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Real Leadership

In March 2012 my friend Phil Salmon asked if I would be interested in taking the pulpit while our pastor was on vacation. I always jump at the chance to do a bit of speaking, so of course the answer was yes. I finally did take the pulpit on the first Sunday in August. The following text is the written version of the sermon I delivered. This text presupposes you’ve heard the scripture lessons for the day, as they were read earlier in the service. If you’re reading this for the first time you might also take a minute to read the following verses, although the sermon seems to work OK without it.

1 Kings  18:17-40
Mark 9:2-13
Romans 11:1-6

I believe that God speaks directly to us through the Bible. Through scripture God tells us what we need to know and what we need to hear at that particular time. The Bible is not a static document, and because of this what God tells me today may not be what God tells you tomorrow, even though we may read the same verse.

Scripture is great because we see over and over again how consistent human nature is through the ages. The lessons we learn from stories that are thousands of years old are every bit as relevant today as they were then, and they reach out to us from history to teach us again, and again. I firmly believe these same stories will teach for thousands of years to come.

When I watch the news, or read of current events, or even when I consider what may become of the beloved Baltimore Ravens this season, my thoughts often turn to the subject of leadership. Leaders are important. A good leader can transform a situation, a team, or a nation. Good leaders define a culture of greatness, and dare the people to dream their dreams and then realize their dreams (thanks Whitney Johnson). Good leaders protect the people  and move them from fear and chaos to stability and peace. Similarly, a weak, or poor leader can transform the situation in the other direction. Bad leaders create cultures of hopelessness, oppress the dreams of the people, and exploit power and resources for their own gain.

Our scripture lessons today have some great leadership principles hidden in the stories. The story takes place sometime in the early part of King Ahab’s reign over the northern Kingdom, or “Israel”. The time period is about 865 BC, give or take a dozen years, and the Kingdom is surrounded by hostile neighbors and idol worshiping cultures, including the cult of Baal. The Phoenicians in general, and the kingdom of Sidon  in particular are one of these cultures, and figure prominently in the story. Idol worship was specifically forbidden under the Mosaic covenant, which you can find detailed in  DT 13. Our story today focuses on the interaction of Ahab, the priests of Baal, and the prophet Elijah. Prior to our narrative King Ahab marries Jezabel from neighboring Sidon, presumably to maintain peace and build alliances with his powerful and potentially aggressive Phoenician neighbors. The Phoenicians worshipped Baal and Jezabel led Ahab to Baal worship, which was a direct violation of the 1st and second commandments:

You shall have no other Gods before me
You shall not make for yourself an idol

One of the king’s roles was to be defender of the faith. But Ahab compounds his own personal sin of idol worship by elevating Baal worship to the state religion. Earlier in the Kings narrative, Elijah confronts Ahab and prophecies drought and famine as divine punishment for the sins of the royal house. Of course, the drought comes, which leads to massive persecution of the “true believers” by Jezabel and Ahab seeking to appease Baal and bring the rains back. Jezabel convinces Ahab that all the prophets of God be rounded up and killed. The prevailing thought is “if we spill enough blood Baal will be appeased and the rains will come.” Elijah goes into hiding. After three years of drought and famine God tells Elijah to visit Ahab, convince him to abandon the idol worshiping, and when he does,  God will restore the rains. To meet with King Ahab was suicidal: Ahab was powerless against Jezabel. Ahab greets Elijah, “So it’s really you, at last. You caused all this mess and now I have you”. Ahab missed the point, almost to the point of comedy; Elijah didn’t cause the drought, Ahab and Jezabel caused the drought through their  apostasy.
So here is the context: one man. all alone, against the world. The prophets are all killed, and Elijah is alone and facing certain death at the hands of an apostatic and hostile government. Against what we might consider better judgment Elijah is walking into  his appointment with destiny. This is one of the principle leadership lessons from the Elijah narrative: Sometimes you have to make an unpopular stand, sometimes you have to take on city hall, and sometimes you have to do it alone. We hear a lot about leadership implies follower-ship. This idea is especially prevalent in social media, where a person’s “Klout” is measured by the number of followers on Twitter, or the number of “friends” on Facebook. but Elijah’s actions speak to a much larger context, because he certainly doesn‘t have anyone following him in this story: true leadership means going where nobody has ever been before, and doing what no one else has ever done before.
But Elijah was no fool; he knew why he was there, he knew what would happen, and he knew God had his back. Elijah was a shrewd, clever, and ruthless opponent.  knew how to set the trap (and oh what a trap!). He makes an open and public challenge to the priests of Baal: Showdown on Mt. Carmel! Elijah knows he’s going to win, because he’s a prophet. He knows the Baals can’t say no, otherwise they undermine their own status as state clerics, and they’ll undermine the authority of Ahab & Jezabel. Elijah asks the people to choose between Baal worship, and the one true God, but they, like Ahab, can’t do it. They don’t know what to do by themselves because they have no leadership.

Elijah springs the second part of the trap makes them an offer they can’t refuse: he offers them “spectacle”. Who can resist this weird story of confrontation, magic and miracles. In contrast to the frantic orgy of the Baals trying to rouse their god, Elijah offers a simple prayer to God and the miracle happens. Elijah shows us that sometimes the simplest solutions are the best. Any fool can cook up a complex process to manage a problem , but the real genius, the real leader, delights in simplicity.
God delivers a miraculous sign. The people realize they’ve been duped by the priests of Baal. Elijah orders the Baals slaughtered. This is in fulfillment of the penalties outlined in the Mosaic laws in DT. Elijah comes back to reality and realizes that the government forces are going to hunt him down, so he goes underground. Here Elijah teaches us a two great lessons: A good leader knows when to shut-up and the a good leader knows when to keep a low profile.

