The Virtuous Leader

The difference, it can be said, between a leader and a follower is that the leader makes a decision while the follower can choose to criticize the decisions of leaders. Good leaders make good decisions; good decisions are rooted in one’s ethics. So a good leader is a virtuous leader.

Pragmatic leaders decide on the basis of what will succeed.

For leaders: What do you think of his virtues of leaders list? What do you do to develop these? Where do these come into play? Speak up, o quiet leader, we want to hear from you!

What is a messy decision you had to make that was shaped by virtues? Where has tenacity succeeded for you?

Who is a virtuous and quiet leader model for all of us?

Reflective, virtuous leaders decide on the basis of what is good. So, how do we decide what is good? This is the question Brian Harris asks in The Tortoise Usually Wins, a noteworthy book about leadership that is not your typical book about leadership. It is about quiet leadership or the ways of quiet leaders.

He sketches three theories of ethics (and I will dip the Sermon on the Mount into ethical theory in my forthcoming book, The Sermon on the Mount, due out this Fall): deontological ethics (a focus on rules to guide us), teleological ethics (a focus on the goal or outcome, and in Christian theology one modifies this theory in the direction of eschatology), and virtue ethics (a focus on character and the habits needed to create a character that makes good decision and does good things).

Every leader makes decisions; every leader’s decisions emerge out of that leader’s ethical theory (or theories). So we want virtuous leaders.

As a case study, Brian explores the lying of the Hebrew midwives, and he does so artfully.

What are the virtues of quiet leadership?

1. Modesty: their aim is not to change the world but to do their bit in the big picture.
2. Restraint: patience and self discipline leader the quiet leader to hold back instead of venting or making a rash decision… quiet leaders wait to make decisions.
3. Tenacity: they care deeply; they keep on keeping on; they don’t stick it out; they don’t give in or up.
4. Interdependence: systems theory is recognized; things are inter-related. It does not all depend on them; we are related to one another.
5. Other-centeredness: they are shepherding, servant leaders, not empire builders. Decisions are shaped by their impact on others.

What should we do? is more important than what could we do?

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.

  • http://scilla.org.uk/ Chris

    I’m not at all convinced by the idea that leaders make decisions and followers can choose to criticise these decisions.

    Perhaps it’s more correct to say that leaders and followers make decisions. We all do, all the time.

    I see this very differently. I’d say we should all be leading and we should all be following. Leading has little to do with control or giving instructions or qualifications, it has much more to do with behaving in Christ-like ways so that when others follow our example they will not be misled.

    The fruit of the Spirit is a good place to begin… love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Anyone who is full of these qualities is worth following. And anyone worth following is a leader. Christ is the prime example he is King of kings, Lord of lords, and Leader of leaders.

  • Brian Harris

    Scot, thanks so much for having posted so affirmingly about The Tortoise Usually Wins. I greatly appreciate it.
    Chris, I agree that we shouldn’t think of one directional leadership. One of the pleas I make in the book is that we think of ways to make the journey from leadership (singular) to leaderships (plural) and to empower those who might be reluctant to offer what they can to be active participants in shaping the journey of the groups they are part of and believe in.

  • Tim Hallman

    I like the emphasis on this book. We work to connect leadership development to character and spiritual formation. The five virtues of quiet leadership will resonate with the men and women of our church that I am leading with. Though I am intrigued by the virtue of modesty when it comes to leadership: that is a rare connection…I doubt I’ve ever heard it before. To be honest, I’d love to change the world as a leader, but I’ve come to accept the reality that I should focus on serving and leading where I live, shaped by the Spirit of Christ. Though the temptation to be an immodest leader is difficult to resist.

  • Brian Metzger

    I think the primary virtue is missing but implied: humility.

  • Pat68

    Unfortunately, in a world where people value results and undervalue virtue, they will often choose the pragmatic leader over the virtuous one.

  • http://scilla.org.uk/ Chris

    Thanks Brian, sounds like a book I might enjoy reading :-)

    Since posting my comment below I’ve just worked my way through Henri Nouwen’s ‘In the name of Jesus’. (It’s a short work!) The subtitle is ‘Reflections on Christian Leadership’ and I think he was very insightful and prophetic to write as he did.

    I’ve also been reading some Alan Hirsch where the perspective on leadership is close to my own in some respects.

    Perhaps there’s a pattern in all of this. It all fits with my own personal journey since the mid ’70s.

  • Marshall

    I think it’s more than that. We were speaking the other day about the danger of “tribal loyalties” … good followership involves careful choice of what leaders to follow. Maybe good followership empowers/creates good leaders. At least as much as the other way around.

    … what I would like to do, at any rate.

  • Carolyn Custis James

    Please do not forget the flip side of this issue. I am so grateful for the call to virtuous leadership. We need more voices to raise this important call. But I am also seeing something quite unlike virtue in leaders behind the scenes in too many places. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t hear some story about the abuse of power and spiritual abuse within the body of Christ or get hit by it myself. I just posted on spiritual abuse today and am also encouraged that others (including Scot) are shining light on these issues: http://www.whitbyforum.com/2013/06/the-many-faces-of-spiritual-abuse.html We need to keep hearing both sides of the leadership virtue message.

  • http://bigcircumstance.com/ David Faulkner

    Scot, I’m grateful for the tip-off about this book. I am a ‘quiet leader’, the introvert who is often a misfit in a culture that often wants extraverted leaders. I went to amazon.co.uk, where I was surprised and delighted to see it commended by a friend of mine, Paul Beasley-Murray, who is nothing if not a ‘loud leader’. It had struck a nerve with him, too. I look forward to reading it.


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