I remember when I was first introduced to the work of Jim Collins, in the form of his bestseller Good to Great.1 Essentially it is the result of a massive research project (more than 15,000 people-hours) seeking to identify common characteristics in companies that have experienced long-term success.
I really got into it, particularly when I saw the first characteristic being what Collins called “Level 5 leadership: Level 5 leaders embody a paradoxical mix of personal humility and professional will”.2 I could not help but think of the Lord Jesus. My mind quickly turned to how to apply some of these persuasive arguments and principles in a ministry context, something I now realize I was not alone in—the book was so popular among churches, that Collins released a supplement in 2005 entitled Good to Great and the Social Sectors.3
As I read, I had a series of niggling questions: how could I apply such secular leadership models to a ministry setting? Should I even attempt to? Am I heading down the track of unprincipled pragmatism? Or, given the created order, is this necessarily a bad thing? But then, in a sinful world, what can rightly be gleaned from ‘the world’? How can I ignore models that seem to have so much success in other contexts? Even if a model works, is that sufficient justification for its use by people who should be governed by the Word of God? To what extent do right outcomes justify methods? What about matters where the Bible is silent? Does the use of such secular models mean that one is resting on human wisdom rather than God’s power? And, to what extent will heading down the path of employing secular models result in a ‘slippery slope’ where the Bible ends up being left behind?
To start to address these questions, let’s lay out a theological framework.
It’s too much to say that God intended to communicate leadership models or principles via general revelation, but we can make a more modest claim: God has created the world with its own inherent intelligibility. That is, at least to some extent, creation can be understood on its own terms. It is for this reason, for example, that the writer of Ecclesiastes can speak of life “under the sun”. Disciplines such as science, engineering, medicine, physics, mathematics and the like are examples of this principle in action. Each of these fields expresses truth because the world has been created with its own internal order.
In other words, we must acknowledge God’s common grace to all:
The Lord is good to all,
and his mercy is over all that he has made. (Ps 145:9)
“[God] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matt 5:45)
“[God] is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.” (Luke 6:35)
God’s provision of a world with internal order to all includes the functioning of human social relations and interactions, which form the basis of leadership models. If such patterns can be discerned by researchers such as Jim Collins, perhaps such insights can be of use to the furthering of God’s mission in the world.
Of course, such common grace is possible only because of God’s sovereign and sustaining power. This means evaluation of any leadership tool (or anything else, for that matter) must be conducted within the parameter of the ultimate authority of God’s revealed word (which may rule out some models).
Wisdom and the world
We can drill down even further by considering the extent to which there remains discernible inherent wisdom (to be distinguished from the evil one’s wisdom) embedded in the world. Wisdom is one of the foundations that God has chosen to build the world around. A sovereign God could have chosen any of a number of means, but he chose wisdom “at the beginning of his work” (Prov 8:6-22). The framework of Proverbs demands that God’s people learn from this embedded wisdom.
This is the same ‘wisdom’ that the non-Christian world benefits from, reflecting the reality that many aspects of the world have been created according to discernible and predictable principles. While such wisdom may be inadequate for one to enter into a saving relationship with God through Jesus, it is nonetheless useful in knowing how to function in this world this side of the return of the Lord Jesus. Old Testament wisdom is applauded and held up for all to benefit from, for it is part of God’s common grace to all.
King Solomon embodies wisdom more than any other Old Testament figure. Through him, we learn much about the use of wisdom. First, his request for wisdom to govern is held in high esteem, and distinguished from other possible self-centered requests (cf. 1 Kgs 3:7-15). Second, Solomon’s wisdom was applied in the domains of governing justice in the lives of people, and governing more generally (1 Kgs 3:16ff.). Third, this wisdom (and its benefits) was also used to exalt God via the building of the temple (1 Kgs 5-8). Fourth, Solomon’s God-given wisdom was recognized and was of benefit to those beyond God’s people (1 Kgs 10:23-25). Finally, Solomon’s wisdom was at its greatest when it was rooted in a relationship with God. When “his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God” (c.f., 1 Kgs 11:4, 9-13), his demise began.
