the shape of leadership

Humility in an Age of Celebrity Leaders

Servant leadership begins with transforming three areas of our lives

Proverbs 16:18 says, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” We see this play out in the Bible’s many cautionary tales: Nebuchadnezzar’s seven-year bout with insanity for claiming his own sovereignty (Daniel 4); Herod Agrippa’s gruesome death for accepting praise as a god (Acts 12:19-23); the judgment against Ananias and Sapphira for arrogantly lying to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:1-11).

Then there is the judgment oracle against the king of Babylon in Isaiah 14:13-15:

You said in your heart,
“I will ascend to the heavens;
I will raise my throne
above the stars of God;
I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly,
on the utmost heights of Mount Zaphon.
I will ascend above the tops of the clouds;
I will make myself like the Most High.”
But you are brought down to the realm of the
to the depths of the pit.

This passage, traditionally identified with the fall of Satan, is a classic ode to the destructive power of pride. Every Christian leader knows the caution: Pride destroys; power corrupts.

Despite the warnings in Scripture, time and time again we see pride’s consequences in ministry situations. Christian leaders rise to positions of remarkable influence. Their churches flourish, their books appear on bestseller lists, and they build ministry empires. While most stay true to their calling, all too often a scandal erupts. The headlines splash across the tabloids, and ministries crumble.

Why are there so many similar stories? At the root, pride leads to the downfall. These leaders may be exceptional communicators who can win an audience over with wit and pathos. They are often people of personal charisma and charm who know how to make others feel good about themselves. They are visionaries who come up with innovative ways to do ministry.

But with success comes greater adulation and a ministry increasingly devoid of accountability. Leaders may begin thinking of themselves as irreplaceable and, therefore, above criticism. Well-meaning associates look the other way, or, in some cases, actively shield leaders from consequences — until things reach a breaking point.

Of course, pride doesn’t just afflict celebrity Christians. All leaders struggle with issues of power and self-interest. Having worked with Christian leaders for decades, we have seen many churches in crisis. The situations often end badly, with departures, firings or church splits. But we rarely see a church split or a pastor leave over a theological dispute. Never has a cult taken control of the church and overthrown its leadership. It’s usually the same basic issue: a struggle for power and control. This may involve the senior pastor, associate pastors, leadership boards, lay leaders or any combination of these.

How do we reverse this trend? How do we cultivate an environment of humility instead of pride? It begins with a biblical model of servant leadership that transforms three areas of our lives: beliefs, attitudes and actions.

Right Beliefs: Developing Humble Self-Efficacy

When it comes to leadership, theology matters. What we believe will find its way, for better or worse, into our leadership attitudes and actions. This includes our views of God, ourselves and how God works through His people. As leaders, we need to develop an attitude of humble self-efficacy.

Some think humility means having a low opinion of ourselves, including our strengths, gifts or abilities. On the contrary, humble self-efficacy means having a high view of ourselves and our abilities, while acknowledging that all we have and are is a gift from God.

The apostle Paul refers to this right thinking about ourselves in his letter to the church at Rome: “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you” (Romans 12:3). Paul calls here for neither too high nor too low a view of self, but rather one based on “sober judgment.”

On the one hand, this means acknowledging our infinite value and worth as those created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). Human beings are the pinnacle of God’s creation, “crowned ... with glory and honor” and “rulers over the works of [God’s] hands”; God “put everything under their feet” (Psalm 8:5-6). We have great worth in His eyes. On the other hand, it means recognizing we are fallen and broken people, whose abilities come to us solely through the saving grace of God and the empowering gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Peter similarly challenged the Church scattered throughout Asia Minor: “If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 4:11). It brings glory to God when we serve in His strength rather than our own. Christian leadership is about God-empowered service rather than self-sufficient achievement.

Right Attitudes: Teamwork and Accountability

Humble self-efficacy naturally results in a different attitude toward followers, one that views them not merely as assets or resources, but as fellow team members and accountability partners.

Humble leaders do not seek glory for themselves, but they recognize they are part of a larger team. They love seeing others, and the team as a whole, succeed. They value the role both they and others play in the ministries they serve. They are quick to think about others and celebrate how other team members are adding value to the organization.

They also consider themselves responsible to the team in terms of loyalty and accountability. Accountability is a two-way street. The leader holds team members accountable, providing timely feedback and training when necessary. This is a common theme in Jesus’ ministry. He sent His disciples out to preach, to heal and to cast out demons (Matthew 10:1-42; Mark 6:6-13; Luke 9:1-6, 10:1-23), then followed up with them as they reported on the results of their ministry (Mark 6:30; Luke 9:10).

