I think it is crazy for me to attempt to write another piece on leadership when the internet is buzzing with lessons, articles and books on this topic. But as many have undertaken to write their experiences, I thought I would add some of my recent thoughts on the subject, too. And hopefully get some input from you on the subject as a result.
A few weeks ago, my wife and I were having lunch with the leader of another mission organization and his wife. The conversation moved to leadership styles and how many Christian organizations have adopted leadership structures that are common in society and the world we live in.
This led my thoughts to Jesus’ words:
“You are not to be like that.” – Luke 22:26
The disciples had just started arguing about who was the greatest. Jesus explains to them that “the kings of the Gentiles” lead in a certain way: lording authority over people, positioning themselves above others.
Jesus concludes, “Don’t be like that!”
That led me to the question: How can we keep from following that model? How can we recognize worldly leadership when we see it? How do “gentiles” lead?
I want to suggest there are at least two types of “Gentile” leadership today: Top Down and Bottom Up leadership. They look like opposites, but in my opinion they’re really two sides of the same coin.
TOP DOWN, HIERARCHICAL LEADERSHIP
This is probably the most obvious expression of “Gentile” leadership today. In the Top Down leadership style, the leader is the expert. His most important qualities are expertise, competence, confidence, ability to influence and manage a staff, and delivering on outcomes. He is the one who is “in charge,” who has the power to hire and fire, set the direction and control the results of the organization or company. This is the most common model we see in society, government, business, etc. today.
Is this model wrong?
Not necessarily. There are some positions of leadership where an expert or highly skilled expertise is required. For example, the leader of a task force needs these qualities.
BOTTOM UP LEADERSHIP
This seems like the equal and opposite reaction to Top Down leadership, but in my opinion, it’s also an expression of “Gentile” leadership. When people realize that a top-down model of leadership isn’t quite what Jesus had in mind, they often move to the opposite end of the scale.
In Bottom Up leadership, power isn’t in the hand of a few people; it is spread out to many. By getting input from multiple people, wisdom and information is crowd-sourced, allowing the company or team to draw on the best ideas that are out there, rather than one person dictating a certain task for individuals or groups to complete. It also gives people involved a sense of ownership regarding their assignment.
But there’s a cost to this. Authority spread out too thin can make an organization or group of people feel lost. In many cases, vision is lacking, there tends to be no clear direction and there is a lot of freedom to do “whatever seems good to do.” Bottom Up leadership tends to be anti-authoritarian and in its extreme, can lead to anarchy.
Is this model wrong?
Again, there is definitely a place for group consensus and sharing of experiences on a peer to peer level. For example, in planning campaigns directed at target audiences, it is advantageous for a mixed group of management and target audience peers to discuss and come to consensus as to best options for approach and content that would be most relevant to that specific audience.
Perhaps many of you who are reading this post would at this point argue that an organization needs to apply both leadership styles in order to function successfully. But instead, let me suggest a third model for your consideration. It is one I see Jesus applied often. Let’s call this leadership style, Middle Out.
MIDDLE OUT LEADERSHIP
In Matthew 4:18-22, we read:
As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” At once they left their nets and followed him. Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee, and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.
Top Down leadership would have said, “Come follow me and I promise you’ll benefit from my success.”
Bottom Up leadership would have said, “Come follow me and we can do whatever you want” or “Following or not following isn’t really important. What’s important is that no one has more authority than anyone else.”
Jesus models a different kind of leadership. He calls people to follow him with a promise to invest and empower them: “Come follow me and I’ll make you fishers of men.”
“Come and follow me” – Clearly, He owns His authority and doesn’t apologize for it. And He is not uncomfortable in exercising it. He sees His authority as an opportunity and a responsibility to empower others.
- Top Down leaders look to strengthen their authority.
- Bottom Up leaders look to give up their authority.
- But Middle Out leaders look to invest their authority.
I believe that in order to see movements everywhere, we need to adopt more of a Middle Out style of leadership. Because its focus is on envisioning, enabling and empowering others – whether they be our volunteers, teams or individual disciples.