The Three S’s of Leadership

There is one kind of leader who may be called The Imposer, though The Imposer often describes and presents himself/herself as one who is not imposing. The Imposer imposes his or her will on others, and even sees leadership as imposing one’s will on others, or The Imposer seeks to impose the Bible on others. “Somewhat tyrannical and egotistical, their organization … runs around their whims and idiosyncrasies. [There can be no true succession plan; there can only be a new start.]” (So Brian Harris in The Tortoise Usually Wins: Biblical Reflections on Quiet Leadership for Reluctant Leaders, 18.)

Undoubtedly, The Imposer has charisma else no one would follow. But there’s something here that bears some comparison with Abraham Kuyper’s charisma and power, which in the words of his biographer James Bratt finds expression like this: “the charisma by which, in observers’ eyes and his own, his person became identical with the cause” (Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat, 65).

The other kind of leader — yes, there are more than two but I’m grouping into two for this exercise — is The Nurturer. The Nurturer seeks to nurture the will of God, the ways of God, and seeks to nurture the supremacy of Christ and of God and wind of the Spirit in all things. The Nurturer does not impose; The Nurturer mediates and midwives the ways of God to others. Sometimes The Imposer can look like The Nurturer but time will reveal the difference. The former is interested in self-glory the second in God’s glory.

What do you think is the major difference between The Imposer and The Nurturer? How does The Imposer deny the gospel and The Nurturer embody the gospel? [Big one.] Do you think the size of the church shapes one or the other?

Pope Francis is a quiet leader, a servant leader, and here is a newsclip from WaPo that indicates the direction of his leadership:

Answering their questions one by one, Francis told them the decision to become a priest had been difficult and that he had suffered “moments of interior darkness” when “you feel dry, without interior joy.”

But he said he went ahead because he loved Christ.

One of the most touching moments came when Teresa, a bright-eyed redhead no more than six, asked Francis flat out if he had wanted to be pope.

Francis joked that only someone who hated himself would ever want to be pope. But then he became serious: “I didn’t want to be pope.”

Robert Greenleaf, in his Servant Leadership, says “leadership is bestowed upon a person is by nature a servant. The first thing to look for is the servant nature of the person, as this cannot be taken away” (19). But, yes the big one, what is a servant leader? Brian Harris sees three elements of servant leadership:

1. The servant leader serves Christ. That is, “they feel confident to lead only because they are led” (21). I have often on the pages of this blog argued that we should be less interested in “leadership” than in “followership” and this is precisely what Brian Harris getting at here.

2. The servant leader serves those who follow their lead. Here’s his big point: These folks lead by serving; that is, “the best way they serve the needs of others is through the leadership they offer” (21). This doesn’t mean running around doing everything everyone asks. The servant leader, and the quiet leader, has made the hard decision of knowing how they best serve … and that will usually mean leading and assessing and evaluating and not simply cleaning dishes. Yes, Christ is the example.

3. The servant leader is accountable to God, to others and to those to whom the group (being led) should offer some benefits. (He uses Israel and the nations from Gen 12.)

What are your marks of servant leadership?

This all leads Brian to what I think is a signal insight: “Christian leaders begin by asking what God calls them to provide for those he asks them to lead” (24). That is, leadership is rooted in following God. And he sees, from John Sweetman, six ways leaders help other: they provide God’s presence, they provide security, they provide significance, they provide hope, they provide growth, and they provide empowerment.

I will emphasize the other two s’s to the degree Brian Harris does (not as much); The pastor is also a Shepherd (defend, protect, feed) and a Steward (idea here is accountability to God and others).

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Steve Johnson

    One characteristic of a servant leader is the ability to take the blame and the heat off of his crew. Imposers often become imposters when the chips are down. This is impart because the imposer is the only one prepared to lead so they can’t see letting leadership slip from their hands.

    Another servant leadership characteristic is care for those who cannot add value to the organization. In churches this is the children, youth, poor and disabled, and more the seniors fit this group. When the imposer notices these groups it is to create a new way to market the organization through the group, or because there is a problem that must be fixed. The imposer doesn’t need to know children’s names beyond their politician-like baby-kissing displays of care.

  • DMH

    ” those who cannot add value to the organization. In churches this is the children, youth, poor and disabled, and more the seniors fit this group.”

    Perhaps I’m misunderstanding this (I hope) but when I read this I thought “what a misguided sense if adding value”. It is not “care” these groups need but a voice and the recognition that the perspectives and sensitivities these people bring are very much what the typical American church needs. A servant leader would/should know they are an integral part of the whole.

  • Steve Johnson

    DHM, I’m speaking from the perspective of many imposer leaders. Value adders are those who bring money and talents, or other forms of notoriety.