Accountability also means the leader places himself or herself in a position of responsibility and accountability to others. Almost inevitably, when ministry leaders fail, there has been little oversight or accountability in their lives.

Author Jon Acuff put it this way: “Leaders who can’t be questioned end up doing questionable things.”

In the absence of humility, a lack of accountability festers and begins to characterize organizations with gifted leaders. These dysfunctions lead to walls of protection around leaders. These walls produce isolation, and this isolation results in unquestioned and unaccountable leaders.

No one is above the need for accountability. Healthy leaders recognize that both their future health and the future health of the organization are dependent on openness and mutuality in the realms of humility and accountability.

Right Actions: Humility Through Empowerment

A third principle for cultivating humility concerns the manner in which a leader should exercise that humility — not for achieving the leader’s goals, but for empowering and enabling others to fulfill their calling before God.

We see a biblical example of this in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. The church at Philippi was one of the most spiritually mature of the Christian communities Paul established, true partners in the spread of the gospel (Philippians 1:5,7).

On several occasions, the church sent financial support to Paul (Philippians 4:14-19). They even sent one of their own members, Epaphroditus, to assist Paul during his imprisonment (Philippians 2:25-30). Compared to the immature and struggling church at Corinth, the church at Philippi had its act together.

Yet beside this apparent tranquility was a simmering problem that threatened the church: a growing conflict between two leaders, Euodia and Syntyche. Paul appealed to his “true companion” to help the two resolve their differences (Philippians 4:2-3). While Paul addressed this issue explicitly only late in the letter, he started setting the stage for it much earlier. In Chapter 2, he called the church to unity on the basis of the spiritual benefits they receive in Christ:

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind (verses 1-2).

The strong bonds of love, encouragement and compassion they shared as a Spirit-empowered community gave impetus to the hard work of maintaining unity. Yet while this fellowship provides the motivation for unity, it does not provide the means. People may desire to live in peace with one another, but their immaturity, pride and self-interests continually sabotage that unity. According to Paul, the means to unity involves the cultivation of an attitude of humility:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others (Philippians 2:3-4).

Notice Paul didn’t describe humility as a low self-image or a “worm” mentality. Humility is setting aside selfish ambition, valuing others and looking out for their needs first. This is the key to authentic servant leadership. The servant leader enables others to excel in the use of their spiritual gifts. The goal is not the exercise of power, but the empowerment of others.

Paul went on to cite the ultimate example of empowerment through humility — the incarnation of Jesus Christ:

The task of Christian leaders is not to glorify themselves, but to train, equip and empower others to be all God has called them to be.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something
to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself by becoming obedient
to death —

even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:5-8).

As the eternal Son of God, Jesus could have exercised His power in any way He wanted. Yet Jesus chose not to use His position for personal glory but instead used it for the benefit of others: “he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant.”

Many English versions translate the last word here as “servant” (NIV, KJV, RSV, ESV, CSB) or “bondservant” (NASB, NKJV). But the Greek term is doulos, a word more often rendered “slave” (see NRSV, NET, NLT, HCSB, CEB, CEV). This is a shocking statement. We understand when Paul called himself a “slave” of Jesus Christ — one whose total loyalty and ownership lies with his Lord. Yet to say that the eternal Son became a “slave” seems to be going too far.

A slave in the Greco-Roman world was considered property, existing solely to serve and please the master. Paul cannot mean, of course, that Jesus’ status was that of a slave, that He became someone else’s property. Paul must mean that Jesus functioned as a slave, acting wholly and completely for the benefit of others. This is apparent in verse 8: “He humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross.” By willingly going to the Cross, Jesus acted completely and wholly in the interest of others. Through this ultimate act of humility, Jesus empowered and lifted others up.

From Celebrity Status to Authentic Service

Jesus himself described His mission in these same terms of humility and service. When the disciples were vying for the best seats in the Kingdom, Jesus taught them about the true nature of Kingdom leadership. He began by defining the world’s leadership model: “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them” (Mark 10:42).

The world’s model of leadership is about achieving the leader’s goals through the exercise of power or influence. Whether through motivation, encouragement, manipulation, coercion or compulsion, the leader seeks to get others to act on his or her behalf.

A ruthless dictator compels followers through threat of punishment. A business owner encourages productivity through good wages, benefits and incentive programs. A motivational speaker sways audience members by connecting with them through charm and humor. The means can differ, but the goal is the same: to utilize followers to achieve an end.

Jesus, however, radically redefined the nature and goal of leadership, speaking not of power and persuasion but of service and sacrifice:

Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:43-45).

