Leading from weakness
Despite the thousands of books, podcasts, sermons, and classes on leadership within a Christian frame of reference, very little work has been done to explore the theology of leadership. A new academic endeavour, the Theology of Leadership Journal is curating ideas to help thought leaders uncover what makes for a robust theology of these concepts. Examining the first issue was fascinating, and a common thread began to emerge for me as I read various articles. The core theme is this: embracing one’s weakness can lead to authentic, transformational action in the world that can be followed by others in one’s community. This is particularly true for my focus group in my dissertation work: second and third-generation inheritors of wealth who are entrusted with the responsibility of family philanthropy.
The lack of attention paid to weakness in leadership is natural in a world that celebrates strong arming one’s opponents, influencing through the cult of personality, and upholding as a template those decisive, action-oriented achievers. We wonder why there are few women leaders that capture our attention. Perhaps it is our model for understanding Christian leadership that is out of whack.
Larry Ross, in his review of James C. Howell’s book, Weak Enough to Lead: What the Bible Teaches About Powerful Leadership, reminds us of our Lord’s example. We do not follow a macho, superman-styled Saviour, but rather a Man of Sorrows, acquainted with suffering. The juxtaposition of our assumptions with Jesus as a model is arresting: “[T]he author puts forth a convincing argument that if Jesus served as the CEO He’d run your company into the ground in a week.”
Toronto theologian Arthur Boers makes this same claim in his book Servants and Fools: A Biblical Theology of Leadership. “As Luke recounts the events leading up to Jesus’ birth, he deliberately names luminaries of his day – Emperor Augustus, King Herod, Governor Quirinius. Yet he startlingly shifts focus to unimportant, unlikely folks – Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph – who are in fact the unexpected channels of God’s work, the real sphere of God’s transforming activity. Augustus, Herod, and Quirinius made the news. But good news is consistently discerned and found elsewhere.”
If God especially works through the insignificant and overlooked, then what do we make of those who lead from a place of inherited strength and power? These individuals, while privileged in most regards, are expected to lead but frequently lack competence, overshadowed by the force of nature of their parents’ celebrated entrepreneurial successes. They have the infrastructure around them – strong networks, family heritage, the abundance of resources – to undertake the leadership project. But they lack the tried and true path to typical leadership – forging one’s own way forward.
In another article in the first edition of the Theology of Leadership Journal, Jeffrey J. Singfiel probes the nature of the intense disagreement between Paul and Barnabas over John Mark, an incident first described in Acts 15. This young man models the conflict and challenge of a second-generation inheritor. Singfiel states, “John Mark first appeared in Acts 12:12. His mother hosted a church in her home in Jerusalem, and it was this home to which Peter goes after being miraculously released from Prison (Acts 12:7-11). Therefore, John Mark came from an influential family in the early Christian movement. Further, he was the cousin of Barnabas (Col. 4:10)… John Mark was well positioned to work the familial networks…. [His] place in the early Christian community not only provided him with a range of familial relationships and resources on which to draw but it also likely attributed to him honor, socially attributed worth, as a part of that community.”
John Mark’s lack of leadership capacity frustrated Paul, but Barnabas took the youth under his wing recognizing the inherent possibilities in a frail vessel. This mentorship paved the way for weakness to be channelled for positive influence in the nascent churches of Asia Minor.
Another second-generation emerging leader is highlighted by Nathan Harter in the Journal. Francis Bernardone, later known as St Francis of Assisi, “was born into comfort.” Though he could have been lulled into the lethargy of wealth, he proactively responded to God’s leading to rebuild the church by leading with weakness.
“Interpreting the voice [of God] to mean literally rebuilding the ruin where he was praying, his first thought was to raise money for the project. Having so little of his own, he cheated his father on a business transaction, justifying the theft as though it were commanded by God. His father did not see it that way and – probably exasperated with his aimless and profligate child – prosecuted.” Harter continues in the footnote, “After all, the father had once paid a hefty ransom to recover his son from a neighboring city-state after a gruesome battle between partisans, and later he had outfitted Francis to go to war as a knight, only to have the young man give it all away to someone more in need…. The father had apparently reached the limits of his generosity.”
Cheating one’s father, even if it is for the church, doesn’t seem like a strategic move toward sainthood. And yet despite this weak and flawed start, strangely, it was the beginning of Francis’ living into his potential. He strips himself of his father’s clothing, and naked, begins to lead. Harter identifies Francis’ spontaneity as a weakness, but as he matured, his recklessness matured into a disciplined spontaneity. “Francis was both on the one hand disciplined and on the other hand spontaneous. This combination is in part what qualified him for leadership.”
A Christian theology of leadership that roots itself in embracing weakness finds its strength in Christ. Philanthropy can be done especially well by inheritors – second- and third-generations beyond the wealth creator – who, surrendered to their weakness and following Christ’s example, end by giving it all away.