    An example, at a recent denominational training event, I was asked to lead seminars on children and family discipleship. In other rooms, there were seminars on youth culture and church finance. My seminars had great participation, but low attendance. In fact, with one exception, the attenders were retired women who proclaimed that they were asked to come because somebody needed to work with the kids.

    The youth seminars were well attended by 20-somethings. But what caught my eye was that the church finance seminar had 3 times as many people as the other two. Almost all those attending that course identified themselves as senor pastor or elder/board member. At lunch, I sat at a table with all senor pastors. As they talked about what they were learning, which happened to be capital campaign management in a down economy, I slipped in a questions, “Why haven’t any pastors attended the discipleship oriented seminars?” The response across the board was that children don’t pay the bills and we can have better programs for them if we build bigger buildings.

    I found that predominant mind-set to be consistent among imposing church leaders.

  • Rick

    “Leaders” would argue that they have limited time, especially in larger churches. Therefore, they are encouraged to “invest” their time and efforts in other future “leaders”.

    Here is a section of Out of Ur’s reporting on a Catalyst Conference, including a speech by John Maxwell:

    “John Maxwell talked about “natural selection” (my term, not his), that is, the unavoidable inequalities of leadership….But not all people have the potential to be strong leaders, because it’s a gift and a skill. And if a person is a level 2 as a leader, they can work hard and reach a level 4 or 5, but they’ll never become a level 9. Only people who are born as a level 6 or 7 can ever hope to become a level 9. The implication: if you want to develop strong leaders, don’t waste your time with people of low potential. Focus on those who can reach the higher levels. He cited the example of Jesus, who didn’t spend equal amounts of time with all people, nor even with all the disciples. He focused on the three, then the twelve, then everyone else.”
    Time is an issue, but is it worse than overlooking others and focusing just on leadership?

  • Steve Johnson

    That’s my understanding of Maxwell’s leadership model, but that’s also what I think is the weakness, at least from a biblical perspective but from a broader leadership perspective too. To Maxwell, most leadership is imposer in the end. I say that, because in the end, Maxwell views people as resources to get what the leader envisions for the organization.

    Of course, there’s a big difference here between choosing to disinvest in adults with low leadership potential (right or wrong as that might be) and choosing to delegate discipleship of children. In fact, I would argue that what many churches do is move the best leaders into adult ministry and administrative roles and allow children’s ministry to fall under the leadership of the least influential because it doesn’t have immediate benefit.

  • DMH

    Steve,thanks for clarifying. Sorry if I came across too sharp.

  • http://www.coffeecuptheology.wordpress.com/ Darryl Willis

    I am still challenged by what is the correct view of leadership. I have always assumed the existence of something called “servant leader” but yet, (and this may be just semantics) the text doesn’t seem to say we should strive to be “servant leaders” but that those who are leaders should strive to be slaves. The first is to be last. How does that mesh with seeking to be “leader”?

  • llrmiller

    I’m not sure this is a fair critique. John Maxwell is at a leadership conference talking about leadership. I think it is fair to say that if you are trying to develop leaders then spend time on people with a natural gift for leadership. This isn’t friendship or marital advice. It is advice on how to foster leadership. Good, Christ centered leadership should allow everyone to have more time spent in various beneficial relationships with others.

    And also having served under various authorities in children’s ministries I can say that everyone gets along better and has more time to practice hospitality, prayer and service when the minister does subcribe to what John Maxwell teaches. The ministries I have been a part of that have really worn out their volunteers also really disparage John Maxwell and “leadership” teaching in general. This might not be everyone’s experience, but it has been mine.

  • Rick

    I am not saying all of what Maxwell has to say is unhelpful, nor that some might be able to use his teachings wisely, as you have experienced. However, there also is a sense in some of his teaching that implies some people are more important than others, and it creates a hierarchical system in a church. As I have experienced, this can create a sense that the main goal for church leaders is “leadership”, not the bigger goal of focusing on Christ, others, etc…

  • Triune

    This makes me wonder. i read the line about “the imposer has charisma else no one would follow” and I see all the articles about leadership – shaping and growing – but that seems to suggest in our missional world now, aren’t the imposers the ones who start up those missional communities, and if so, how do they move from imposer to nurturer? Not just the how to articles out there – as useful as they are – rather, if the imposer is not bent that way, and I suggest a number are not – what does that say about missional and about us believers?

  • Steve Johnson

    Triune, I think you have analysed things pretty well. I’m not sure that all imposers will or shall move toward being nurturers. If the individual leader is to change, they will need to reinvent their leadership style. Usually this happens in some sort of spiritual awakening that come from frustration when they realize something missing in their leadership (what they want to be and what it takes to continue being a imposer in a bigger church). Another way for the church leadership to change add nurturers into the leadership mix. I see the second happening at my missional church in the Phillyburbs.

  • Darren

    Thank you for sharing, appreciated this article!


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