The Cult of Leadership
It seems to be everywhere you look: “leadership.”
Western society in late capitalism, having mostly shorn itself of the pretenses of inherited nobility, has become obsessed with the cult of leadership. Previous generations were led to believe leaders were bred that way: certain people, on the basis of their ancestry, should be given authority, power, and responsibility. The vast majority of the people, proving more deficient in their pedigree, were only fit to be subjects, to serve, and to support their leaders. Belief in nobility based on pedigree persists in certain parts of the world and in certain archaic institutions; most of us, however, no longer believe a person will be a good leader because of their ancestry.
Most people today believe leaders become such because they have developed abilities and skills in leadership. Such is consistent with our confidence in “meritocracy,” which maintains confidence those who have reached positions of authority, influence, and power have done so on the basis of what they have been able to accomplish and achieve. Therefore, according to this perspective, leaders are made, not born; theoretically anyone could thus become a leader if they sufficiently cultivated leadership skills.
We have good reason to question the legitimacy of the meritocratic premise; many of those who maintain great authority, power, and influence descend from those who had such power in previous times, and no matter how charismatic and skillful a person might be, without sufficient resources, they remain unlikely to become leaders.
But the premise of meritocracy remains potent and salient in society. People want to believe they can advance in life and society by cultivating appropriate abilities and skills. Thus we can understand the appeal of the cult of leadership: anyone and everyone should develop and grow in their leadership skills. There remains no lack of books, podcasts, and videos from those who would consider themselves motivational speakers, thought leaders, and leadership guides and gurus which promise to help you unlock your leadership potential. Everybody wants to be seen as a leader: job titles which reflect executive and management experience abound; you can even find resources about how to lead when you are not in charge, otherwise known as using leadership skills while not actually having authority.
We can understand why Western society today would be so enraptured with the cult of leadership; its enthusiastic embrace by many who would claim to follow Jesus proves more troublesome. Many have made a name for themselves by incorporating American corporate leadership premises into church environments as part of the general trend of treating churches like religious businesses. There is no end of “Christian leadership” books which attempt to provide a religious veneer on these corporate business trends. Biblical characters are mined to provide real life (and presumably divinely approved) examples of various aspects of leadership. Above all, they elevate the concept of “servant leadership” which they claim is embodied by Jesus. To this end many parts of modern day “Christian” belief and practice remain firmly in the grip of the cult of leadership.
Based upon what one might find spoken and written in many conservative Christian/Evangelical spaces, one would expect the New Testament to have much to say about leadership. And yet when we turn to the pages of Scripture we do not find leadership emphasized or spoken about much. We do not see continual exhortation for Christians to cultivate leadership skills. One searches the New Testament in vain for the phrase “servant leadership.”
Instead, Jesus bore witness in Matthew 20:25-28:
But Jesus called them and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in high positions use their authority over them. It must not be this way among you! Instead whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Through the lens of the cult of leadership Jesus would exhort people to lead by serving, but Jesus did not actually say any such thing. Jesus instead casts aspersion on the entire endeavor of desiring to obtain a position of leadership. If one is a servant, by definition, one is not great; and certainly “the first slave” is a contradiction in terms! Jesus expected the Gentiles to seek power to rule over others and leverage that authority for their own purposes, and then He explicitly told His followers not to do the same (Matthew 20:25).
In Christ we must be skeptical of anyone who would seek positions of authority, influence, and power. As creatures made in God’s image, humans can desire authority, influence, and power in order to serve as good stewards of God’s creation and their fellow man; yet in their corruption, anxieties, and fears, humans leverage authority, influence, and power to benefit themselves and their associates to the harm of the creation and/or of other people. No matter how altruistic and principled a person might sound in their quest for leadership, in practice he or she will invariably fall prey to the powers and principalities over this present darkness and leverage their authority to benefit their own.
And yet is there not authority, influence, and power among the people of God? Certainly; and Jesus remains its ultimate embodiment and expression. He lived as a servant; He did all things by the authority of His Father (Matthew 20:28). God exalted Him after He humbled Himself; He did not exalt Himself (Philippians 2:5-11). His Apostles also reflected His purposes regarding authority, influence, and power. While Jesus lived His disciples viewed authority, influence, and power according to the ways of the world; Jesus’ exhortation in Matthew 20:25-28 was precipitated by the disciples jockeying for positions of prominence in Matthew 20:20-24. Yet in the book of Acts and afterward we see how the Apostles received authority, influence, and power by the power of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, and they leveraged that authority, influence, and power according to God’s purposes in the Spirit, not for their own aggrandization or benefit. Throughout his letters Paul testified to his apostleship through God’s calling and his influence based on his sufferings and weakness (e.g. 2 Corinthians 10:1-12:21).
Thus, in Christ, positions of authority, influence, and leadership are not based on birth or ancestry, nor can they be gained through a course or program of developing leadership skills. Instead, Christians should live to glorify and honor God in Christ in all things, and through the trials of discipleship God qualifies them to manage and uphold authority, influence, and leadership to glorify Him and advance His purposes. Faithful Christians model themselves in the various positions and roles in which they find themselves in life according to the ways of the Suffering Servant (e.g. Ephesians 5:21-6:9). They do not strive to be greatest or first; instead, they encourage, model, and serve.
Wherever people seek to gain leadership and prominence we will find the demonic ways of worldly wisdom, striving to obtain benefit for oneself and/or one’s associates. Those seeking righteousness will encourage and serve in humility, love, grace, peace, and patience, thus manifesting the wisdom from above, and demonstrating how God has qualified them for authority, influence, and power. May God’s faithful servants in Christ resist the siren song of the modern American capitalist cult of leadership, and seek to model life in faith according to Jesus and His Apostles in order to obtain the resurrection of life!
Ethan R. Longhenry