A Theology of Leadership

Recently, in applying for a program of graduate studies in educational leadership, it became clear that I have a rather glaring lacuna in my training and education up to this point: In depth reflection on the goals and processes of leadership. It occurs to me that, while I have read fairly widely and written on many aspects of pastoral life, from Biblical studies to Liturgy, from Systematic theology to Systems theory in Congregational Development, from Ecumenical Councils to Crisis Counseling, I have never focused on leadership as such.

Leadership is something I do every day, and something I teach others about. But I have never delved deeply into the theoretical foundations of leadership, and I would characterize my own understanding and practice of leadership as largely mentor-based, intuitive, and "caught rather than taught". So, with that said, I would like to express both systemically and yet somewhat naively what leadership is to me, why I think leadership is important, how I have seen leadership practiced and mis-practiced, and most importantly, how leadership reflects the nature and purposes of the Triune God.

1. Some Biblical Foundations of Leadership

I think that any solid "Theology of Leadership" would begin with those concepts which relate to leadership in the documents which form our "standard" (or canon) by which we measure claims of Divine Revelation: Namely in Canonical Scripture. Scripture has a great deal to say implicitly about leadership, primarily by presenting to us both positive and negative examples of leadership. Books can (and have) been written about the leadership styles of Moses and David, Paul and Jesus (not infrequently extrapolating what kind of pastor, politician, or CEO they would be if they lived today!).

However, the "leadership lessons" one draws from the Biblical heroes are stunted by (a) the rather limited amount Biblical materials which reflect directly on their leadership styles and (b) the inevitable fact that one's favorite theory of leadership is often "read into" the exemplary texts themselves. To apply Albert Sweitzer's dictum from the end of the "First Quest" for the Historical Jesus to Leadership Theory: If one begins looking at Jesus with the assumption that Steve Jobs or Bill Gates or Barack Obama are the most effective leaders in the world today, then when one examines the leadership stories of Jesus he will wind up looking a lot like Jobs or Gates or Obama.

So, instead of beginning with my "interpretation" of the leadership styles of Biblical characters, I would like to focus on a far narrower slice of the Biblical pie and look at some of the specific words and concepts used in the New Testament to talk about the role of leadership in the Church. Specifically, my understanding of leadership begins with two Greek words-- προϊστάμενος (proistamenos) and κυβέρνησις (kybernesis)-- which occur in Romans 12 and 1Corinthians 12.

Perhaps more important than the words themselves are the literary settings in which they are found. There are only two places in the New Testament where Paul paints an in-depth picture of the Community of God as the Mystical "Body of Christ" which in some ways continues the Incarnation and Mission of Jesus in the world. And those settings are precisely these chapters.

In fact, these two words for leadership occur in the context of the lists of "spiritual gifts" or "roles" for various members of the Body of Christ. These gifts of leadership are not separated from, nor lording over, the others gifts and roles in the Body. Rather, they are co-essential with other roles such as healing, powerful speaking, mystical knowledge, and practical service. In short, leaders are no leaders at all if separated from the Body as a whole.

1a. Leadership as προϊστάμενος (proistamenos)

Thus, in Romans 12.8, amidst a catalogue of different giftings, Paul simply says "ὁ προϊστάμενος ἐν σπουδῇ" or "the one who leads [does so] with diligence". This word for leadership is found eight times in the New Testament (Rom 12.8; 1 Th 5.12; 1 Tim 3.4-5, 12; 5.17; Titus 3.8, 14) and in these texts it shares a range of functions which includes directing the activities of a group of people, to managing the affairs of the family, to directing resources so they provide for the needs of others (cf. definitions found in Newman and Barclay's "Concise Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament"). So, here we find an operational definition of leadership which makes it clear that leadership is about more than merely telling others what to do. It is about pointing the way, while helping the community remember we are a family and members of one another, while also making sure that the members are properly resourced for their tasks and responsibilities. And Paul also makes it clear that this leadership is not done at a remove, or from a position of leisure and privilege. Rather leadership is performed "ἐν σπουδῇ", with diligence, concern, and time consciousness. Leadership is done in an embodied way-- as part of the Body-- with a mind toward the timeliness of one's decisions and directions, and how those decisions will impact those one leads "in real time".

