IVP - Strangely Dim - Leadership Is for Losing

March 26, 2004

Leadership Is for Losing

By David A. Zimmerman

Which of the following is a better example of leadership?

 “I have a gun. Put the money in the bag or I will hurt you.”
 “I have a gun. Put the money in the bag and nobody gets hurt.”

Comparatively speaking, the second thief clearly gives the better example of leadership: she offers a “win-win” scenario. In contrast, the leader in the first example sets up a natural antagonism: she gets her way, or everyone suffers.

But really, neither of these examples is good leadership. Each thief is exploiting an arbitrary position of power to manipulate others. The idea of setting up these two people as examples of leaders is absurd.

But we live in a leadership culture. People are commonly divided into two classes: leader and follower; shepherd and sheep. Invariably leaders are cast as better than their follower friends, though in democratic cultures we minimize that distinction to protect the followers’ fragile egos or to protect the leaders’ subtle power base.

In reality, followers are good at surrendering power and following orders, but few followers are good at following their conscience or holding the powerful accountable. Leaders are good at gaining and using power, but few leaders are good at setting power aside forever or even only for a moment.

Most people don’t need to be led through most of their life, even most of their day. We agree to a task or a role and are competent under most circumstances to make decisions relevant to it. We may need leaders to intervene in a crisis, but crises eventually end, and most of our calling can be pursued without such interventions.

Even in the life of faith we don’t often need direct leadership:

[God] has showed you . . . what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)

Pretty straightforward: God has a job for us to do and gives us what we need to do it. Occasional crises call for divine intervention or for people particularly gifted in one way or another to lead others through troubled times or difficult circumstances, but such times are temporary. The trouble is, how does a leader stop leading once he or she is invested with such authority? How does a follower stop following when to do so distracts from his or her calling?

Leaders are as accountable to God as followers because each is fundamentally a follower of God. If we lead unnecessarily, we intrude on the relationship of our sometimes-followers to our always-leader. We make ourselves idols, and we cause our sometimes-followers to stumble.

There may be days when we are called to give leadership, but may we never love leadership more than we love God and our brothers and sisters. And when the day comes—and it will come—when our time of giving leadership or followership has ended, may we have the will to set aside our position of power and take up once again our calling.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at March 26, 2004 7:59 AM Bookmark and Share

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Behind the Strangeness

Lisa Rieck is a reader and writer who likes to discuss good ideas over hot drinks and gets inspired by the sky. She takes in all kinds of good ideas as a proofreader for InterVarsity Press.

Rebecca Larson is a writer/designer/creative type who has infiltrated IVP's web department, where she writes and edits online content. She enjoys a good pun and loves the smell of freshly printed books.

David A. Zimmerman is an editor for Likewise Books and a columnist for Burnside Writers Collective. He's written three books, most recently The Parable of the Unexpected Guest. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/unexpguest. Find his personal blog at loud-time.com.

Suanne Camfield is a publicist for InterVarsity Press and a freelance writer. She floats ungracefully between work, parenting and writing, and (much to her dismay) finds it impossible to read on a treadmill. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild and blogs at The Rough Cut.

Likewise Books from InterVarsity Press explore a thoughtful, active faith lived out in real time in the midst of an emerging culture.

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