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The Problem with Leaders

October 7, 2021 • De Pree Journal

What do 18-35-year-olds from around the world think about leadership? Well, they’re less than hopeful. According to Barna, 82% of 18-35-year-olds believe that “society is facing a crisis of leadership because there are not enough good leaders right now” (The Connected Generation, p. 124). Can we blame them?

In 2019, Fast Company reported on “the worst scandals of the past decade.” We’ve read about CBS CEO Harvey Weinstein and the diesel debacle at Volkswagen. We’ve watched documentaries about the Fyre Festival and, more recently, Lularoe. Plus, we’ve endured perhaps the most contentious election season in American history—one that raised considerable questions for me in terms of what I hope for in local, state, and federal leaders.

The Fast Company article didn’t even mention the leadership crises that have plagued those of us who identify as Christians. Where should we begin? The Catholic priest scandal? #ChurchToo? Mark Driscoll? Bill Hybels? What about the Christian leaders who will never make celebrity status but whose poor choices and subsequent downfall traumatized us nonetheless?

Perhaps because we’re prone to meaning making or perhaps because we need to place blame, we want to know why. What was the problem? Margaret J. Wheatley, author of Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World, has an interesting take. She writes,

“Beyond the fads that have swept through large organizations, think of all the contemporary leadership problems that are variations on the theme that we don’t know how to work together. We struggle to help teams form quickly and work effectively. We struggle to learn how to work with the uniqueness that we call diversity. We are terrified of the emotions aroused by conflict, loss, love. In all of the struggles, it is being human that creates the problem. We have not yet learned how to be together.” (p. 164)

At first, I nodded in agreement with Wheatley’s insight. True, we have not learned to work together. I struggle to love others well, and I’m no stranger to interpersonal conflict. Maybe you can relate. But I balked a little at her statement that “it is being human that creates the problem.” Yes. No. I think there’s more to the story.
The Bible teaches that human beings are made in God’s image (Gen 1:26-27). Christians disagree on precisely what that means, but we tend to agree on this: being made in God’s image means that we have inherent worth. The Bible also tells us that God pronounced the creation to be “very good” after creating human beings (Gen 1:31). Inherent in our creation, design is both goodness and worth.

Inherent in our creation, design is both goodness and worth.

But being human changed fundamentally when the first humans sinned against God (Gen 3). The doctrine of original sin teaches that the first sin affected us all. Like an inherited trait, we pass our inherent sinfulness down from one generation to the next. We’re all sinners. And we all sin—sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. The Apostle Paul put it bluntly: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). In this sense, being human is the problem. Being a sinner who sins is the root cause of every leadership crisis or scandal since the beginning of time.

But what if being human is also the solution?

But what if being human is also the solution? To borrow the words of Charlie Peacock, the Bible also teaches us about “a new way to be human.” That new way begins by paying attention to Jesus Christ—who was fully God and fully human. I love how the Nicene Creed describes Jesus:

“God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made; of the same essence as the Father. For us and for our salvation, he came down from heaven; he became incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary, and was made human.”

For us and for our salvation. Because being human had become a problem, we needed a human being to atone for our sins and to reconcile us to God (Col 1:19-20). We needed a human being to remind us what it looks like to imagine God perfectly (Heb 1:3). And we needed help to imitate Jesus and to participate in his redemptive work after his death, resurrection, and ascension. That’s why he gave us the Holy Spirit—to move us to follow God’s decrees (Ezek 36:27), to guide us (John 16:13), and to produce in us the fruit of a Kingdom-shaped life (Gal 5:22-23).

Even though Jesus makes this new way of being human possible for us, it’s still a challenge to know what that should look like in our day-to-day. We don’t open the Bible and find Jesus and his followers in a conference room discussing their quarterly projections or standing around a drafting table considering options to create a sustainable hardscape. You won’t find Paul and Barnabas on a Zoom call talking about asset-based community development as part of their church planting strategy.

Being human in this new, redemptive way requires creativity and courage. We have to pay attention to how God depicts his Kingdom, how Jesus treats people, and how the Holy Spirit sustains and energizes God’s work in the world. We have to anchor ourselves in God’s story and cultivate our relationship with Jesus. We have to attempt to discern the Spirit’s leading and take bold steps of faith when called.

Here are a few ways I’ve responded to God’s invitation to be a new sort of human in my work: I asked a client to adjust someone’s pay so that it properly valued her work. I pushed back on another client’s plan because I thought it would unintentionally exclude women. I challenged our school board about a dozen times to heed scientific data and take steps to protect the vulnerable in our community, each time attempting to clothe myself with kindness and respect.

In each instance, I felt like I was failing forward. I’m pretty sure I made some mistakes. That’s part of being human—of being a sinner who sins against sinful people in a sin-broken world where hurt people hurt people. But, the good news is that Jesus doesn’t wait for us to become perfect to invite us into his plan to redeem and restore. Even though we’re part of the problem with leadership, God welcomes us—through the redeeming work of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit—to be part of the solution.

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