 Larry Ross, “Weak Enough to Lead: What the Bible Teaches About Powerful Leadership”, Theology of Leadership Journal, Vol 1, No 1, 98. Accessed September 5, 2018. http://theologyofleadership.com/index.php/tlj/issue/view/v1i1/v1i1.
 Arthur Paul Boers, Servants and Fools: A Biblical Theology of Leadership (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015), 11. Accessed on September 5, 2018. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&scope=site&db=nlebk&AN=985933.
 Jeffrey J. Singfiel, “Paul the Team Leader: Strategic Planning, Intragroup Conflict, and Team Formation”, Theology of Leadership Journal, Vol 1, No 1, 11. Accessed September 5, 2018. http://theologyofleadership.com/index.php/tlj/issue/view/v1i1/v1i1.
 Nathan Harter, “Saint and Leader? The Example of St. Francis of Assisi”, Theology of Leadership Journal, Vol 1, No 1, 24. Accessed September 5, 2018. http://theologyofleadership.com/index.php/tlj/issue/view/v1i1/v1i1.
 Ibid, 25.
 Ibid, 25.
 Ibid, 25.
12 responses to “Leading from weakness”
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It sure is great us all being back together again. Your opening picture is perfect for the topic you chose!
And I love how you connected the book to your dissertation topic, “Philanthropy can be done especially well by inheritors – second- and third-generations beyond the wealth creator – who, surrendered to their weakness and following Christ’s example, end by giving it all away.”
You are an amazing writer my Brother!
Thanks Jay! That photo was selected as it reminded me of: “We have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.”
Great to be back! See you soon!
Great to read your posts again Mark. It is fun to read someone who gets it when it comes to women. I couldn’t agree more with the following part of your post…”The lack of attention paid to weakness in leadership is natural in a world that celebrates strong arming one’s opponents, influencing through the cult of personality, and upholding as a template those decisive, action-oriented achievers. We wonder why there are few women leaders that capture our attention. Perhaps it is our model for understanding Christian leadership that is out of whack.” If we had more gender-balance in our senior leadership this has the potential to change. Great post as usual.
Reading through your post the thought which stood out to me was this, “Jesus as CEO”. I couldn’t shake that as I preached from John 10 today about the Good Shepherd, and the humility and sacrificial mode of leadership which Jesus actually led from. I agree he would run your company into the ground and yet this is the model we receive as believers to lead from. I see so many pastors, as you put it, “strong arm” lead, it is very depressing sometimes. I really appreciate your perspective.
Yes, it is interesting how Jesus tends to take on attributes within our culture that we aspire to.
Great observation, Mark!
I loved your statement, “…embracing one’s weakness can lead to authentic, transformational action in the world that can be followed by others in one’s community.” Theology of Leadership sought to delve into the concept of personal and corporate reflection and give readers the tools to assess our organizations in light of cultural perceptions.
Stephen B. Bevans discusses the concept of contextual theology and asserts that, “As our cultural and historical context plays a part in the construction of the reality in which we live, so our context influences the understanding of God and the expression of our faith.” What are some leadership initiatives that you’ve implemented in your organization? How have you diversified your team to meet the needs of your clients?
Here’s one initiative I’ve been involved in shaping: http://www.thesparkinitiative.ca/ I think you’ll find it fascinating. I want to tell you more about this in person.
As for how I diversify my team to meet client needs… there are only two of us, Linda and myself!! I’ll need to secure more clients to diversify more. 😉
I like how quickly you tie in the Journals precepts and articles to your own area of interest. It might not seem patently obvious how leadership and philanthropy are connected but clearly there are philanthropic implications to leadership. The idea of leading from weakness as demonstrated by Jesus lends itself more fully to generosity and giving of oneself than leadership that stems from a position of power. I wonder how these insights might impact the approach you take toward individuals operating in both realms or somewhere along that continuum. Do you seek to understand their view of leadership prior to approaching them regarding giving in order to take advantage of their biases? How else might leadership and philanthropy be connected that has implications for your work?
My clients generally don’t have the opportunity to think through their own position of leadership in philanthropy. They are too busy and driven. I’ve tried outline in my book how they can lean in better with a position of learner, listener, and collaborator.
Wow Mark I was reading myself into this post the whole way though. I have acted like a spoiled brat like Francis, but I’ve always looked to Francis’ defiance as an immature passion and commitment to Christ that I have never had the courage to embrace myself. I can do the defiance part, but the sacrifice part is quite hard. I hope that I have capacity for leadership (which is really just capacity for suffering), which is apparently a rarity for inheritors of wealth. I have much to learn from your research brother.
Mark, I am loving hearing how philanthropy plays into each of our readings. It is a fresh perspective and enlightening to say the least. Your last paragraph wrapped up your post nicely and yet in a way seems so ironic- “A Christian theology of leadership that roots itself in embracing weakness finds its strength in Christ.” This is so counter-intuitive in our culture as you point out. I think there is a real need to be constantly realigning with Jesus because our culture is constantly shouting at us not to be weak and leadership, especially when it comes to finances seems to be about wielding power.