Louw and Nida's "Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament" also provides some helpful insight when translating this concept of "προϊστάμενος", which is shared in part by other NT Greek words such as ἡγέομαι, φέρω, and ἄγω. It glosses these words as "to so influence others as to cause them to follow a recommended course of action". It further admonishes would-be interpreters that "it is difficult to distinguish readily between expressions for ‘leading’ and those which refer to ‘ruling’ or ‘governing,’ but it is important to try to distinguish clearly between these two different sets of interpersonal relations. In some languages, the concept of ‘leading’ can be expressed by ‘showing how to’ or ‘demonstrating how one ought to.’ In other languages it is possible to speak of ‘leading’ as simply ‘going ahead of’... such an expression may designate only ‘a scout’ who goes ahead to see whether things are safe".

So, a leader also takes the role of one who knows where she is leading because she has "scouted it out" beforehand, and is functioning as someone who directs people down a path that she has trod. In other words, the leader leads out of an embodied experience of, and vision for, the goal which she is leading people toward. The leader leads from a position of "I have been where you are at and I have also gone to the other side, so follow me". This combines aspects of both empathy and compassion for those who she leads. It is on the basis of this experience AND empathy that the leader is qualified to lead. It is only because she has "walked the walk" that she is now duly qualified, authorized, and gifted to "talk the talk".

1b. Leadership as κυβέρνησις (kybernesis)

As helpful as προϊστάμενος is for me in crystallizing the concept of leadership, perhaps the most evocative concept for me in the New Testament is κυβέρνησις, which originally refers to the process of steering a ship by its rudder, and figuratively applies to anyone who attempts the daunting task of steering a group of people in a common direction. κυβέρνησις, and its counterpart κυβερνήτης (steersman) only occur three times in the New Testament. But, as I have said, one of these occurrences is in Paul's preeminent chapter on the Body of Christ in 1Corinthians 12. In verse 28, Paul says: "God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance (κυβέρνησις), and of different kinds of tongues."

It is a powerful visual metaphor for what leadership is all about: It is the process which a steersman uses to (a) see beyond the current limits of the "ship" or "organization", (b) while keeping at the forefront of one's mental vision the ultimate goal or destination of the voyage, (c) while charting the "winds" and "currents" of culture, (d) while avoiding the shallows and outcroppings of the chaotic seas which can shipwreck the community, (e) in order to coordinate all the diverse functions of the ship and crew to arrive safely at their destination.

As such, the image of κυβέρνησις reminds us of five key elements of leadership:

(a) Leadership is visional: It looks beyond the way the status quo, the way it always has been, and the assumptions of how the organization has "always" run. It looks outside of perceived limitations to perceive new possibilities and new routes to get to the destination. More on this later.

(b) Leadership is missional: It always keeps "the main thing the main thing". In meeting after meeting, in crisis after crisis, in event after event, it is easy for an organization to forget WHY they exist. The function of the leader is often simply to keep the mission-- the Final Goal, the Ultimate Vision-- in front of the organization. This is especially true in organizations which are based in the mission of God to heal and restore all things to unity with their Creator and each other through the work and example of Jesus Christ.

(c) Leadership is culturally relevant: To use an old metaphor introduced to me by Rick Warren in the Purpose Driven Church, leadership "rides" the powerful movements and hopes of culture like a surfer rides on the waves. Now I am aware of the manifold limitations of Warren's work, both in its simplification and crass consumerism. And I could go with Pope Benedict's darker metaphor of riding the cross amidst culture's ocean of chaos (Introduction to Christianity, ch. 1). But I prefer the positivity and agency provided by Warren's metaphor of surfing. This is because I view the energy of culture's "winds" and "waves" as potentially positive, if harnessed by a creative leader to propel the missional community into a deeper engagement with Christ's desire to heal and transform the world. Thus, the effective leader as "kybernetes" must be alert to what issues and ideas have cultural energy and currency, so as to provide a connecting point for mission. Karl Barth reputedly said that the effective preacher approaches his task with the New York times in one hand and the Bible in the other. Perhaps now the effective Christian leader approaches her task with NPR playing on the radio, Buzzfeed open on the laptop, and her Bible App open on her tablet.

(d) Leadership is discerning: Not only is culture the source of much positive energy, it also is in deep need of healing, and can suck energy and vitality and mission from the community as well. The effective leader also has learned the warning of the Smashing Pumpkins song "Rat in a Cage", which begins with the observation "the world is a vampire". Thus the effective "kybernetes" must also be skilled at identifying where culture is shallow, is dangerous, and is even death dealing. He must be able to communicate the hazards in a compelling and winsome way, with realism about the extent of danger, and compassion for those who may be on the other side of danger.

