Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

Leadership Lessons from the Wild

t’s out in the grasslands of Northwest Uganda that you stare into the face of sheer power. Out in this wild, one can see some of the most ferocious beasts on earth.  I came to Uganda last week, and after a few days of training some 80 ministry leaders, heading for the bush seemed a fitting end to my time. I and a family took the six-hour journey north and stepped into this feral world.

It isn’t as treacherous as, say, Theodore Roosevelt’s darkest journey into the Amazon Forest. Nonetheless, the world we entered teems with its own predators. Thanks to our perceptive guide, we saw things we would have otherwise missed—a lion in the grass marking its territory, a hyena in the distance heading back to its haunt, a vulture sitting on a tree waiting to feast on the next kill, and a crocodile waiting just offshore to take its jaws and crush the skull of its next victim.

I’ve never been on a safari (unless Disneyland counts). The wilderness of Northeast Washington, where I spend part of the year, has its own wildlife, but it seems rather modest by comparison. Like the wilderness, the early hours in this African landscape are eerily quiet. There is a majestic beauty that invites you to step out, but wisdom—and our guide—tell us to stay inside this Land Cruiser. Behind the placid savannah, scene are eyes that are watching our moves. Creatures are aware and more than ready to seize the advantage. Hyenas can pick up the scent of a kill five kilometers away, and their jaws can pierce through metal. This is anything but a petting zoo.

There are expanses where one does not see life, but it is there. The reality is that most animals do not allow themselves to be seen. In a world of endless life-or-death competition, the need to hide from predators and deceive sophisticated prey is a fundamental requirement of longevity. This is how Candace Millard describes the Amazon rainforest (The River of Doubt), and it is just as true here.

On our final day, we saw a herd of African Buffalo. Looking through my binoculars I was mesmerized by the dominant bull. Amongst the others, he stands tall. It is clear that no one messes with him. He has paid his dues and is one of the fiercest animals on earth. Bulls are part of clans where establishing control is a daily battle. Collisions are literally head-to-head. When these mammoth creatures fight for territory, the weaker are often sent cartwheeling into the air and unto their backs. The earth must shake. When it is over, there is no return to the herd for the defeated. They are sent out, consigned to roam on their own for the rest of their lives. The Africans refer to them as “losers.”  Amongst the wonders, this place has its share of cruelty.

When I step back into civilization, I realize that so many of our stories reflect the same dynamics. I think a lot about leadership, and—like you—I observe that many leaders are obsessed with establishing their own dominance. Isn’t this what is being played out in places like Ukraine at present? It turns out this African wild is a mirror reflection of our own wildness. We seek to assert and dominate and secure the outcomes we want. Often power devolves into coercion, purges, manipulation of information, and destruction of potential rivals. Here in Uganda, those who survived the brutal dictatorship of Idi Amin still heal from the wounds of his terror.

I reflect on all of this because I see some of the same abuse of power played out in the church. Asking my host what leaders in ministry deal with most, his first response was power. In Uganda and much of Africa, influence (or leadership) is associated with possessions and control.  What a man owns, that is who he is. There is a competitive jostling for power and positions. It is divisional and sectarian, often ripping local churches and communities apart.

It is not so violent as out in the African wild, where male lions eat the cubs of another male to ensure there will be no competition, but leaders in ministry can work to undermine those perceived as threats to their authority. As one’s power increases, it is easy to become brutish, overstep, feel entitled, take advantage of passive followers, and go one’s own way. Sometimes, as NT Wright puts it, the person at the top “forgets that the locomotive leading the train has to remain attached to the cars.”It’s not that power is inherently bad. Like the grasslands, a certain amount of power is necessary for survival. One cannot lead if one is hesitant to use one’s God-given authority to lead the way. Adversaries will challenge your call and nullify your leadership if you don’t take a critical stand. For all the joy of leading a congregation, one must be wary of predators determined to divide the church and take the life out of your soul. Some will turn on you, defy you, prophecy against you, spread lies about you–even when you are certain you are taking a godly stand. Others will view your position as an opportunity to lock horns.

However, unlike the power structures of this world—and the fight to establish supremacy in the grasslands—it’s not about how we in ministry come to power but how power comes to us. A wise leader realizes all power is ultimately God’s. It is his to give, and it is given to carry out his purposes—not ours. As Jesus modeled, it’s not about self-expansion but self-emptying. It has nothing to do with posturing, asserting oneself, seeking places of honor, or seeking to dominate others by tossing others on their backs. Any perfecting of our power comes—not by ascending—but by descending. The apostle Paul learned this. “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor 4:7).

These are the powerful ones who walk the grasslands of this earth.

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