The trajectory and grand purpose of biblical wisdom is critical: it is Christ:
To those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1 Cor 1:24).
Indeed, a significant part of the reason for applauding wisdom in the Old Testament is to prepare the way for the coming of the one who was supremely and completely wise. As with many other Old Testament concepts, Christ completes the concept of wisdom, rather than negating it.
James helps us to refine our understanding of ‘godly’ and ‘worldly’ wisdom. Motive is the primary distinguishing factor. In particular, bitter envy and selfish ambition are associated with “worldly” wisdom, and this is contrasted with “works in the meekness of wisdom [from above]” (Jas 3:13), with purity being its prime virtue. As Graeme Goldsworthy says:
In daily life we draw constantly on worldly wisdom because it works. It is based on human experience and involves the recognition that there is order in the universe… within the limited view of practical living, worldly and godly wisdom may coincide so that there is a meeting of the minds of Christian and non-Christian.4
We are encouraged to learn from empirical observation for our own benefit. The more that the application of wisdom springs from a fear of the Lord the more beneficial it will be, with the end-point of this trajectory being a trust in the death and resurrection of the one who is called “the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24). However, our particular topic requires us to reflect further on how we may use the empirically based wisdom of Proverbs this side of the redemptive work of Christ. How do you make sure that whatever observations are made are not the bad kind of wisdom?
The Impact of the Fall
One of the challenges to the legitimacy of any use of wisdom is the impact of the fall. If the world itself is in “bondage to corruption” (Rom 8:21) and if “the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (Rom 8:22), then it may be said that taking anything from the world risks importing what is corrupt into the purity of God’s redeemed people. The argument is most clearly developed from Paul’s discussion of wisdom and foolishness, as worldly methods are sharply distinguished from the message of Jesus Christ (1 Cor 2:1-5).
In this Corinthian context, there was a particular group employing great rhetoric and oratory, and this group was having a notable impact in Corinth.5 In contrast, what was important to Paul’s preaching was the content of ‘Jesus Christ and him crucified’ rather than any particular rhetorical or other technique. But we need to be clear about what Paul is saying here: his protest was against a particular group and their techniques, rather than a generic prohibition of the category of wisdom. This is because the very essence of sin is the turning away from exalting God to self-exaltation, such as prizing wisdom that is not from God. With this inevitably comes turning away from the truth, such that “the human mind has become darkened and weakened by sin. Sin makes it impossible for the sinner to think clearly, and especially to understand higher spiritual truths and ideas.”6 In other words, the mind is now depraved and the truth has been suppressed (cf. Rom 1:18, 28).
Clearly, this has significant implications in the potential use of secular leadership models. Human thinking is now subject to a depraved mind that, by default, is driven by sin. One of the consequences is a desire to exalt the self, and it would be improper for any Christian leadership model to embody sin by being built on such self-exaltation. Jesus’ disciples learnt this crucial lesson when James and John requested greatness:
And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42–45)
Jesus rejected a sin-based leadership framework that exalts the self, and taught a service principle—a principle modelled spectacularly at the cross, and able to be followed only by the work of the Spirit.
Therefore, the corruption of sin makes it improper to directly transplant any secular leadership model into a Christian context. Embedded in a foundation of prayer, any model will need to be re-oriented away from the thinking of a depraved mind that seeks to self-exalt, and toward a servant-hearted orientation that seeks to glorify God.
At the same time, secular leadership models in general cannot be wholly written off as entirely inappropriate. By definition it seems such models must be based in observation and analysis of the world and its workings. Paul, for example, used such methods to bring the message of Christ crucified to people. In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul unashamedly articulates his method: “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings” (1 Cor 9:22-23). ‘Note how Paul sees how to become a Jew to the Jews or one outside the law to those outside the law by observing the world and its people. He understands the wisdom inherent in creation, in order to shape something that could be self-exalting to the glory of God.
The way forward neither lies at the extreme of employing secular leadership models uncritically, nor at the extreme of excluding any such model. With some work, leadership analysis along the lines of Jim Collins’ work can be of immense use in even more effectively bringing the message of Christ crucified to a world subject to God’s judgement.