(e) Leadership is management: The effective "kybernetes" will be able to deploy the resources and personnel on her "ship" to maximize the organizations ability to achieve its mission with minimal waste. She will be able to effectively communicate to her crew what needs to be done, and delegate tasks so that she is able to focus on keeping the whole enterprise on course. She will realize that there are times when it is good for the organization to be laden with cargo, and other times when non-essentials must be stripped away for maximal efficiency.

In all of this, the effective "kybernetes" will be intimately aware of the feedback systems in his organization. This insight is precisely why the science and art of complex electronic systems of feedback and control has been named "cybernetics". My understanding of the Church as a "cybernetic system", or even better, a "family system" owes a great deal to R. Paul Stevens and Phil Collins work in "The Equipping Pastor". Although I am not at this point sure which ideas stem from my reading of them, and which were gleaned from other readings on systems and cybernetics, it is clear to me that leadership, kybernesis, and systems are intimately linked. This helps me remember that the process of kybernesis-- leadership itself-- should be a process of feedback and adaptation. Again, this stems from the embodied, embedded nature of leadership as a co-equal member of the Body of Christ.

Leadership that is distanced and alienated from those they lead cannot be "cybernetic". Such un-embodied leadership thus appears as either authoritarian when it gives orders from "on high", or absentee when it seems unconcerned and uninvolved with the lives of those they lead. The solution is, of course, incarnational and embodied leadership: Leadership "with sleeves rolled up". Only this kind of leadership can really sense the feedback coming from the other members of the Body, and appropriately "steer" the Body in the direction that brings the most life, and most effectively heads in the direction of the mission.

As such, the effective "kybernetes" will intentionally build into the organization opportunities and mechanisms to make feedback and genuine dialogue a reality. These feedback systems may be anything from informal meetings, to formal surveys, to measures of effectiveness and benchmarks, to corporate conversation and voting. And the leader will not view these mechanisms with fear or disdain, but with hopeful curiosity, as opportunities to learn, grow, and more deeply share into the lives of those who are in the organization.

Finally, before moving off of the subject of kybernesis and leadership, I would be remiss if I did not hit on Saint James' poignant connection between the power of our words and steering the ship of our lives. In chapter 3, verses 4-6, James reminds us: "Look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire."

Although James is primarily speaking to the power of the tongue (and hence what we say) in reference to individual spiritual development, the lesson is equally applicable to leadership as kybernesis.  The effective leader knows his words carry power and authority. They are like fire: A power that can bring life and warmth, or a power that can burn the organization down. And the words of a leader can inspire and direct the organization to ever greater realization of potential in mission, or those words can derail and shipwreck the organization as well.

Thus, the effective leader is careful and reflective about the words they use to inspire, admonish, and encourage others. They do not shy away from using words as tools to shape and mold the organization, but they are also not hasty in using too much verbal force. They aim to use just the right language to inspire others, and in turn give them the language to spread the vision and expectations of the organization in their own conversations.

2. Towards a Trinitarian Theology of Leadership

The idea of leadership thus far has been expanded by drawing on Paul's terminology of "proistamenos" and "kybernesis". But any theology worth the title "theology" must go beyond Biblical exposition (no matter how inspirational or insightful that exposition is) and somehow provide a "logia" (systemic understanding) of how this subject is rooted in the nature of "theos" (that is, God). Thus a theology of leadership must seek to root leadership in God's own life in such a way that leadership is a facet of God's self-expression in the world. So how do the concepts of "proistamenos" and "kybernesis" reveal something about the nature and intention of God for the world?

To be specific, if leadership is going to take the adjective "Christian", how are foundational Christian ideas about God embedded in the identity and tasks of the leader? In my understanding, the two most distinctively Christian affirmations about God, and God's activity in the world, come under the labels "Trinity" and "Incarnation". Trinity is the uniquely Christian idea that God is a community of three Persons united in a single Essence of Love for all eternity, sharing fully in one another while remaining distinct, accomplishing the same mission together, from differing perspectives. Incarnation is the idea that the second person of the Trinity fully shared in human nature, fully embedded in a certain culture at a certain time, to fully reveal the nature of God and God's desires for the world. With this in mind, I would like to explore how leadership reflects the Trinity and the Incarnation.

