(This article was published in Una Sancta of 6 February 2021, Volume 68, no. 1. Seeing that much of it is still very much applicable and timely, I republish it here. It is not only about leadership outside the church but also inside the church. Sadly, also within the church we can see leaders abusing their power.)
In 2018 I published an article in Una Sancta about godly leadership, in which I highlighted from a biblical perspective several aspects of good leadership. I started with the sentence “We all may have memories of great political leaders from the past.” What made those leaders to be remembered as great leaders? Why do some leaders become great leaders and other leaders are quickly forgotten?
Great leaders often shine in crisis situations. In 2020, the world was confronted with a pandemic caused by COVID19, which led to a worldwide crisis. That gives us a great opportunity to evaluate different styles of leadership and to learn from them. Within the church, good leadership is needed. Also within the church, not every leader is a good leader. Let us learn from what we see happening in this world and benefit from it.
We live in challenging times. The past year has shown how quickly things can change and governments can take away freedoms we as Christians had. It was done for good reasons and we obeyed. But it may very well be that God uses this to prepare the church for more challenging times. The past year gives us the opportunity to see if we are ready for it. How did our leaders do? How are our congregations doing, coming out of this crisis situation? What needs our attention and what can we do differently? What can we learn from it?
Different styles of leadership
Especially in crisis situations, it becomes clear what kind of leader someone is. Using the COVID19- crisis as a starting point we will look at a few different styles of leadership and come to some conclusions about what qualities make good leaders. We can learn from the strengths and weaknesses which we see in leaders in this world. The leaders among us can use this to examine themselves and their style of leadership.
- Denial: Some leaders initially denied that there was a crisis. Our neighbouring country Indonesia for a long time maintained that there were no COVID cases within their borders. This prevented timely action and made the situation worse.
- Caretakers: Other leaders acknowledge that something must be done but do so without passion. They do what is necessary to keep things going but do not dare or want to take bold action. They would rather wait it out or follow what others tell them that should be done. They let others make the important decisions or let it all depend on the advice of others and hide behind them.
- Agenda-driven: These leaders use the emergency-situation to ram through all kinds of non-related decisions that they feel strongly about, while the attention of the people is distracted and focused on the crisis-situation. One example is New Zealand, where early in the crisis an extremely liberal abortion legislation was rushed through parliament.
- Power-hungry: These leaders relish the fact that they have almost unlimited power over the people. They command and it happens. They do not have to give an account to parliament. Due to the emergency-situation they just command and the country or state goes in complete lock-down, or the borders are slammed shut. Under normal circumstances they would not be able to do so but under emergency powers they thrive. Often, they do not mind applying different rules to friends or supporters, even if that means that they are taking risks for the rest of the people.
People who are either agenda-driven or power-hungry will have a hard time giving up their power when the crisis is over.
- Shepherds: These leaders are above all focused on the wellbeing and the needs of the population. They have joined their fate to that of their people. They want to take them along on their journey through the darkness and want them to get out of it as much as possible unharmed. They are not afraid to take harsh measures, if it is needed, but are also able to show compassion where possible. They always try to find a good balance between the suffering they try to prevent and the suffering their restrictions will cause upon the people. They are aware of the dangers, both of being not strict enough and being too strict. They do make mistakes but are constantly willing to learn and adjust. If we look at the leaders in our own country, then our Prime Minister as well as the premier of NSW are coming closest to this style of leadership. These leaders are the good leaders who are a blessing for the people.
Leaders given by God
The above analysis is not meant to criticise or undermine the governments in our and other countries. The intention is to learn from their mistakes so that the church may benefit from good leadership. We believe that the governments are ordained by God and therefore we should obey and respect them. God has given governments for the protection of the people and if there were no governments, the situation in the world would have been much worse than it is now. Nevertheless, we do notice that difference in leadership does lead to a difference in well being of the population.
In the church, good leadership is needed as well. We know that Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd and He protects His Church. That is the comfort which we have. Nevertheless, He called human beings to be leaders over His flock, and we can see throughout church history that good leadership does make a difference. Christ protects His Church, but often it goes through a lot of suffering, due to bad leaders. Church leaders do have the task to critically look at themselves and their style of leadership. Where necessary they will change and follow the example of our Lord Jesus Christ as the Good Shepherd. The Bible shows us how He takes care of His flock. Elsewhere in this issue of Una Sancta, you can find a meditation on this topic, which looks at what the Bible teaches us about being a good shepherd, following the example of Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd.
Having looked at the strengths and weaknesses of several leaders and keeping in mind what the Bible teaches us about good leadership, I now want to draw some conclusions about good leadership.
Good leaders are servants. They are not in it for themselves. They are willing to sacrifice and do not seek their own honour or gain. They are not authoritarian and do not relish wielding power. Jesus Christ came to serve, as He showed when He washed the feet of His disciples. Good leaders do not boast about how good they are. Others will see it from their deeds. Good leaders do not hide or deny their mistakes, but they acknowledge that they do not have all the answers either. They show that they are willing to learn and to make changes if the circumstances require it. They are willing and eager to listen to advice from others, while at the same time taking responsibility for their decisions.
Good leaders constantly and in a timely manner explain to those whom they are leading what is needed. They do not say: “just do as I say” but constantly work hard to explain what is going on and try to convince their flock so that they will follow out of conviction. The Lord Jesus as Good Shepherd took a lot of time to teach those who followed Him, and when He ascended into heaven, He instructed His apostles to teach all nations. Good leaders explain to their flock what is needed and why it is needed. This makes it so much easier for their flock to follow because they realise “that we are all in it together.”
Good leaders will not only tell their flock what to do but will also listen to them. Good communication is important and is only possible if leaders have the desire to listen and want to know what lives among the flock. The followers need to have the feeling that they are being heard, that their needs are understood, and that their concerns are taken seriously.
Good leaders know what is good and what must be done, but at the same time have patience with those who need more time. They are willing to answer questions and explain again. Patience is one of the fruits of the Spirit and should certainly be practiced by leaders.
You do not convince people with words like “you must” or with threats. People may follow you but not out of conviction. Good leaders know to find the right words in every situation so that they kindly and gently convince their followers of the urgency and importance of certain decisions, without using bullying tactics. The Lord Jesus spoke with authority but also was full of compassion. He did not quarrel or cry out but was gentle, see Matthew 12:18-21.
I am sure there is much more to say, but the space is limited. This should be sufficient for those leaders and future leaders who want to learn from our Lord Jesus Christ and serve Him in the way they fulfill their task as leaders among God’s people.
If this is their style of leadership, they will experience that God will bless their work and they will be respected among those who are God-fearing. Those under their care will be blessed by their leadership, will trust in their leaders, have patience with their shortcomings and find contentment in doing what is the will of God.