Is Leadership Overrated?

Did Jesus ever encourage another person to be a leader? Obviously he was one himself, and his B-team (at best) of disciples ended up doing a pretty remarkable job of leadership, considering that after only three years of having Jesus around, they founded the most influential movement in world history. Definite overachievers. But did Jesus ever talk to them about leadership? I know he taught that whoever wanted to be great should be a slave of everyone else, which could be applicable, but anything else? I've been thinking about this a lot lately, because I've been on something of a crash course of discovering how ineffective I can be as an organizational leader. Sure, a good deal of it has to be learned, but it also comes more naturally to some people than others.

What has caught my attention, though, is how close we seem to come at times to equating the gospel with leadership, or at least acting as if leadership were a central part of Jesus' message. To illustrate, I searched for books with the keyword "leadership" (which Jesus rarely, if ever, talked about) and compared it to the total number of results for searches of books on the topic Jesus talked about more than anything else: Total books with keyword "leadership"= 4,139 Total books with keyword "kingdom of God" or "kingdom of heaven"= 831

Ouch. In other words, for every 1 Christian book pertaining to the thing Jesus preached, almost 5 are published pertaining to something he never talked about.

I've also noticed how often we talk about Jesus' leadership style, leadership habits, etc. A Google search of "Jesus leadership" returns almost 5.9 million results. Sure, the search engine may be finding some strange things, but the first page looks pretty accurate. The top page of results are, in order: "Jesus Leadership Style," "Jesus on Leadership," "Jesus Leadership Principles," "Leadership with Jesus,""How did Jesus Show Leadership," "The Seven Foundations of Jesus' Leadership," "The Leadership Strategy of Jesus," "Lead like Jesus," "Leadership Jesus-Style" and "Jesus on Leadership."

What in the kingdom of God is going on here?

Don't get me wrong, Jesus certainly qualifies as an exceptional leader. If you want to study a leader, he's a good one, so go buy one of those 4,139 books from the store. But it wasn't part of his message!

Instead of flooding us with more leadership material (which- judging by my very non-scientific research here might be more of a result of our leadership-focused culture than anything contained in the scriptures), what if our churches, publishers, pastors, and yes- any other kind of Christian leader began giving at least as much attention to followership?

In searching for the times that Jesus did say something about leadership, it seems like he was focusing more on the followership side (although, since apparently it's not a word, Jesus never said it. If he had said it, I think it would have become a word by now and my spell check would recognize it). In other words, Jesus' teaching on leadership was: Pay a lot of attention to choosing whom you follow, because it doesn't turn out well to follow someone who isn't going the right way.

Am I wrong? Two scriptures in particular come to mind:

  • He also told them this parable: "Can the blind lead the blind? Will they not both fall into a pit? Students are not above their teacher, but all who are fully trained will be like their teacher." (Luke 6:39-40)
  • Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and then you make that convert twice as much a child of hell as you are. (Matthew 23:15)

Moral of the story: You are going to be like whomever you're learning from, and if it turns out they're  actually a child of hell, well... Practice good followership, and be very selective in which people you allow to lead you.

Before all of you thousands of type A's out there who follow this blog every day get on my case, I'm not saying leadership doesn't matter. If you're gifted with it, lead your heart out, please! Do it for the sake of the rest of us and for the kingdom of God. But also, please grant me two wishes: 1) That you will pay more attention to who you're following than who you're leading, so that we can all avoid the pit, and 2) that you will refrain from implying to the rest of us that Jesus wants to make us all like you.

To give our publishers some credit, I've seen a few books lately that are trying to put followership and leadership of others in the way of Jesus in their proper order. I've recently read The Leadership Ellipse, which was very good, and am looking forward to reading Whole Life Transformation. But the book I give away as often as I can to anyone in any kind of Christian leadership is Ruth Haley Barton's Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership. It solves all of the problems I've mentioned here. If you're a pastor, read it. Lots of times.