One of the most astonishing performances I ever watched as a small boy was that of a chicken sprinting without its head—great speed, no direction! Such is the performance of an organisation without a head or headship. Human intellect only raises the headless running of organisations to more orderly chaos than that of chickens.

A study of leadership is vital because God has organised all social existence to thrive under it. Leadership is a universal norm. Voluntarily or involuntarily it exists in every institution and wherever order is required. The family (1 Cor. 11:3), the church (Heb. 13:17), and the state (Rom. 13:1) are classic illustrations. It is most instructive to note that leadership is not just a requirement among humans. In the Godhead, too, there is leadership. The Father is head over the Son and the Spirit.

Abuse of authority and incompetent leadership should never derogate from the beautiful activity of headship. To remove headship is to remove the dykes against anarchy. Sadly, we are living in a generation in which leadership is gradually losing its import. Its aura of awe is steadily vanishing. Those blessed with exceptional leaders take this blessing for granted until they lose it.

Could it be that pragmatism and laxity of discipline (strict adherence to biblical standards) have wedded to give us mediocre church leadership as their offspring? Could this be the reason why the pronounced credentials of most emerging leaders are talkativeness, bigotry, aggression, cleverness, affluence, or high social standing? Are we surprised that such leaders solve the world’s problems using the world’s methods and seek to advance the kingdom of God by worldly techniques? If this is the calibre of our century’s church leadership, we should brace ourselves for a ministry to this perishing world whose impact is at best neutral.

Leadership competence, however, goes beyond possessing the correct moral qualifications. It is not enough to be good and godly. There are a variety of skills that make up good leadership. Bear in mind that even leadership is a gift of the Spirit (Rom. 12:8). An important aspect of good leadership is the style or manner in which it is exercised. There is no doubt that the apostle Peter was an accomplished leader. Yet in his earlier days his mode of leadership lacked the ingredient of humility or servant-hood, until the Lord worked it into him when he became a Spirit-filled man. For this, he and his fellow disciples stood indicted before their master (cf. John 13:13–17).

Israel’s Moses was the paragon of leadership, a leader par excellence. Yet he adopted an “all-sufficient” style of leadership that nearly broke his back. His “untimely” death was looming until he adopted the remedial alternative proposed by his father-in-law. Leadership styles matter. Let us now analyse some of them. 

Elastic leadership

This is the kind of leadership that is very accommodating and flexible. Diametrically opposed views and questionable practices can sit together under it. It lacks clarity on what it stands for.

A tragic example of this kind of leadership is that seen in the priest Eli (1 Sam. 2:12–36). Indications are that he was a godly man. However, he failed to stamp his authority over his children. Granted, his crooked sons Hophni and Phinehas were adults, fully responsible for their actions. Still, Eli was the priestly boss. He had the authority to discipline the lads. God, therefore, held this against him (1 Sam. 3:13).

Elastic leadership can be both congenital and intermittent. The case of Eli suggests an inhering weakness. Eli was a soft man whose grip over his sons was “grandfather-ish.” Probably he overestimated the virtue of tolerance. Leaders with pacifist temperaments tend to drift towards Eli’s sin.

More situational manifestations are found in the apostle Peter and king David. For lack of conviction or out of timidity over the Gentile question, Peter failed to stand by what he professed before right wing Jews. He not only acted hypocritically, he misled others who looked up to him as leader (Gal. 2:11–14). David tolerated the impunity of his army commander, Joab. Why? Well, Joab knew David’s weaknesses and scandals. Aware of this, David suffered moral paralysis in supervising Joab. Joab, on the other end, astutely exploited this to gain tactical advantage over David (2 Samuel 11ff). Sin weakened David from wielding moral authority.

The cases of King Ahab and High Priest Aaron are just as instructive. Ahab (in relation to his wife, see 1 Kg. 21) and Aaron (to his nation, see Ex. 32) likewise capitulated to pressure from those under their respective leaderships.

Characteristics of elastic leadership

  1. It lacks conviction. No principles or clear beliefs influence it, even where there is a pretence to holding them.
  2. It is indecisive. Dithering and inconsistency is its style. Wrong is sometimes right. It all depends on the sway of the players, the projected reaction to action (discipline) and the political cost to the leader. Eli actually counselled and rebuked his sons firmly (2:22–25). The problem is he did not go far enough (3:13).
  3. It is timid. It is driven by a desire to please man. Fear-of-man is its Christian name.

Effects of elastic leadership

  1. Rather than culturing submission and obedience among followers, it allows familiarity, compromise and impunity. Discipline breaks down. The more faithful and pious members are stumbled by the inaction or compromises of such leaders. In a word, the fear of God wanes and mischief reigns.
  2. Both leaders and the led suffer collective punishment from God, especially where sin is tolerated. A more tragic ending to Eli’s family is hard to imagine.

Retiree leadership

This is the kind of leadership that is conducted by remote control. It is guilty of reckless delegation. The leader functions as if he has effectively pensioned out on the farm. He just signs cheques and issues orders, while doing little fieldwork. Vintage retiree!

Ancient Egypt seems to have espoused this kind of leadership. Pharaoh virtually handed over governing to Joseph (Gen. 41:40–44, 55), as did Potiphar earlier on (Gen. 39:6).

