Andrews defines leadership as causing things to happen through others. That’s as good a definition of leadership as one is likely to find. But any way you slice it, that’s power.

Power of Subtle Control

It’s tempting enough if you are able to cause things to happen by force. But if you are subtle enough to cause them to happen by persuasion and subtle reward, your power is even greater. Greater because most people, even highly intelligent, informed ones, can be flattered, persuaded, and rewarded into doing the will of an effective leader, often without clear consciousness of what’s causing their behavior.

A story about the manipulation of a psychology professor through positive reinforcement illustrates the power of this subtle approach. The prof habitually sat on the front of a desk in his class on human learning. He enjoyed students’ comments and questions. The students decided they would modify his behavior for the fun of it. By agreement, they would not comment or ask questions while he sat in his favorite place. But when he sat in the chair behind the desk, they’d comment and question.

By the end of the course, he was sitting behind the desk in the chair all the time. They asked him if he was aware of this change. He wasn’t until they pointed it out. They asked if he knew why he had moved behind the desk into the chair. He didn’t know until they explained what they had done. He laughed and complimented the students on their use of some of the techniques he was teaching.

If the behavior of a professor teaching applied behavioral psychology can be altered without his being aware of what’s happening, what about most of us? A switch from coercion by the stick to manipulation by the carrot only makes power less painful. It actually increases power because of its subtlety.

How then does one use the power of leadership (causing things to happen through others) for the good? The ultimate example is Jesus. Paul wrote the Christians in Philippi that they should adopt the mental attitude of Jesus. “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place…” (Philippians 2:5-9a).


The “natural man” is inclined to use all his resources – money, sexual desire, and power – for selfish ends. Therefore, natural man with the power of leadership is potentially dangerous to himself and those around him. Nevertheless, we seem bent on increasing leadership skills without due regard for the attitudes and values of the leader.

Jesus demonstrated self-emptying before exaltation. It is also striking that Jesus told Nicodemus about being born again rather than the Samaritan woman. Nicodemus was probably one of the best men Jesus met; certainly, he was religious, with status, power, and money. He was the epitome of the good churchman. The Samaritan woman was living with her sixth man to whom she was not married. Why tell the churchman Nicodemus about the second birth? Surely the Samaritan woman, the adulteress, needed it most! No, Nicodemus the righteous and affluent leader was probably most tempted to be led by his own confidence and pride.

Pride may be the hardest inclination in natural man to subdue. It often persists after lust and acquisitiveness are under control. Nevertheless, for those who would lead like Jesus, it must be radically redirected.

James and John

Pride and ambition drove James and John. They were fiercely loyal to Jesus and dedicated to sharing in his triumphal rule. When a Samaritan village would not receive Jesus, they wanted it burned.

James, John, and their mother were eager for the two of them to be Jesus’ chief lieutenants. Seeing the division this caused among his followers, Jesus stopped to teach about servant leadership. (See Matthew 20:25-28.)

On another occasion when the disciples argued about who would be the most important, Jesus placed a child by his side. He clearly indicated that child-like humility and innocence were the premium qualities. “For he who is least among you – he is the greatest” (Luke 9:48).

Despite this teaching, ambitious John on one occasion complained that others are casting out demons in Jesus’ name. John apparently wanted to protect the franchise. Jesus made it clear that he was not interested in credit but achievement. “Do not stop him for whoever is not against you is for you” (Luke 9:50). One suspects Jesus must have felt, “We could get a lot done around here if we did not care who gets the credit!”

Majors and Minors

One of the last object lessons Jesus taught his disciples before his death was that of washing their feet. This was the work of the lowest servant in the house. Perhaps Jesus knew pride and ambition would be the most divisive and destructive elements in the faith community. When he finished, he said, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them” (John 13:15-17).

Christians have often majored in minors. All too often most of our energy and time is spent on correct details of worship, doctrine, and organization rather than a deep, radical reprogramming of our affections. The Pharisees did this with disastrous consequences. How clever they were at keeping the law in external details while neglecting justice, mercy, and faithfulness. One cannot focus on these majors with an unbroken heart.

Churchmen today like the ancient Pharisees often follow their pride and ambition. While leaving our sinful core untouched, we try vainly to compensate by scoring on the externals. Note what Jesus said about the Pharisees’ pride:

  • Everything they do is done for men to see….”
  • “…they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues.”
  • “they love to be greeted in the market place and to have men call them ‘Rabbi.’”

In contrast, Jesus describes the way his people should act:

  • But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers.
  • “The greatest among you will be your servant.
  • “For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:5-12).

Leaders You Can Trust

The ideal Christian organization and leader have the following characteristics:

  • Followers who have lost their natural inclinations, including pride and ambition, in a new, common identity, the mind of Christ.
  • Leaders who have emptied themselves of pride and ambition and taken the role of servant. With such characteristics, the power of leadership is good. The ideal Christian leader has stepped down from status and position because he has found a new source of pride and a new ambition. He and his followers have been born again. While appearing to step down, they have stepped up from love of self to all-consuming love of God and others.

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