We live in a world, writes John Stott, that is desperate for effective leadership. At the global level, there are massive nuclear arsenals, widespread violations of human rights, frightening environmental and energy crises, and North-Sough economic inequality. Morally, we are aware of forces at work that are undermining the stability of marriage and the family, challenging sexual mores and roles, and providing what is virtually abortion on demand. Spiritually, there is the spread of materialism and the corresponding loss of any transcendent reality. Many are aware that the world is heading for disaster; few seem to have any idea how to avert it. We have much technical know-how; but little practical wisdom. Many are confused, bewildered, alienated. The people are like “sheep without a shepherd,” and their leaders are too often “blind leaders of the blind.”
Leadership can be of many types and degrees. It is not restricted to the small number of world statesmen, the “movers and shakers” of the nations. Clergy are leaders in the local church and community. Parents are leaders in the home and family. Teachers are leaders in school, college and university. Managers in business and industry, judges, doctors, politicians, social workers and union officials all have leadership responsibilities. So do those who shape public opinion – authors, playwrights, journalists, broadcasters, artists and producers. In all these areas, and many others, there is a need for clearsighted, courageous and dedicated leaders.
Management experts talk about “goals.” Military experts lay down strategies. Politicians publish manifestos. Whatever we call it, we are talking about vision. Vision is a mixture of insight and foresight. It combines a dissatisfaction with what is with a clear view of what could be. We see both these elements in Jesus: he was indignant over death and disease, hunger and hatred, and exercised him compassion in doing something about these things. Anger and indignation are in themselves futile; but when accompanied by a determination to improve the state of affairs then the become powerful allies. Moses was appalled by the cruel oppression of his people in Egypt, and, remembering the covenant made by God with Abraham, was sustained by his vision of the “Promised Land”.
The early success of Communism, which, in its hey-day, had won over a third of the world, was due to the vision of a better society in which “there will be no oppressed and exploited people, no darkness, ignorance, backwardness…no irrational things as mutual deception, mutual antagonism, mutual slaughter and war” (Liu Shao-chi). The closing words of Marx’s Communist Manifesto were, “You have a world to win.” Young Communist recruits were prepared to make great sacrifices because they felt that they were taking part in a world-wide crusade.
But Jesus Christ is a far greater leader than Marx, and the Christian gospel is far more liberating than the Communist Manifesto. Where are the people today with the vision to make the kingdom of God a reality in our age? Where are the people today who have these two things clearly in view: what is, and what could be?
Visions themselves achieve nothing. Dreamers must become thinkers, planners and workers. Idealists need to become activists. Edison famously defined genius as “1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” Paderewski would practice a bar or a phrase 50 times or more to perfect it. Queen Victoria once said to him, after she had heard him play, “Mk Paderewski, you are a genius.” “That may be, Ma’am,” he replied, “but before I was a genius, I was a drudge.” It was not enough for Moses to dream of a land flowing with milk and honey; he also had to organise the people and lead them through the wilderness so that they could get there. Churchill dreamed of Europe’s liberation; but in his first speech to the House of Commons as Prime Minister, he promised them nothing but “blood, toil, tears and sweat.”
Thomas Sutcliffe Mort was an early settler in Australia in the early 19th century. He was determined to solve the problem of refrigeration, so that meat could be exported to Britain, and set himself three years in which to do it. It took him 26. He lived long enough to see the first shipment of refrigerated meet leave Sydney, but died before learning whether it reached its destination safely. His house is now the residence of the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney. Painted 20 times round the cornise of the study ceiling are the words, “To persevere is to succeed.”
Not only vision and action, but also perseverance, is essential to leadership. Opposition is sure to arise. As soon as the campaign gets under way, the forces of reaction muster, self-interest is threatened, apathy is transmuted into hostility, and the cynical begin to sneer. But a true work of God will survive opposition. It will even thrive on it, as silver is refined in the fire. Mere hangers-on will soon capitulate, and many who were enthusiastic supported at the outset will lapse into complacent mediocrity. But the true leader will persevere.
Moses had to persevere on the twelve or more occasions when the people “murmured” against him and threatened mutiny. Paul, too, faced bitter opposition and had to endure severe afflictions. But he never lost his vision of God’s redeemed society. He persevered to the end, 2 Tim 4:7. Someone wrote, with William Wilberforce in mind, that a would-be social reformer “must possess…the virtues of a fanatic without his vices. He must be palpably single-minded and unself-seeking. He must be strong enough to face opposition and ridicule, staunch enough to endure obstruction and delay.”
But perseverance is not the same as pig-headedness. The effective leader is not impervious to criticism. On the contrary, he listens carefully to it, weighs it, and responds accordingly. But he does not allow himself to be swayed from his basic convictions and principles.
Here is one point at which the biblical concept of leadership is at variance with that of the world. Mk 19:42-5. True, Christian pastors are to be respected, 1 Thess 5:12-13, and even obeyed, Heb 13:17. Yet the emphasis of Jesus was not on rule but on servanthood. Christian leadership works by love, not power; by example, not force; by persuasion, not coercion. One reason for this is that the chief occupation hazard of the leader is pride. Not for the Christian leader the Pharisaic desire to be called “Father,” “Teacher” and “Rabbi.” To serve others is to value them as God values them, to love them as God loves them. Christian leaders serve the interests of others, Php 2:4.
Christian leadership will work best within a context of team-work. Team-work protects against isolationism, individualism, and empire-building. Team members supplement one another, enhancing one another’s strengths and compensating for one another’s weaknesses. Team members encourage one another, identifying and confirming one another’s gifts and motivating one another to use them. Team members are accountable to one another: they share the work, and they share the responsibility.
The great example in servant leadership was, of course, Christ himself. Though he the Lord of all, he became the servant of all, Jn 13:12-17; 1 Pet 5:5; Gal 5:13.
Visions have a tendency to fade. Visionaries have a tendency to become discouraged. Hard work can degenerate into drudgery. Leaders can become tired and feel that they are getting nowhere. The humble approach seems impractical. On top of all this, great leaders usually have great faults. Righteous Noah got drunk. Faithful Abraham could be deceitful. Moses lost his temper and killed a man. David broke half the commandment in one go. Jeremiah’s courage was marred by self-pity. John the Baptist was beset by doubt. Peter’s exuberance manifested itself as impetuosity. But these men were enabled to overcome their faults by the spiritual discipline of waiting on God. Moses sought the Lord, and God spoke with him face to face. Ex 33:11 Deut 34:10. David looked to God as his shepherd and strengthener, Ps 23:1 27:1 1 Sam 30:6. Paul, burdened with an informity, heard Jesus affirm, “My grace is sufficient for you.” 2 Cor 12:7-10. But the greatest of examples is Christ himself. Even he found it necessary to repeatedly withdraw from the crowd and seek his Father in solitude. While his disciples slept, he prayed, and this fact goes a long towards explaining why, when they forsook him and fled, he went to the cross with such serenity, Mk 4:36 6:45 14:32-42,50.
Based on Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today (5th ed.), 485-498.