Causes of retiree leadership

  1. Avoiding some—or all—responsibilities;
  2. Lack of confidence—or competence—to do the work;
  3. Overspecialisation: focusing on one aspect of leadership roles at the expense of others;
  4. Exploitation of industrious faithful subordinates;
  5. Laziness or love of ease;
  6. Long monotonous service with inadequate interposing rest and freshening stimulation.

Moses struck the right balance. After mistakenly arrogating all responsibility, remedially he did not surrender it all. He exercised responsible delegation, while retaining the bulk of the work (Ex. 18).

Effects of retiree leadership

  1. The leader dulls his competences over time. Lack of practice paralyses the reflexes.
  2. The leader is ignorant of key developments and decisions in his organisation.
  3. The leader can easily be undermined by less sanctified subordinates (as David was by Joab).
  4. The leader sets the stage for his irrelevance and possible overthrow. Alternative power bases silently emerge.
  5. The led effectively have no leader. Inevitably, they are bound to stray.

Autocratic leadership

Leadership is said to be autocratic when it fails to provide for a degree of participation and consensus from group members at both levels of leadership—the two levels being the general membership (the led) and the executive team (the leaders).

Even when an autocrat delegates to subordinates, he subtly micro-manages them. They enjoy no real freedom to express their judgment. While they deliberate, he is in the control room auditing CCTV footage of their deliberations. He closely monitors every aspect of their progress. Their output risks total overhaul after passing through his hands. His word is final, whatever the pretence to democracy. Not all dictators bully decisions through. Some are “consensus building” dictators.

Autocrats come in different complexions. Some are amiable and benevolent. Others are crude and fairly brute. Some use subtle blackmail to have their way. Others use deception in Absalom-style (2 Sam. 15:1–12). The more backward still use naked threats such as “Take it or leave it” and “None of those who have followed your line of reasoning have escaped hell!” Many church members have heard such warnings.

Sources of autocratic leadership

  1. Pride: holding a high view of oneself and a low or contemptuous view of others;
  2. Idolatry: idolising one’s judgement as if infallible, and disregarding authority, even if this is divine (Holy Scripture);
  3. Stubbornness: being beyond correction or counsel;
  4. An unsanctified strong-willed personality;
  5. Insensitivity: disregarding other people’s preferences, feelings, and views;
  6. Perfectionism: being fastidious, exacting and idealistic. Holding a standard above the normal;
  7. Passive gullible members: yes-persons who do not respectfully challenge their leaders even when they are in obvious error.

Scripture gives us a graphic image of such leadership in Diotrephes. This was a man who was thoroughly opinionated. He proudly and arrogantly put himself first. He despised others, along with their views, even if they were his seniors. He was happiest when controlling other souls (3 John 9–10). It is horrifying to ponder the fact that this was a church leader! One wonders how many Diotrephes’ are in our churches today, serving as departmental leaders, deacons, or elders. How many domestic Diotrephes’ preside over wives and children?

Effects of autocratic leadership

  1. It intimidates the led. As a result, they become passive and their wisdom is buried.
  2. It leads to error. Man is fallible and sinful. Left without checks and balances even the best leaders go astray. Their followers sightlessly follow them in error.
  3. It tends to cultic ways and leader idolatry. Christ is dethroned and the Spirit is quenched and exiled. Ichabod (departure of God’s glory, 1 Sam 4:22) is the result.

Selfless leadership

We begin by stating that selfless leadership is humble leadership. It is a leadership in which egos are anæsthetised. It makes no big deal about personal titles. No offence if epithets such as pastor, bishop, elder, reverend, doctor, honourable, etc., are substituted for Mr., brother, etc., (not out of disrespect of course). Irritation at not being noticed or recognised in the listing of protocol hype is not for selfless leaders. They are okay even without being offered “high” seats. Such omissions only rough up Pharisees (Mt. 23:6–8).

What about their dress code? No strict rules here, either. Occasion, under the general rule of propriety, determines what they wear. Are they thoroughgoing democrats? Not quite. Ordinarily they rule by consensus, particularly in matters indifferent. Yet they also rule by decree, when adjudicating on behalf of Christ. The same Paul who pleads in meekness with the Corinthians (2 Cor. 10:1, 2), in another matter resolutely insists: “…hand him over to Satan” (1 Cor. 5:5). As you can see, selfless leaders readily lower themselves strategically to the level of their people (cf. 1 Cor. 9:19–23). This is not out of weakness, indecision, cowardice, or pretence. It is out of principle and authentic love.

The Lord affectionately referred to this leadership as “servant” leadership. This is the kind of leadership God commends (Mt. 23:11, 12; Luke 22:25–27). It, more than others, is patterned after our Lord’s style of leadership (Phil. 2:5, 7, 8). Therefore, it best honours his name and must be aspired to. More could be said about it, but suffice it to refer the reader to the other articles in this issue that deal more extensively with it.

Paul cautions that young converts should be distanced from church leadership until their bones solidify because they could easily collapse into the decried forms of leadership above (1 Tim. 3:6). Each leader must periodically ask himself or herself, what style of leadership am I practicing? Leaders will be judged with greater strictness, and so let us all be warned (cf. James 3:1).