Principles for the use of secular leadership models and tools
As a Christian, starting with prayer
Prayer must be the starting point for any attempt—before, during and after the reading of any of this material. To pray recognizes that God cannot nor should not be suppressed, as well as seeking his assistance to understand and discern from fallen human wisdom. It is far more than a token acknowledgement of God’s existence: God must be intimately involved. While it may seem an obvious starting point, it’s one of the easiest to neglect.7
Change a sinfully-based orientation to one bringing God glory
Second, one must change a model from having a sinful orientation to a model bringing glory to God. Perhaps the classic example of such an orientation is akin to what Jim Collins describes as Level 4 leadership, which embodies one’s ‘egoistic needs’,8 which may be likened to self-exaltation. In turn, this is linked to individualism. Clearly, this cannot be a model for Christian leadership! At this point, any tool that aids us in understanding how the impact of sin is inherent or explicit in a leadership model will be useful in this endeavour. Interestingly, Collins concluded that even pragmatically speaking, human leadership works best when Level 4 leadership can be changed to Level 5 leadership, which has humility as a central characteristic. No wonder I was intuitively excited to see this concept so prominent in a secular book!
However, a more careful investigation reveals the need for a qualification, for Collins admits that “these Good to Great leaders were in service to their company, not to their people. This is a different idea from servant leadership.”9 That is, the purpose of Collins’ Level 5 leadership is still to build the company or organization. But God’s revealed word requires the Level 5 model to be re-oriented with Jesus’ model of servant leadership (cf. Mark 10:45).
It may be helpful at this point to distinguish between a ‘model’ (a wholehearted framework) and a ‘tool’ (tools are part of the building blocks of models). Any model taken from the secular world will have at least some sinful motivations, actions, purposes, or indirect consequences.
A fuller definition for Collins’ Level 5 leaders is that they “embody a paradoxical mix of personal humility and professional will. They are ambitious, to be sure, but ambitious first and foremost for the company, not themselves.”10 The two explicit tools of the Level 5 leadership model are personal humility and professional will. Both tools, to some extent, can be learned: the practice of deliberately asking questions (rather than making statements) assists one to develop personal humility, and the practice of making right but uncomfortable decisions assists one to maintain professional will. By bringing the additional ‘tool’ of genuine servant-hearted leadership, the Level 5 leadership model can be sufficiently re-oriented.
A further illustration of this kind of re-orientation can be made for the popular definition of “leadership as influence”.11 Desiring to influence others can easily arise from a naturalism that excludes a sovereign God; there is nothing inherent in this understanding of leadership that leads to pointing people to a Saviour offering redemption, or challenging people to bring God glory. Furthermore, the motives behind a desire for influence can be (and often are) self-exalting.
Yet approaching this idea from a Christian starting-point—with the motive of the salvation of many (Col 1:28) and bringing glory to God (1 Cor 10:31)—desiring to influence others can be helpful in developing processes of goal and vision setting, conflict management, planning, etc. “Biblical leadership is taking the initiative to influence people to grow in holiness and to passionately promote the extension of God’s kingdom in the world”.12
Earlier we noted that Jesus rejected the human desire for greatness, replacing it with the desire to “be slave of all” (Mark 10:44). A current day application of the principle of replacing self-serving leadership with servant-hearted leadership may well be the mind shift “from seeking church growth to desiring gospel growth”.13 The training and sending of leaders as missionaries or to other churches on the one hand benefits the gospel worldwide and yet must come at the expense of the building of one’s own particular church.
Is it mandated or prohibited by the Bible?
A further step is to interrogate a proposed model or tool with biblical imperatives: is it either mandated or prohibited by the Bible? If David Wells, for example, is correct that “much of [the new paradigm church] … is replete with tricks, gadgets, gimmicks, and marketing ploys as it shamelessly adapts itself to our emptied-out, blinded, postmodern world”, then the new paradigm church must be challenged by God’s revealed Word.14 Ephesians 4 mandates behaviour for all Christians: “having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbour” (Eph 4:25), and “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up” (Eph 4:29). Trickery of any kind is prohibited—this probably excludes at least some modern marketing and persuasion methods. Another example is to note and apply the biblical focus of the leader as one on character (cf. 1 Tim 3), rather than functional and goal oriented terms.