2a. Leadership casts a Vision to accomplish

The doctrine of the Trinity begins for Eastern Orthodox Christians with meditation on God as "Father", or "Arche", or "Source" for all that God is. The Son and Spirit are eternally begotten or generated as the self expression of the Father's kenotic, self-emptying Love. From this eternal Love, shared forever beyond time within the Trinity, comes the creative act in time to make the world from nothing (ex nihilo). And in the first primal myth of Creation in Genesis 1, it is the Father who speaks the Creative Word (seen by many as the Son), to bring order to all things, as the Spirit broods over chaos like a Mother Bird, bringing life from into being from nothingness. This creation myth is crowned by the development of sentient beings-- male and female-- who are unique among all created beings in their ability to understand and mirror God. And thus the eternal God of Love creates in order to share Godself with others. And God saw that it was good seven times in this creation myth.

It all begins with a spoken Word. It ends with a Vision of goodness.

Theologically, leadership begins with the ability to speak words that cast vision and create new possibilities. This is not a by-product of leadership, but something that reflects our creation in "imago dei". We are made in the image of a God who speaks, creates, and envisions. Thus, part of our communal life together includes those who function as spokespersons by speaking life-giving visions to others, and who use words to paint powerful pictures of how we can re-form and re-create the worlds we live in. It all reflects God.

This idea that our Social Life reflects our creation in the image of a Social God was first crystallized for me by the AngloCatholic theologian Kenneth Leech. Most of his work focuses on how the Communal, Inter-sharing nature of God implies a just social order where we share our resources so that all may have access to the means for full human flourishing. He implies that if we are not creating this kind of society, we are failing to reflect the image of the God in whose image we are made. I would want to push Leech's work ever further and show that every member of the Community also reflects aspects of the persons of the Trinity when they are functioning well. And when the leader is communicating a vision that creates new opportunities for abundant life, they are reflecting the role of God the Father.

A corollary for leadership here is that, in terms of the Vision that is articulated from the leader, the ends really do justify the means. I think that when organizations do awful things in the name of the organization or their leader, it is often the result of failed leadership. Sometimes it is because the leadership picks horrible goals to attain. One can think of countless political atrocities that occurred because the only "end" announced by their leadership was attaining power at all costs. One can also think of businesses that have done awful things because the only "end" announced by corporate leaders was monetary profit at all costs. But most of the time when organizations do awful things, it is because leadership failed to re-affirm and re-communicate the essential life-giving Vision that created the organization in the first place. They neglected to put in place feedback mechanisms that affirmed their positive mission, and warned when the organization was getting off track.

The leadership truth is that an organization's "ends"-- the stated and unstated Vision and Goals held by the leadership-- really does shape the means that the organization uses to get there. And whether that Vision is communicated effectively and repeatedly, with ample feedback opportunities, determines the kinds of means that the organization will use on a regular basis. So, for leadership to be both effective and reflect God's image, the leader must be constantly aware of their Vision and the way it is communicated.

2b. Leadership creates Order to accomplish the Vision

The Doctrine of the Trinity continues from the Father to the Unique Self-Expression of the Father in the Son, who is identified in John chapter 1 with the "Logos". The Logos is first of all the Message or Word of God spoken from eternity, made manifest in Creation, and Incarnated in Jesus of Nazareth. The Logos is also the very Mind of God, the Rational Expression of the Father, who in turn imprints rationality, order and knowability on the very fabric of the Universe itself.

In reflecting the Logos, the effective leader provides a rational, logical, knowable plan to implement the Vision that has been cast. The effective leader brings order out of chaos, and helps the community members envision an effective system of connecting their resources and abilities with the accomplishment of the Vision. In other words, the effective leader creates a cybernetic system which uses feedback to strive toward the goal.

This rational system will do a few things, although often using different steps and terminology:

  • It will take the Vision and break it into a set of finite, concrete, measurable objectives which demonstrate that the Vision is being accomplished (or not).
  • It will devise strategies and activities which can be used to systematically accomplish the objectives.
  • It will recruit or train necessary skills to accomplish the strategies, as well as attain resources necessary for implementation.
  • It will create a feedback and communication system that links all the working parts together so they can learn from, and adapt to, each other.

