Leadership Myths

Leadership is the most observed and least understood phenomena on the earth, said the father of modern leadership studies (Burns, 1978). Misconceptions about leadership permeate every organization. Some are worse than others. All distort the leadership process. People are hurt, jobs lost, morale suffers, goals are unattained and often it all stems from a misunderstanding of what a leader should do. My next few posts explore common leadership myths in churches and businesses. 

Many years ago I was part of a church leadership meeting bemoaning the lack of spiritual growth in the congregation. Different proposals were put forth to address the problem but each one was shot-down for not being directive enough or giving people too many choices. Finally one exasperated church leader expressed his frustration, “People are like sheep, they need to be led. We are responsible for their spiritual growth so let’s just tell them, here’s the way it’s gonna be.” 

“People are like sheep, they need to be led.” I’ve heard this many times over the years, mostly from well-meaning people who are somewhat frustrated with the slow rate of change in the church. The sheep – shepherd metaphor is based on Psalm 23 and found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. It is a beloved image of care throughout church and synagogue and is often a source of great comfort to people going through all kinds of difficult hardship. 

However, it was never meant as a paradigm for leadership. When used as a model for leader behavior it becomes paternalistic, fostering an air of elitism among the leadership. The concept itself steals choice and responsibility from the people, the very things that churches teach are so important to spiritual development. 

Following the sheep –shepherd model, a leader can “go to God” to get the marching orders for everyone. “I know the answers, they need to get with the program. If they refuse to follow, to submit to my authority, then clearly there is a problem with the people because after all, I am the Shepherd.” 

There is a large difference between authoritarian leadership and leading with authority . The first is a top-down dictation of what should be done. The second is decisive collaboration between equals to determine how best to complete the goals of the church. Yes there are different responsibilities, positions, perspectives and skill sets. Yet, adults are neither animals lacking understanding nor children needing guidance. Each person needs to be treated with respect and dignity as someone bearing the imago dei, the image of God. People are potential partners possessing the passion and skill needed to get things done. Church leaders need to get with the program.


3 thoughts on “Leadership Myths

  1. Yes, but I still think that after a sufficient amount of time and feedback received from the sheep, the leader needs at some point to offer a direction, or a solution. Otherwise the wheels just keep spinning and nothing gets decided. My own approach is generally to get plenty of feedback, make everyone feel involved in the process, and then suggest a direction that is 80% developed. People do appreciate structure, direction and decisiveness. But they also want to be included in the process.

    1. Brad, I’m thinking it largely depends on what kind of challenge is facing the group. If it’s something that can be fixed by an expert with with special skills or knowledge, then sure, I agree. Limit the choices presented to the people, involve them in implementation and you’re good to go. However, if the change involves new ways of thinking and behaving or a challenge to longstanding values or attitudes, then the top-down “Here’s what we must do” approach probably won’t last. And in either case, an elitist, paternal approach ( I shepherd-you sheep) will eventually drive away talented thinking people, wouldn’t you agree?

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