Is it consistent with the trajectory of the Bible?
Fourth, a tool or model can be within explicit biblical imperatives, and yet not be consistent with the trajectory of the Bible. That is, God’s purposes for the world move from creation to new creation, via the fall and the subsequent redemption that is only available in Christ. The purpose for the world is “to unite all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1:10).
Ron Heifetz, for example, speaks of an ‘adaptive leadership’ which advocates for discarding the old story and refashioning the narrative for relevance in the contemporary world. The problem is that in doing so, this kind of relativistic permission means that many would discard the cross of Christ. While it can seem so foolish to the wisdom of the world, it is the very means by which God is achieving his eternal purposes.15 Some of the tools and insights he proposes may be useful, but the model as a whole has a very major shortcoming.
Does it work?
Finally there’s the question of whether or not the model or tool actually works, and the circumstances in which that’s the case. What works in one culture may not work in another. Most discussion focuses in this pragmatic area, as it’s an important one—but for us there are bigger questions at stake than just whether or not it works! Having established the theological framework, we can then look at how and why a model is effective: for example, we might place a priority on church planting,16 while others place a priority on church health.17 Both models have their place depending on the context and circumstances. The point is that care must be taken to determine which model works for the situation and the church, and why.
I am suggesting that the right way forward to use secular leadership models and tools is neither wholehearted uncritical embracing, nor knee-jerk resistance. We’ve got to start as Christians who have had the veil lifted to be in relationship with God. Seeing the world through the lens of the Gospel will then enable us to discern God’s wisdom from such models and tools.
The criteria outlined above will assist with the task, but it’s worth noting (again) that the most challenging step is seeing how a model taken from a world whose motivations, actions, manner and consequences are impacted by sin, must be re-oriented to a servant-hearted approach that seeks to glorify God. Particular leadership tools may or may not be impacted in this way, but whole-hearted models will always have elements of such corruption. Identifying this is essential, for Jesus said to disciples seeking self-exaltation:
“But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant.” (Mark 10:43)
- J Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t, HarperCollins, New York, 2001. It’s certainly a best-seller, having sold more than 4 million copies. ↩
- Ibid, p. 39. ↩
- J Collins, Good to Great and the Social Sectors: Why Business Thinking Is Not the Answer, HarperCollins, New York, 2005. ↩
- Graeme Goldsworthy, Gospel and Wisdom, Paternoster Press, Carlisle, 1987, p. 30. ↩
- DA Carson, The Cross and Christian Ministry, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, 1993, p. 34. ↩
- AE McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 1999, p. 428. ↩
- cf. Ephaphras struggling in prayer (Col 4:12). ↩
- Jim Collins, Good to Great, Harper Collins, New York, 2001, p. 36. ↩
- ‘Good to Great’s Leadership Model Looks Familiar to Christians’, Interview with Jim Collins, Christianity Today, March (Web only) 2003: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2003/marchweb-only/3-10-51.0.html ↩
- 10 Collins, Good to Great, p. 39 ↩
- JC Maxwell, Developing the Leader within you, Thomas Nelson Inc, Nashville 1993, p. 1. ↩
- DN Holwell, Servants of the Servant: A Biblical Theology of Leadership, Wipf & Stock, Eugene, 2003, p. 3. ↩
- C Marshall & T Payne, The Trellis and the Vine, Matthias Media, Sydney, 2009, p. 25. ↩
- DF Wells, Losing Our Virtue, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1998, p. 180. ↩
- RA Heifetz, Marty Linsky, Alexander Grashow, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World, Harvard Business School Publishing, Boston, 2009. ↩
- DA McGavran, Understanding Church Growth, Ed. CP Wagner, 3rd ed., Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1990, p. 286. ↩
- Christian A.Schwarz, Colour your world with Natural Church Development, NCD Australia, Brisbane, 2005, p. 5. ↩