Servants do not seek their own interests and goals. Rather, they provide the help and resources to empower others. Slaves do not motivate or manipulate others. They do whatever is in the best interest of the master. Jesus is the ultimate example of this self-sacrificial giving for the good of others. Jesus came to Earth and gave His life, not for His own power and glory, but to free people from the power of Satan, sin, and death and to empower them to be all God has called them to be.

Jesus’ point is that the task of Christian leaders is not to glorify themselves, but to train, equip and empower others to be all God has called them to be. Of course, all analogies break down at some point, and this one is no exception. Unlike a servant or slave in the ancient world, the servant leader’s role is not simply to take orders from others. Jesus — the model servant and slave — did not follow the orders of His disciples! He empowered and enabled them through self-sacrificial service.

What we have described as servant leadership is really another way to speak of Christian discipleship. The goal is to raise up the next generation of leaders, to call others to faith, and then to encourage and empower them to fulfill their calling before God.

Praxis: Cultivating Humility

This type of servant-oriented leadership can’t happen without authentic humility. As you reflect on the cultivation of humility in your life as a leader, here are three questions to consider:

1. Are your team members bringing you questions? Retired U.S. Army Gen. Colin Powell wrote, “The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They either have lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.”

We argue that although effective communicators are not necessarily effective leaders, it doesn’t work the other way. Effective leadership requires communication. This communication should not just be one-way. The healthiest leader-follower relationships regularly bring meaningful communication both to and from team members.

Are your team members actively communicating with you? While it can feel great that no one is bringing any problems or issues to you, this lack of communication is often not what it seems. It can feel like an indicator of an efficient system in which everything is working as it should. However, it is often just the opposite — an indicator that there are problems, but that team members are no longer bringing those issues to you.

Make sure you are communicating both openness and support when it comes to communication. Be proactive in your communication with the team, and make sure team members see you as a leader who is open and responsive to their communication as well.

2. Are team members holding you accountable? Does open communication translate into transparency and accountability in the team as well? This transparency and accountability are not simply about leaders telling followers what to do and holding them accountable.

The best leaders don’t merely dictate — they model what matters. Communication is not just about the words we use. For better or worse, our most important communication takes place through our actions.

In our book Leadership in Christian Perspective, we tell the story of Bob Kierlin, the former CEO of Fastenal, and how he modeled what matters for his employees. When he asked his employees to watch their expenses closely, Kierlin was also accountable to these expectations. For example, he capped his salary for around 10 years. Kierlin modeled frugalness in wearing used business suits. And he often traveled for the company on a limited budget, eating at fast-food restaurants and driving at times rather than flying.

While not common by CEO standards, Kierlin’s actions spoke volumes to members of the company. He was accountable along with other employees.

Healthy organizations encourage openness and accountability at all levels. No one should be above this — especially gifted leaders with a propensity to celebrity status in an organization. Along with all team members, leaders should be open to accountability.

This can be especially challenging, though, in organizations like churches, where people want to be “nice” to one another. The challenge is that being nice is not always the same thing as being helpful.

Being nice can keep us from saying the hard thing someone needs to say, or asking the hard question someone needs to ask. When the person needing accountability is a friend or close team member, it can be even more difficult. This tendency to be nice can lead to fellow staff members no longer asking questions of their peers, or board members believing trust means no longer confronting the senior leader on any issue.

This is not a call to view everyone with suspicion. Rather, it is a call to balance biblical trust with biblical humility, openness and accountability.

3. Are you equipping and empowering team members? Are those under your influence growing? Are they receiving the skills they need to thrive? Are they empowered and released to use their gifts — even if that means less time in the spotlight for you?

Equipping and empowering are the natural outcomes of healthy and humble leadership. But both must be present. If someone is empowered but not properly equipped, it can lead to failure. If someone is equipped but not authentically empowered, it can lead to frustration. But when someone is both properly equipped and authentically empowered, it leads to fruitful and flourishing individuals and organizations.

What do you see when you look around? Are you just trying to rally people to your agenda, or are you developing genuine partners in a mission that matters to all on the team? Humble leadership in practice equips and empowers team members.

Inward and Outward

We asked you to engage in personal refection on humility, but then went on to ask you to think primarily about your team members.

There’s a bit of a paradox in this. The best way to find out how you’re doing as a leader is to look at the people around you. Are they flourishing? Are they growing? Are they becoming all God is calling them to be and do? The health of those surrounding you is often the best test of your overall health and effectiveness as a leader.

Lean in to this process of honest self-evaluation. Pursue right beliefs by developing humble self-efficacy. Nurture right attitudes by fostering teamwork and mutual accountability. And develop right actions by empowering others.

It can be challenging in an age of celebrity leaders, but this work is as important now as ever.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2019 edition of Influence magazine.

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