Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

God’s Answer to Failed Leadership

Many of us are fed up with contemporary leadership. In a recent NY Times piece, David Brooks lamented over what he calls the “craptaculous jerks” who have some grandiose sense they are indispensable to their species. In truth, most of our leaders are increasingly out of step with reality—and not so essential.

It’s not a national problem unique to Americans. Almost everywhere I go, I see the breakdown. In an article in a recent Financial Times, the writer notes that rarely have so many leaders across the globe been so unpopular. In his investigation, no political leader has a rating above 50 percent. Traveling to Kathmandu, where I am tonight, I see the evidence of failure. Chaos at the airport, an infrastructure with massive breakdowns, roads where it is the survival of the fittest. And this room I am staying in where the heat output is leaving me freezing to death!! What’s going on?

This was a question I posed to ministry leaders as we gathered for a two-day conference to discuss leadership. Corruption is a big part of the reason for miscarried leadership. Most see a culture of leadership driven by self-advancement and individual gain. All too many political leaders view themselves as having an elite status. Part of the white-flannel set, they strut about, but they are empty suits. It goes far beyond Nepal.

Rereading Henry Kissinger’s final work, Leadership, has helped me to understand how we have gotten to where we are. In his ending chapter, “The Evolution of Leadership,” Kissinger traces the arc of leadership history, taking the reader back to a world of aristocrats. These few, the kings and queens of hereditary nobility, once controlled the levers of power. These were the specially endowed leaders, inheriting an assumed excellence (arete) to lead.

Aristocracies still exist, but leadership has shifted to meritocracies, where leadership comes to those who earn it. Those of merit are those who have the right intellect and education. Personal discipline, a strong sense of duty, and a penetrating sense of reality are part of what defines them. We have seen some of these leaders in our generation. Kissinger’s book focuses on six– Thatcher, de Gaulle, Nixon, Adenauer, etc.).

Given humanity’s propensity to individual and structural sin, we have witnessed the decay of these political and social structures. Most aristocrats collapsed under the weight of their own egos, failing to live up to their vaulted positions. With a thirst for more and more power, some devolved into autocrats and dictators, bringing about the worse rule. The meritocrats who followed faced (and continue to face) the same temptation to see themselves as part of an elite status, enamored with–and eventually corrupted by–power.

There is a growing sense of hostility and resentment towards the elite, a hate for the establishment. A rising cynicism and a feeling of being used have led to populist movements where people now feel elevated, but even these are being manipulated by leaders of a different kind. These are not aristocrats nor meritocrats. They have gained their leadership, neither by birth or merit, but largely by charisma.

Leadership today is less about achieving credentials and more about gaining popularity. We have shifted our values, preferring image over substance, self-expression over self-denial, and entertainment over education. It is less about intellectual abilities and more about celebrity status. Charisma has displaced character. And at the end of this next cycle of “ocracies”—aristocracy (rule by the few), meritocracy (rule by achievement), democracy (rule by the people), and autocracy (rule by the self)—we will probably be even more fed up—both as citizens and congregants.

What we need is a different ocracy—a theocracy (rule by God)—that begins in the heart, works at an individual level and manifests itself at a public level in the church. Ultimately, we await eternity when it will be fully established. But while we live on this earth, no matter what political structure we find ourselves under, we can (we must) be the kind of leaders who honor God’s rule as our highest priority and devotion. Too many of us have our eyes on lesser leadership (see my last post). These are the signs of true leadership—leadership at the highest level–

-leaders who define leadership not as lording over but serving under

-leaders who see themselves as unnecessary to God but necessary to the carrying out of his will

-leaders who understand that leadership is less about personal ambition and pursuit, and more about receiving a divine summons and saying yes

-leaders who achieve credibility—not by winning at the polls or swaying an audience—but by pursuing character, sound judgment, and competence

-leaders who recognize that power is not about self-expansion but about self-emptying—not about something seized but something received. It’s not about how one comes to power, but how power comes to one

-leaders who are devoted—not to the achieving of their purpose—but to the fulfillment of God’s—to make him known in everything one does.

These are the leaders who are indispensable—who are so essential to our times. If only we can find them.

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