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Another Reason Leadership Matters: Leaders as a Reflection of the Groups They Lead

It feels like I’ve been either dealing with or hearing about leadership failures virtually non-stop over the last two years. Everywhere I turn I’m hearing about some Christian board, president, pastor, or CEO, that have “failed” or somehow become corrupt. When issues of moral failure or incompetence are raised, decisions of boards and leaders come under fire (sometimes rightly, sometimes not). Leadership is important and leaders, at least the good ones, demand accountability.

However right it may be to lay blame at the feet of governing boards and organizational leaders, we also need to turn the spotlight of scrutiny on ourselves as the body of Christ. We have not only shown ourselves capable of elevating women and men to positions of authority who have proven to be less-than prepared for or well-suited to occupy such positions. We have also demonstrated a willingness to reinforce the status quo by not reevaluating the type of leaders we choose or the rationale we employ to choose them. We need to recognize that those we choose to lead are the prototypical members of our community. They are those who best embody the traits we value and are given “disproportionate power and influence to set agenda, define identity, and mobilize people to achieve collective goals” (Hogg, 2001). As such, those who fail are, in some sense, a reflection of our own flaws.

In his work on the application of social identity theory Hogg and Reid argue that groups create prototypes, which are “fuzzy sets, not checklists, of attributes (e.g. attitudes and behaviors) that define one group and distinguish from other groups” (Hogg and Reid, 2006). They go on to note that “Prototypical members or leaders are more influential” in part because “they embody the prototype and are therefore the focus of conformity within the group—follower behavior automatically conforms to their behavior.” The social identity research points to the idea that the “fuzzy sets” or “prototypes” we create underwrite our assumptions about leadership and about what it is that we believe represents us most accurately. The prototypical leader may be a great preacher, have a bold willingness to push against convention, be tenacious in defense of specific doctrines, or able to raise funds and expand a given ministry. Our leaders may be assertive and (too?) sure of their own perspective so that they may provide the community with the sort of comfort that comes when questions are eliminated.

So what does this mean? If our “fuzzy sets” influence who we choose to be our leaders, we should be sure that those sets are rooted in a deeply theological understanding of our collective identity as heirs of God’s Kingdom. When we diagnose our situation and conclude that what is needed is a Type A leader or a someone who is willing to “lean in,” we run the risk of limiting the possibilities God has for us as a people by depending on the gifts God provides rather than on God Himself. In the gospels, Jesus seldom describes the community of faith as one that moves with boldness against the forces of evil or even as a people who build large ministries. Rather, it is the “meek” who will inherit the earth (Mt. 5:5; cf. 1 Cor 10:1-6). It is the humble who will be exalted (Lk. 14:7-11). And it is the “peacemakers” who will be called “sons of God” (Mt. 5:9). The characteristics of meekness, humility, peacemaking, and others like them may need to become a bigger part of our “fuzzy sets.”

Who we are as a community is reflected, in part, by the way we choose our leaders and who we choose as leaders. We have, I believe, chosen well in many cases. There are some excellent Christian leaders who are God honoring and perform their ministry with a quiet humility. Yet, there are others exercising “disproportionate power and influence” that seem to exhibit traits incommensurate with a mature understanding of what it means to be the people of God. It is our own immaturity that allows such men and women to rise to positions of “disproportionate power and influence.”

As we understand more fully who we are in Christ, let us pray that God will so shape the way we understand our identity in Him that we become ever more capable of recognizing women and men who will point us to Christ, the true Leader of the community of faith. Let us pray that we will seek out those women and men who desire to become less so that Christ may become more.

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