Leadership and Engagement
We live in contentious times. A brief scroll through our social media feeds or a quick click through evening news stations will affirm just how combative our culture has become. It can be challenging to engage one another in an increasingly divisive society.
It seems everywhere we turn we encounter another problematic scenario requiring our deliberation, or at the very least, our consideration. And the tension is not limited to the public square. We encounter these challenging situations in our private spheres as well—our offices, churches and homes. How we respond to these problems speaks to our leadership and faith.
How then does one foster a cohesive, Christocentric environment? What sorts of leadership traits matter within our various spheres of influence and to the kingdom? Recently, at the 2018 Faith at Work conference in Chicago, keynotes and panelists alike presented a communal plea to attendees: We need more faith integrated leaders willing to engage the common good for kingdom purposes. In this article, we examine five core traits— comprehension, compassion, courage, character and confident yet humble competence— that equip one to lead within the context of a biblical worldview.
Five Core Traits for Christocentric Leadership
A leader needs to possess a double comprehension quotient. First, this means he or she needs to be able to understand the thrust and direction of Scripture, especially in terms of values and how God sees the world. Culture itself needs to be seen in discerning ways. On the one hand, it reflects a fallen and flawed world. On the other, there is potential in it because all people bear God’s image, and though that image is flawed by fallenness and sin, it still is able imperfectly to show itself in positive ways. So a leader’s interaction with the world is a mix of the positive and negative requiring discernment.
What sorts of leadership traits matter within our various spheres of influence and to the kingdom?
Second, this means being able to have comprehension of the culture and to understand what drives it, again both positively and negatively. Sometimes in the church there is the view that we need not waste our time understanding culture, but that opens the door to its undermining our Christian values by pretending it is not a significant influence and presence. That is simply not realistic and can allow the culture to drive us more than Scripture when we do not appreciate how pervasive and influential culture can be.
A second core trait of leaders is compassion. We could call this empathy. It is the ability to connect to others relationally, to hear them, to appreciate where another person is coming from and why. It means a leader is a good listener and not just a dictator about how things should be done. James 1:19 offers a good word here: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”
Compassion also means looking out for what is best for people and for the organization one might lead. It means avoiding playing favorites but also requires establishing policies that are flexible enough to read unusual situations so that they are not applied in ways that simply avoid making a tough call. Compassion is developed by contact with those one leads, not mere reports about what they are thinking or doing. It means leaders visit with those they work with, get to know them and makes the effort to learn what makes them tick. This interpersonal skill often challenges a leader because the tasks of leading can overwhelm. Yet in the end, the cohesion of an organization will be impacted by the morale that runs through the company or department. The sense that a leader is detached will impact that morale, where a personal sense of connection will build loyalty that will stand up strong in the more difficult situations when it is most needed.
Another key trait is courage, the willingness to engage in wise risks that actually lead. It is the willingness to step into the difficult areas, make the hard calls, and do the right thing, even when it may bring a cost as some react against the pressure such a decision can introduce. An example of such courage is to step into the discussions about diversity and to lead an organization to be sensitive to issues about the multi-cultural nature of our society and, as a result, the work teams that often exist in organizations. These are not easy conversations and misunderstanding is quite common when one launches in, but to leave these areas unaddressed is to ignore one of the subterranean features of life that can have a huge impact on the dynamics of groups. It takes courage to step into such a discussion, possess conviction in the midst of them, to be teachable, to persevere, to understand the conversation may get difficult and then commit to work through it regardless rather than back off from the tension that may come. It also takes courage to work through the various views that inhabit such a discussion and to do the work to see what the drivers are on all sides of the debates that fuel such a topic, with a willingness to learn as one works through the conversation. A teachable spirit feeds the comprehension we discussed earlier leading into the growth and agility required to function in a shifting world. The synergy of these traits is an important part of good leading. It allows the leader to face up to the difficult discussions that often inhabit our turbulent world.
If there is anything that stands at the core of faith, it is the development of Christian character. This is where authentic leadership resides, in the soul of the leader. Although many in the world want a leader who is “strong” or “controlling,” real leaders model where to go by who they are and how they respond in human terms to events. This relational capital builds cohesion that the mere possession of wealth, efficiency or power cannot attain. The New Testament is loaded with texts about the importance of character and its formation. The fruit of the Spirit is primarily about relational traits.
The New Testament is loaded with texts about the importance of character and its formation.
If a leader cannot be trusted, then the organization is set to be adrift. In the midst of inevitable crisis who a leader is will set the direction for how the organization functions. Such grounded character means we react not on the basis of popularity but from a place that says “this is the right thing to do” with a sensitivity for how to get there relationally and explain the choice with clarity. It is the difference between making ethical decisions as a matter of applied policy rules versus rooting such decisions in a grounding that asks “why” and “to what end” in ways that are transparent to others who often have to execute that choice. It means avoiding a one-size-fits-all policy approach and working at the relational implications of each situation. It means appreciating the shepherding role every leader has whether or not they realized such shepherding was part of their assignment when they took on the responsibility of leading an organization or a department. These kinds of skills emerge from a depth of character that goes beyond meeting goals and targets.
5. Confident Yet Humble Competence
The final characteristic is confident competence. This kind of leadership inspires trust with colleagues. When we have confidence in our leaders because they are competent, we trust them to build healthy teams as well as encourage individual growth. We take confidence in leaders who light the way, offer vision beyond our own, and provide oversight for what others manage. Such leaders follow the exhortation of Matt. 5:14-16 to be light. Great leaders, the ones in whom we put our confidence as well as our trust, provide opportunities for growth yet trust God so they possess a humility that draws on what he provides. They possess an identity that is willing to risk doing the right thing the right way. They provide healthy spaces for people to flourish. Leaders who exercise excessive control, on the other hand, communicate fear about the team’s competency. Even worse, controlling leaders stifle the growth of those under them, which is antithetical to the gospel’s exhortations. Confident, faith integrated, humble leaders develop burgeoning leaders in such a way that those people are equipped to help others mature. We trust these leaders to disciple. They are confident in their call to lead and disciple others well, a true test of competence.
Leadership involves organizational competence such as providing vision, oversight and execution. It also necessitates relationally building a healthy, effective, cooperative corporate culture. Christocentric leadership evidences comprehension, compassion, courage, character, and confident competence. But perhaps above all else, faith-integrated leadership executes these traits to serve. Such characteristics serve the organization, the organization’s people and kingdom purposes. Servant-minded leadership enables those we serve to also navigate contentious, turbulent situations with faith-informed principles. It speaks through modeling. Christian leadership is not merely concerned with doing a good thing in the face of adversity; rather it is concerned with doing the right thing in the right way. Our praxis is concerned utmost and foremost with honoring God through uncertain situations because he is, ultimately, who we serve and honor through our leadership.
Dr. Darrell Bock is Senior Research Professor of New Testament Studies, Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS) and Executive Director for Cultural Engagement, The Hendricks Center, DTS. He is a former president of the Evangelical Theological Society and has written over 40 books on biblical themes. Dr. Christina Crenshaw is a professor, researcher, and published writer. She teaches writing and vocational leadership courses as a Lecturer at Baylor University. She is also a Cultural Engagement and Leadership Fellow with Dallas Theological Seminary’s Hendricks Center.