Reggie McNeal, in his book Practicing Greatness, makes this audacious statement:
“Bad leaders are a form of evil.”
When I first read that statement I thought “Woe! That’s a bit strong.” But as I read further I came to understand his thinking… and agreed.
Consider his whole point:
Bad leaders are a form of evil. They curse people by diminishing their life. They rob people of hope. They reduce people’s dreams and expectations for their lives. They discourage and disparage people. They leave people worse off than when they found them. Bad leadership is not always the result of bad character or intentional malevolence. It can result from simple incompetence.
While McNeal’s assertion is strong, I think it has strong merits. Consider the results he associates with bad leadership: lost hope, diminished dreams that lead to settling, demoralization and discouragement. All of these things are bad, even evil really. And while poor leadership is not the only cause of such attitudes, bad leadership is a frequent incubator of them.
As a pastor, which is the primary target McNeal is aiming at, this perspective hits home. It also hits deep. My very job, my calling, is to remind people of the hope they have in Christ and to help them to function in line with that hope according to their God-given purpose. When, by God’s grace, I am effective, I get to see God change peoples lives for the better. When that happens it is exciting and exhilerating. But when I fail… well it can get pretty ugly. And I do fail. Sometimes because of matters beyond my influence. But at other times I fail because I am not up to the challenge – which is a gentle way of admitting my incompetence.
I have become keenly aware of the influence of bad leadership, not only by my own failures, but as I have watched my son’s athletic career. I have seen good coaches make a positive impact that extends far beyond the playing fields. And I have seen my son demoralized, I have seen his dreams and aspiarations diminished, and I have seen the sense of purposelessness that accompanies hopelessness, not because of an innate lack of talent but as a result of bad coaching – or bad leadership from a coach. McNeal’s perception is all the more pertinent as I watched this take place, because the coach who was primarily responsible for this is not a bad guy. Quite the contrary. He is likeable. He seems to have his priorities in exemplary order. He was never unpleasant. He was simply not competent in the job he held. And that incompetence negatively influenced scores of young men, including my son. So, as McNeal says, while the man is good, the effects of his bad leadership are evil.
It is sobering to realize I can have that same negative effect on people when I fail them as a pastor, or as a father, or in any other leadership role I may assume.
A few applications come to mind as I think through this.
1. This truth applies to every person in a position of leadership, professional or volunteer, formal or informal, organizational or recreational. The purpose of leadership is always to guide and ultimately enhance.
I say “ultimately” because sometimes leadership requires breaking down or taking steps backward before moving forward. It depends upon the inherited situation. At such times what may temporarily appear to be failure, is in reality a necessity. Not everyone will always see this, but then again, that’s why not everyone was called to be the leader.
This is humbling, and a bit frightening. But the words of the Lord to Joshua come to mind: “Be strong and corageous…” (Joshua 1.6) And paraphrasing the rest of that passage: “Be strong and very courageous, being careful to do everything God has called you to do, and to do it in the manner he wants you to do it.”
This command applies to all of us who assume leadership roles. In the church, as Elders, youth leaders, etc; In the community as coaches, civic leaders, elected officials, etc; or in the business world as supervisors, foremen, or executives. All of these roles can be catalysts for the advancement of God’s Kingdom, done for his glory, and can benefit those God has called us to lead. (1 Corinthians 10.31)
2. We must live in line with the Gospel, or with the Gospel always in mind.
Now, of course, this is always a truth. But I think it is pertinent to say again here for a simple reason. We will all fail at some point in our leadership. Only God is omni-competent. Some of our failures will be situational, and are not reflective of our leadership abilities. But at other times the Peter Principle comes into play – we are in over our heads, not up to the challenge, not competent for the job. At those times we embody the “good guy, bad leader = evil” eqation.
Knowing this ahead of times makes leadership rather daunting. Many would rather foresake the risk of leadership altogether – if they could. But this need not be our attitude if we understand the gospel. God does not, and will not, reject us on the basis of our failure and incompetence, even when that spells evil. Quite the contrary, God called us who are evil, failures, and incapable in the first place. He redeemed such people through the blood of Christ. And He is in the process of shaping us and growing us. So we can own up to our “evil” in leadership, and be grateful for God’s provision in Christ.
In fact, we should even be grateful for the reminder of our inability. Because the one whom God is angered with and rejects is not the one who humbly recognizes failure and incompetence, and consequently turns to Jesus. Instead the Lord rejects the one who is confident in his/her own leadership abilities and, at best, simply pays lip service to God.
3. I need to pursue greatness in leadership. It is not so that I become the object of admiration. And it is not only so I can avoid being a contributor to evil. It is so that I can bless others through serving them as a leader. Or put a better way, so that God can bless people through me and my simple competent leadership.