Good Leaders Gone Bad: Show or Substance?

By Uli Chi

October 21, 2017

Everything they do is done for people to see…

Matthew 23:5a


Narcissus, oil on canvas. Caravaggio (1595). Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Roma.I live in a world that prizes results. As entrepreneurs, we want to grow businesses, the quicker and bigger the better. Hockey stick growth and scale are ideal. Everyone wants to be the next Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, or Microsoft.

Of course, results matter. In a highly interconnected, instant-on world, our work can be leveraged and amplified, often for good. With seven billion people on the planet, many with life-or-death challenges, our having good ideas or noble ideals is not enough. As the Apostle James wrote several millennia ago, even “faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:17)

For leaders, actions are essential expressions of our work. But our focus on results exposes us to the temptation of disconnecting needed, exterior work from critical, interior virtues. Instead of hallowing our work, we hollow out our work. When we become preoccupied with dramatic performance, we have lost something essential to our work. If growth means only exceptional, measurable results, that’s all it will be. As Jesus warned about a purely performance oriented culture, “Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.” (Matthew 6:5b)

But our focus on results exposes us to the temptation of disconnecting needed, exterior work from critical, interior virtues. Instead of hallowing our work, we hollow out our work.

Leadership that focuses on merely external results leads to personal and institutional self-absorption. Progressively, we become less interested in the people and communities we are called to serve. The common good recedes into the background of our attention. We become less concerned about whether what we are doing is good, and more concerned about whether what we are doing is great. As someone has engagingly suggested, perhaps what this generation needs are leaders and institutions that move, not so much from “good to great,” as from “great to good.”

Self-absorption, whether individual or institutional, ultimately leads to self-destruction. The ancient Greeks told the story of Narcissus to make this point. Narcissus was a mythical hunter who was preoccupied by his appearance. One of the Greek gods enticed Narcissus to look at his reflection in a pool of water. Narcissus became so enthralled with his image that he literally couldn’t turn away. He lost interest in everything else and died looking at his reflection.

So what are we as leaders to do in our image-obsessed culture? Given we spend most of our work engaged in the public arena, how do we cultivate interior virtues that keep our exterior work from fixating us in a deadly, Narcissus-like stare? In another passage where Jesus critiques religious leaders of his day about their excessively public piety, Jesus counsels, “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:6). There is a hidden quality to Jesus’s vision of human life and leadership. Not everything substantive and important is visible. Much is hidden from view.

As a result, we need to learn to develop a healthy detachment from the visible results of our work. I find myself easily intoxicated by demonstrable success. So it is helpful, if a bit jarring, to see Jesus often sending crowds away, just when I might be inclined to figure out how to get them to stay! Similarly, Jesus seems quite content to move on to a different location just when crowds are gathering around him. And, as Luke records, “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (Luke 5:16). Jesus took seriously the leadership challenge to cultivate the hidden, interior practices and virtues that sustain a holy and healthy public life. As his followers and lead servants, we can expect to do no less.


Lord Jesus Christ, I’m grateful you understand the challenges of public leadership. You know the demands of public life, the never-ending needs, opportunities, and challenges that face us each day.

Thank you that you understand our temptation to become like Narcissus, obsessed with the image of our public work and reputation. Thank you for your practical examples of detachment and your practice of prayer and solitude. You know our performance oriented, 24/7 culture, and how difficult it is to live your way of leadership out in our day. Give us the courage, patience and persistence to learn these practices in our particular leadership contexts.

We are grateful for the gift of your Spirit who equips and empowers us to live as your image bearers and lead servants, Amen.


Image Credit: By Caravaggio, Public Domain, Link.


Explore more at the Theology of Work Project online commentaryLooking for guiding principles

Uli Chi

Board Member, Senior Fellow, Affiliate Professor

Dr. Uli Chi’s career is a testament to his unique approach to leadership. He has navigated the realms of for-profit businesses, nonprofit organizations, the theological academy, and the local church, gleaning a wealth of wisdom from each. As an award-winning technological entrepreneur, h...

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