2c. Leadership provides Opportunities and Enthusiasm to further the Vision

The Doctrine of the Trinity reaches its apogee in the Person of the Holy Spirit, who is the Personal Energy of God, who brings about new life and stirs into action old life, as She provides all people with the grace necessary for their full human flourishing. It is the Spirit who fills the Church with the "spiritual gifts" that give each person different roles in the body (including that of leadership). And it is the Spirit who fills Christians with enthusiasm and ecstasy as they follow the Risen Lord.

Thus, effective leadership reflects the Spirit when it provides and excites. Just as the Spirit provides us with all the resources we need to learn and grow, so also the effective leader is diligent to care for those who he leads. He does not merely assign tasks and give expectations. He cares for people and makes sure they are resourced to fulfill those tasks and expectations. Thus the effective leader will connect members together across the Body to make sure that everyone is provided with the skills, training, resources and opportunities they need to accomplish their role in the Body.

And yet, provision is not enough. We all know managers who are effective planners and providers, and who even may be competent communicators, but who do not inspire enthusiasm. A manager may be able to do her job without charisma or enthusiasm, but a leader cannot. In order for a leader to lead, and reflect the dynamism of the Spirit, she must do more than plan and provide. She must excite. She must ignite. She must elicit passion for the Vision and Mission of the organization. Just as the Holy Spirit does not merely provide spiritual gifts for the Body of Christ, but she also provides experiences of passion and enthusiasm to motivate that Body in their Mission, so also an effective leader embodies enthusiasm, and provides motivation for the mission.

3. Conclusion: On Incarnational Servant Leadership

When leadership casts powerful Vision that reflects the Father, strategically plans in a way that reflects the Logos, and shares the enthusiasm of the Spirit, it would be easy for leadership to devolve into some kind of rockstar "personality cult". But this is precisely where the emphasis on leadership reflecting the Incarnation guards us and guides us. It is as we return to the Incarnational nature of leadership-- of leadership as one co-equal member in a larger Body that re-presents Jesus to the world-- that we find the safeguard we need against the pride that so easily befalls effective leaders.

This is because the effective leader remembers well the Incarnational principle summarized in Desmond Tutu's concept of "Ubuntu". Ubuntu is an African term that can be translated as "without you, there is no me". The effective Christian leader realizes that they are part of something and Someone greater than themselves, and without each other, we simply cease to be who we are. Our lives our so interwoven with each other, in the life of the Triune God, that to separate ourselves through pride and privilege is to make ourselves LESS human and LESS like God.

Thus the effective leader consciously does all they do for the good of the whole, even when that means suffering with the community in acts of Trinitarian self-emptying Love. The model for this kind of leadership is, of course, God Incarnate Himself, Jesus Christ. In apostolic memory, Jesus helpfully summarizes his leadership philosophy in Mark 10.42-45:

"You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."

The effective leader will remember that in important ways, they are a living sacrament, an "alter-christus", who re-presents the presence of Jesus to those they lead. As such, they are called to be, in Robert Greenleaf's memorable turn of phrase "servant-leaders". For Greenleaf, "the servant-leader is servant first... It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions..."

Servant leadership is a key concept in my ministry, and which is named in the mission statement of the school where I work. I have preached many sermons on servant-leadership and spent countless hours pondering its significance. If I had only one phrase to define my theological understanding of leadership-- leadership that summarizes what I have written and reflects the Triune God-- it would be this: Effective leaders practice servant leadership which models Christ.

Sources Cited and Referenced:

Benedict, Pope (published originally as Joseph Ratzinger). Introduction to Christianity. London: Burns & Oats. 1968 [1968]. ISBN 978-0-223-97705-1.

Greenleaf, Robert K. The Servant as Leader. 1970

Leech, Kenneth. The Social God. Wipf & Stock. 1981

Louw, Johannes P. and Eugene A. Nida, eds. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains. 2d, Accordance electronic edition, version 4.1. New York: United Bible Societies, 1989.

Newman Jr., Barclay M., ed. A Concise Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament. Accordance electronic edition, version 1.9. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1993.

Stevens, R. Paul and Collins, Phil. The Equipping Pastor. The Alban Institute. 1993

Tutu, Desmond. God is Not a Christian. Harper One. 2011

Warren, Rick. The Purpose Driven Church. Zondervan. 1995.

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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.