Biblical Leadership is a myth? Well…kind of. At least the way it’s usually portrayed. Often people writing about Biblical leadership take a “Let’s do leadership like Moses, or David, or Jesus, or Paul,” kind of approach. That is not a study of Leadership but of leaderships.
Let me be academic here for just a minute. Leadership studies from the 1950’s to the 1970’s went through a period of time when “Great Man Theories” were the dominant model of leadership. The search was all about identifying the traits or abilities of leadership (looking almost exclusively at male leaders). By 1977 the verdict was in. Research failed to find a set of traits that leaders must posses in order to be leaders (Sorenson, 2007).
Today’s popular presentation of Biblical leadership harkens back to this failed way of studying leadership, frequently identifying Biblical leadership as a compilation of different traits/abilities. This leader is strong, this one sensitive, this one wise, this one decisive, etc. Predictably, these books have different lists, some longer, some shorter. Rarely does one say a certain characteristic is more important than another and rarer still, how the characteristics ought to interact with one another.
In addition, the Bible spans many diverse different cultures and customs. Yet leadership decisions and actions vary widely from culture to culture. For example, I led a group of congregations in Miami for 10 years. Our time conscious Anglo congregation met at 11:30am Sunday while our not-so-time conscious Haitian group met at 10:00am in the same Sanctuary. Some Anglo’s charged, “If the Haitians were good stewards of God’s time, they’d finish on time,” which seldom happened. Some Haitians responded, “We cannot set a time limit on the movement of God’s Spirit,” and without a doubt, He moved people greatly. So how shall we interpret the words/actions/decisions of these leaders? Culture is a prime factor in leadership decisions. We cannot render a judgment until we appreciate the culture of the people involved which, in books on Biblical leadership, is rarely articulated.
Finally, popular Biblical leadership looks at only the leader and not the follower. By examining only one part of the equation you see only one part of the leadership relationship. Leadership becomes a property or power to be used to get someone else to do what you want. The danger is that popular Biblical leadership simply becomes a tool for getting your own way.
So how should Christians analyze leadership? Studying the lives of Biblical leaders is a worthwhile task but must be augmented with examining what Scripture says about community purpose and behavior. Also, the results of modern leadership research must also be considered. Beware of books like “20 Essentail Traits of a Biblical Leader.” They tell wonderful, even inspirational stories about compassion, integrity, courage, etc. However, like leadership McNuggets, though each one is fine and tasty, a real leadership meal they are not.