May 20, 2008
Jesus is Not a CEO
A guide for the next time you pick up a Christian leadership book.
Beware of any literature that starts with these words: "Jesus was the greatest leader of all time." The sentiment behind those words may be true, but the point they make is irrelevant. It doesn't matter if Jesus was the greatest leader of all time. Jesus is our leader (and, in a holy sense, we're stuck with him).
The issue at hand is far from nit-picky. Evangelicals have long been accused of domesticating Jesus - making him one of "us" (often white, middle-class, socially respectable, and politically conservative). The glut of Jesus-as-leader books runs a tremendous risk as it attempts to introduce Jesus into the economy that surrounds 21st century leadership.
Jesus the leader endangers our view of Jesus the savior. Frankly, Jesus the leader is less threatening. He's an organizational director that would fit in wearing business casual and sitting in a conference room. I believe wholeheartedly that Jesus wants to control how I behave, think, and lead in when I'm in the conference room, but I don't have much confidence in Jesus as the teacher of strategic leadership lessons.
I'd like to get back to Jesus the savior, the one who sends the Holy Spirit to lead us. I'd like to bring the Jesus-as-leader genre of books along with me. I have a number of such books on my shelf right now. Several of them misrepresent Jesus the Messiah as Jesus the executive director; the others more or less get him right.
The major problem with the books that get him wrong occurs in the area of interpretation. Take John 10:10, Jesus saying, "I came that they might have life and have it abundantly." Let's evaluate the reflection on that verse published in Jesus, CEO: Using Ancient Wisdom for Visionary Leadership:
Many times leaders and managers expect their employees to leap through the flames for them but do not define what the purpose or reward will be. Then they wonder why nobody is leaping?. As Harry Pickens, a marketing seminar leader, said, "People are tuned in to one station: WIFM. And those letters stand for "What's in it for me?"
Jesus clearly defined his staff's work-related benefits.
No. Jesus was not demonstrating any principle about the year-end bonus, revenue sharing, or 401(k) matching. In the cosmic battle between God and Satan, John 10:10 sets up Jesus, the sacrificial Good Shepherd, against Satan, the thief. Jesus wasn't talking about - and never meant to imply - anything about "work-related benefits."
Reading the Gospels for leadership principles like team building, vision casting, or "seeing the potential in others" makes a mockery of authorial intent and historical-cultural backgrounds. Such readings appear to take the Bible seriously, but they don't do it justice; they simply create anachronistic interpretations. Could Jesus-as-leader book be flirting with recreating Jesus as one of us (or one of who we hope to be)?
Jesus has much to say to leaders, but we (especially those of us who lead) can only hear him clearly when we remember that Jesus is not primarily a leader. He is God's Anointed One, the Suffering Servant, the prophet greater than Moses.
The Christian leadership books that get Jesus right operate in that realm, never assuming that there is a "leaders track" in discipleship. Instead, they believe there to be a "servants track" for all Christ-followers. Our leadership books should move us toward this, challenging us to go down to Jesus' level, not attempting to bring him up to ours. As Henri Nouwen writes in In the Name of Jesus: "I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in the world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self."
That resonates with Jesus' teaching about leadership in Mark 10: "?[T]hose who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 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."
Contrast those quotes with this (albeit cherry picked) reflection on Jesus' "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath" statement in Mark 2:27, appearing in a forthcoming book on leadership. The context is stagnant "traditions" in organizational cultures:
Whether your area of leadership is home, school, church, civic? or business, how you handle the traditions that exist will help to determine how effective you are as a leader. A good manager makes the existing system work to his or her advantage; a good leader questions the system, making the changes necessary for improvement. In Jesus, the old things have passed and all things have become new.
Brothers and sisters: Yes. Great leaders challenge the status quo. Let us do that.
Brothers and sisters who hold the Scriptures in high regard: That is not what Jesus wants us to get out of the "Lord of the Sabbath" teaching.
Jesus' defiance of first-century tradition is not a justification for us to defy our church's traditions. They may need to be challenged, and good leaders will do so; indeed, may we. The statement "In Jesus, the old things have passed and all things have become new" is not a principle for us to take into our management portfolios; it is a statement that the world has been re-ordered in Christ. It is a truth that stands above and beyond a leadership strategy.
Let's move back toward Christian leadership studies that move us this direction. Let me propose a few criteria for the next book any of us pick up (or write) about Jesus as a leader:
1. Try to find one in which Christ is not first-and-foremost a leader with a message for you, but rather a savior who loved the world enough to die for it.
2. Seek one that takes the Bible so seriously that it dare not misrepresent the teachings and actions of Jesus.
3. Make sure it is distinctly Christian - not full of principles that could have been thought up by Jim Collins's crackerjack research team.
4. Let it be consumed with the idea of servanthood.