The transfiguration
The Elijah story talks about the leadership through the narrative of the established leader. We move into the Gospel lesson and look at leadership through the experience of the up and coming leader, specifically Peter.
We’re all familiar with school version of the transfiguration tells us that the divine nature of  Jesus is revealed to Peter , John and James. But the school version isn’t very satisfying, is it? The school version  focuses on Jesus, and the revelation of his true glory. This doesn’t really much for us because we already know the Jesus story. We know how everything turns out.


The synoptic gospels all tell the transfiguration story almost verbatim, and the lectionary gives it back to every year the same way. This story is so important we hear it over and over, but the Jesus part is always the same. There must be something more to the story, but what good is the transfiguration if nobody else is there to see it? A better question is, why does Jesus deal out a mind-blowing experience and how are we supposed to respond to it ?


Imagine if you were there: up on the holy mountain, alone with Jesus, then you get Moses, then Elijah, the Jesus’ true glory is revealed, and then you get the genuine voice of God himself. History doesn’t record what James and John did, but oh Peter…Peter’s response is so typical, so priceless, so totally PETER: “rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters”. Peter is clueless about what’s happening and why he’s there. If Peter’s response were translated into the modern English version it would read something like “Dude, this is awesome, let’s just hang out here”.
Peter somehow thinks this whole thing is all for him. He’s really trying, and nobody tries harder than Peter, but he’s just not ready for the big-leagues yet and Jesus knows it . Peter isn’t meant to stay up on the mountain with the bros, he’s being prepared for something bigger. Peter is like a management trainee. The transfiguration is a management retreat: the leaders are all going off-site to get recharged, bond with each other and the CEO, and get squared away on the company vision statement. And when they get back to the home office, they’re expected to put that vision statement to the troops and get things done! Here is one of Jesus’ great leadership lessons: he was totally committed to the growth and development of the team.
After the big show, when everyone is heading back to the home office, Jesus puts the gag order on the executive team. I think the modern translation bible says something like, “Guys, what happens on the holy mountain stays on the holy mountain”. All joking aside, this is what the transfiguration is really about, not the transfiguration of Jesus, but the transformation of Peter. And he really needs it too. If you read the preceding chapter in the synoptic gospels Jesus begins to teach his disciples about his death and resurrection. Peter drags him to the side and rebukes Jesus! Peter has confessed Jesus to be the Christ, but he treats Jesus not like the Christ, not like a king, but like one of the guys.
We don’t need to understand the “what” of the transfiguration of Jesus, we get that part. We need to understand the “why” of the transfiguration. Jesus used  the transfiguration to get Peter to understand his job. We need the transformation as much as Peter needed it. Peter wants to hang out on the holy mountain with Jesus, and help him run the kingdom of God by remote. Jesus needs Peter on the ground, with the people, running the kingdom of God like a good,visible, accessible, participating leader. The transfiguration is about Jesus giving Peter a good sorting out to get him ready for the real work. Imagine Peter’s dismay, disappointment, and disillusion when he realizes the hard dirty truth about the Kingdom: It’s a lot of work.
So here is another crucial leadership lesson for us, and it speaks just as loud today as it did 2000, or even 3000 years ago: The Leader isn’t always going to do what you want, what we want: the leader will do the right thing. This is nearly identical to what Warren Bennis wrote in his 1997 book  Leaders: Managers do things right, leaders do the right things

Romans ties it all together
Paul opens the epistle lesson asking “Did God reject the people?” No! God picked the leaders God wanted, God gave the tools they needed to succeed, God taught them how to do their job, and then God inserted these leaders into the situations where they were needed. Then God sent the holy spirit to these chosen leaders so they might serve the people and do God’s work. The important message here is that God did not bring us here for the purpose of abandoning us. We are a part of God’s plan and God will give us the tools. God knows things will be hard, God knows we’ll be afraid sometimes.


Here is the last leadership principle from our readings: The leader doesn’t need to be confident, the leader needs to do the right thing, make the decision, and have the strength of character to take the action. Elijah, Peter, and Paul all had crises of confidence, They were just like us. This is normal. God doesn’t expect us to go into situations with our eyes closed: God expects us to be realistic, to do our homework, to take risks, to roll up our sleeves and get to work, and do what needs to be done.

So, to recap, let’s go over these ten leadership lessons God is teaching us today:

  1. Sometimes you have to do it alone.
  2. Leadership has not relation to follower-ship: true leadership means going where nobody has ever been before. Followers are a by-product of effective leadership.
  3. The real leader delights in simplicity, not complexity
  4. A good leader knows when to shut-up and when to keep a low profile.
  5. Effective leaders know when not to lead.
  6. Leaders are totally committed to the growth and development of the team
  7. Good leaders are visible, accessible, participating on the ground, with the people
  8. The Leader isn’t always going to do what you want, what we want: the leader will do the right thing.
  9. The leader makes sure the team is trained and equipped to get the job done
  10. All good leaders have an element of self-doubt, but they use that self doubt to strengthen their process, not paralyze it. Think even about Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemene. The leader needs to do the right thing, make the decision, take the action.

Final lesson

What is interesting to me is the complete absence of command and control, or power, or organizational structure in these leadership stories. These aren’t leadership. They’re management.  They have their place, but they’re tools. Management is a set of tools. Leadership is not a tool. Leadership is service, and the greatest leaders lead as servants to the people. Leadership is service and service is love, and as Christ has led us, and served us, so also has Christ loved us. As we lead, and when we lead, let us not seek to glorify our own ambitions and our own self-image. Instead, let us seek to glorify the people we’re leading, the people we‘re serving. Let us seek first to serve and to love; by doing this we glorify God. Amen

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