A useful definition of leadership revolves around “vision,” and has three parts:
- The leader establishes the vision.
- He aligns the people in that direction.
- He motivates and inspires them to move and keep moving in that direction until they fulfill the vision.
Viewed from this angle, leadership involves movement toward a vision. This is a helpful way to understand leadership – but only if the vision and its implementation are legitimate.
A “legitimate” vision means two things. First, the vision must genuinely be the will of God – consistent with the spiritual nature of healthy leadership. Apart from union with Christ, we can accomplish nothing of any value:
Abide in me, and I will abide in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must abide in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man abides in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:4-5)
A legitimate vision comes from God. Then it becomes the leader’s own vision – something he can share passionately with others, calling them to sacrifice and endurance in its pursuit. Without the divine initiation, man’s vision is mere human ambition.
Second, a legitimate vision will genuinely reflect what is good for the people, and not only what is good for the leader – consistent with the servant nature of healthy leadership.
…the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:45)
Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant… (Phil. 2:4-7)
To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers – not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away. (1 Pet. 5:1-4)
Healthy leadership is not just a matter of having strong convictions (a “vision”) and then unilaterally imposing them on a group of people. The leader’s course of action should not be simply to “sell” the people on his vision and then use his personal powers of persuasion (or coercion) to get them to follow it. Rather, the leader should first prayerfully determine, often with input from the people, what the right direction – the legitimate vision – actually is. Then, he should help the people to face reality, to deal with the true need or opportunity, and to think and act appropriately.
Not only must the vision be valid, the implementation of the vision must also be legitimate. Even when the vision itself is right, the exercise of the leadership to fulfill that vision can be terribly wrong and result in damage to the people. History is filled with examples of leaders who had high and ethical intentions, but whose stubborn pursuit of a single, unchanging strategy deeply hurt the very people they were sincerely trying to serve.
The exercise of healthy leadership is not a simple adherence to a predetermined series of actions, but it is a continuously-changing engagement with emerging needs and opportunities. This process of reflection, learning and adjustment must happen in the midst of the action within the community of the people who are being served and led.
Thus, the healthy leader does not make the people move as they pursue the vision – he helps them to move. He helps them to learn, to grow, to respond, to think well and to act well.
We short-change the idea of “visionary leadership” if we think it refers to big-talking, charismatic personalities who manipulate the people to accomplish their own predetermined and self-serving purposes. At its heart, visionary Christian leadership means union with Christ to know His purposes and then serving the people in the unfolding fulfillment of that legitimate vision.
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