Two days after Adolf Hitler was democratically elected to serve as the chancellor of Germany, Bonhoeffer, then twenty-six, gave a radio address entitled, “The Young Generation’s Concept of Leadership.” The speech was part history, part philosophy, and part theology and dealt with the fundamental problems of leadership by a Führer.
“Before he could finish, the speech was cut off.”
It was not understood that the Nazis steered the media in the same way then they would seize control in the years to come. Some speculate that the head of the radio station was made to feel especially nervous at the prophetic provocation of the message and pulled the plug. Others wonder if Bonhoeffer and the station manager crossed wires with regard to the timing of the segment. In any regard, Bonhoeffer was frustrated as what aired may have caused some to believe that he was in favor of the unchecked authority of a Führer. Far the contrary, his speech crescendoed to reveal the horrors that such a Führer could enact when given permission to do so.
Because the speech itself was focused on leadership, biographer Eric Metaxas chose to point to the style of Bonhoeffer’s presentation as revealing of his philosophy of leadership. According to Metaxas, the speech was “exceedingly measured and sedate and logical and precise.” In contrast to the charismatic rantings of Hitler that appeared focused on drawing attention to himself, Bonhoeffer modeled a form of leadership through words that drew attention away from himself “and to the ideas he was presenting.”
Here was found a primary difference between Bonhoeffer and Hitler with regard to leadership. Bonhoeffer hated drawing attention to himself or using his personality “to influence or to win converts to his way of thinking.” Where Hitler sought control by converting the masses into a thoughtless, rabid cult-mob, Bonhoeffer sought to coalesce by offering ideas that could invite measured collaboration.
Without ever mentioned Hitler’s name, Bonhoeffer critiqued the idea of unchecked authority which seemed to be the desire of the new chancellor. The young theologian pointed to the power of leadership is found in its grounding points of submission, first to God and second to the community. Accordingly, the leader divorced from submission is an independent figure: an idol of the public’s making.
In contrast to this form of false leadership, Bonhoeffer argued that a true leader is aware of the limitations of his/her authority. A true leader “must lead his (/her) following away from the authority of his (/her) person to the recognition of the real authority….He (/She) must radically refuse to become the appeal, the idol, i.e. the ultimate authority of those whom he (/she) leads.”
A true leader, according to Bonhoeffer, is one who is in submitted relationships to God and others and who “serves others and leads others to maturity.”
Comparisons between Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler have been made a myriad of times in the past four years. With the insurrection on January 6th followed by the acquittal of Trump in his second impeachment this weekend, the parallels between the two men and their philosophies of leadership are remarkable. Yet this case study for leadership is not the one that is most urgent to me. Instead, it is the philosophy of institutional leadership that is found within many White American Evangelical institutions that lacks a proper distribution of authority. More pressing, in my view, is the lack of submission to God and to the community among predominantly white male Evangelical leaders.
From Mark Driscoll to Bill Hybels and Ravi Zacharias to Dave Ramsey, their approaches to leadership have been designed to seduce the affection and attention of the masses. In contrast to Bonhoeffer’s approach, it seems as though these men were well groomed in leveraging their charismatic personalities for Kingdom purposes. The more supposed Kingdom impact, the more freedom and power they were (are) given. The general consensus seems to be that their unchecked power was acceptable because of the large numbers of people who were coming to know and follow Christ as a result. What many didn’t know is that this approach to leadership was transforming the individual leader into an idol who became so isolated and protected that he was no longer submitted to anyone. As is evidenced in the four gentlemen that I mention, the leader is then free to live a double life. The front-stage version is winsome and effective. The back-stage version is dangerous.
Yet this phenomenon does not exist only with those who possess large platforms. This same story plays out in thousands of different ways within thousands of smaller places. Leaders in this system are groomed to embody a charisma that garners attention. Put another way, the system grooms leaders to become narcissists with unchecked authority. So long as the preferred metrics are moving in the direction of growth, the narcissism is rewarded. Sadly, at the same time, the leader either chooses to withdraw into the deeper shadows of the back-stage or, with carnal curiosity, enjoys his freedom to explore the darkness.
Pulling from Bonhoeffer’s speech, submission is critical for the health of leaders. So what is a submitted relationship? It is one in which the other person or community knows the truth about you and loves you still. It is marked by encouragement, challenge, and curiosity. It is the kind of relationship where the others understand that their role is to steward your holistic formation. It is the kind of relationship where, when they say, “No.” you do not proceed.
In light of that definition, I invite each of us to ask this question: To whom am I submitted?
 Metaxas, Bonhoeffer, 139.
 Ibid., 139.
 Ibid., 140.
 Ibid., 140.
 Ibid., 140.
 Ibid., 141.
 Ibid., 142.