Christ is the essential picture of a true leader: one who is vulnerable, like a Lamb; one who is a servant, a person willing to be a sacrifice for the Good…

The first true leader I experienced was my own father. He is not particularly articulate, and there are many people who know more about theology, science, or philosophy, or fundraising; fundamentally, however, he is a man given completely over to Christ, a man who learned his plethora of skills to seek the good of others, and a man who is truly humble. In the latter half of his career as a leader of international schools, he worked in Moscow, Denmark, and finally, at the United Nations, and lived in these sometimes contentious, even dangerous, environments as a leader of integrity, love, and humility; he left the institutions places growing into a single, communal vision, places of cooperation, clarity, and transparent ethics. He left people who were supported and loved into using their gifts in cooperation with others, and people who understood that their part, however small, was valued and essential, whose weaknesses were either tolerated, or purified. In his final mahogany-laden office on Wall Street, complete with a secret door to a conference room, he sat behind his desk most like a transitory, transcendent accidental, because he knew this was precisely what he was: a servant passing through. He most valued, though he is shy, his mornings greeting students and parents at the front door.

I first recognized my father as a leader in the raw and ancient environment of Afghanistan, when he was a young man leading a small mission school. He was passionate, and not always wise, but he had stellar mentors: men and women who were following the guidance of the Holy Spirit, people given over to service of others in Christ—in particular, Dr. and Mrs. Friesen, who started an eye hospital in Kabul, and Col. Norrish, who was an experienced British army leader, having served in difficult posts in India, and at the time he mentored my father, attached to the British Embassy in Kabul. Col. Norrish was a tall, gentle man with a loving heart and a will of steel—a will thankfully, evidently, given completely to Christ.

As I watched, over the years, my father struggle to gain true leadership, I watched the making of a true leader; he told me not long ago—as his wrinkled yet firm hand gave me a ragged, yellowed, small, old book with “Christian Leadership by Col. Norrish” printed on it in that shaky print of the first part of the twentieth century—that he learned leadership from love, experience, from disappointment, suffering, and from this book.

As I look at the shattered politics in my country like windows bombed out, and as I contemplate my own experience living and working in Christian missions, I again turn in hope to Col. Norrish’s pages. He begins: “Spiritual and competent leaders are our greatest need. To produce such men and women is the greatest contribution that any of us can make to the life and witness of the Church.” This is as true today as it was when he wrote it in India in 1963; it is as true today as it was for the men struggling under the instability of Agamemnon, or Rome under the self-serving Julius Caesar, Byzantium under ego-filled Sultans and Crusaders; Christendom strangled under greed and the self-will of Popes and misguided Reformers alike; churches under immoral pastors; apostolates under those who wish to make God’s project according to their own image, often dishonestly, in the name of Christ.

The sad results above are too often because of this fallacy, pointed out by Col. Norrish: “It has been said that leaders are born, not made; but it is my belief that more leaders are made than were ever born. Most of us were born little tyrants, and if we were allowed our way, we would have become big ones. Leadership is largely a matter of training. It is a relative matter; our capacity grows with experience as we develop the qualities of leadership. For any task of Christian responsibility, we need, in due measure, the personal experience of the life and leadership of the Holy Spirit within.”

Christ did not call “born leaders.” He called a man to lead His body, Peter, who could at first not control his heart, sadly lacking in both humility and courage, who relied more on his own visions than those of God; he called Paul, an egotistical man of steel given over to his own fallible understanding of God. Peter and Paul were leaders made, tried, broken, crucified, in the school of the Lamb. Col. Norrish gives us, through Christ, the essential picture of a true leader—for there is no true leader not given over to Christ completely: “Leadership must be marked by the qualities that are a reversal of the world’s values… the Christian leader must be willing to make himself of no reputation…. Christ’s rule is symbolized as the Lamb amidst the throne: a picture of supreme authority exercised in meekness of spirit.” A true leader is vulnerable, like a Lamb, a person willing to be a sacrifice for the Good, possessing a sacrificed will amidst the authority of office; a true leader knows all too well the tendency to tyranny in all of us, especially those desires or visions which come not from the Holy Spirit, but from emotional needs, wounds, fears, or, conversely, pride, and as one priest said, “an assumption that the letters after our name are more important than that which is meant to go before, that which is the crown of the Christian: Saint.” How many people have I known, myself included, who rely on relatively passing and paltry elements such as their education—their perennial status from elementary school as “the smart kid” or “the cool kid” or “the charismatic kid.” All this must be stripped away, like gaudy paint, before a true leader is made.

In order to instruct on the identity of a true leader, Col. Norrish turns to the photographic negative: “Judas Iscariot is a terrible warning to us of undetected instability, a warning that spiritual privilege does not protect us against ultimate spiritual disaster. The reason? He failed to make the ultimate surrender to Christ. He was evidently a man of shrewd judgment; deep within the recesses of his personality he retained the fatal right to be the final arbiter in his own life…. Slowly, insidiously, he came under the power of the thing he loved most. None suspected it; he kept up appearances until the end—none save Jesus, who was “troubled in spirit.” Christ must be supreme, or else He will be betrayed.”

How do we recognize the true leader, or one in the making? When I was a less mature woman, I looked for those who were capable, or charismatic, or attractive to my emotional needs. I have since learned, like a surgeon, to look for the skeleton of the leader, the structure on which his or her life is built. I have found, to my surprise, that true leaders are often like that good, old truck you rely on but find parked by the barn, or along the back street. They are not always attractive in a physical or worldly sense; they might have letters after their name, but you only learn it much later. Their offices are not shrines of certificates glorified or made imposing with the purpose, like Soviet statues, of making you feel small; when you have a conversation with true leaders, it doesn’t feel like a vacuum is pulling everything towards their own ideas. Instead, they want you to proffer yours, and they simply work to see if it fits—not only with the vision, good, and mission of the institution, but with the vision, mission, and good of God. They are people whose threadbare egos point to the Lamb amidst the Throne. They don’t drop names or revel in attention; in fact, they seek the shadows whenever possible, so they can simply get to work; yet they don’t seek the shadows, or hide behind group decisions, to manipulate things for themselves or avoid responsibility. They don’t make money off the institution or lie about others, even to “protect the institution,” because they know that all dishonesty, or slander, or manipulation, does not fit with Christ, and will inevitably destroy the very institution they strive to, ostensibly, serve. They know that their character will shade the institution and inspire either true vision or a vision of disorder.

True leaders are servants. Christ said it clearly. Also, we see through the stories of Peter, Paul, and the saints that Christ uses our weaknesses, and so true leaders will be people who admit and show their weaknesses, in order to be leaders made in the image of Christ, as He wills, and not little tyrants born.

Col. Norrish fills in the picture of the Lamb’s leaders: those of spiritual maturity, faith, and those “living a spirit-filled life.” He begins with spiritual maturity: “‘Not a novice’ is a principle found in scripture. God will not appoint a leader who has not been tested…. [He will appoint those] who are not self-willed or soon impatient; those who are kind and considerate to others (given to hospitality), not swayed by moods or temper, able and willing to help others to learn, not covetous of position or authority; above seeking personal gain; those with a balanced and impartial judgment.”

There is nothing, nothing, in Col. Norrish’s humble book about being the smartest or the most popular, or the most liked. When I was a young teacher, a mentor came into my class to observe me. One comment she made, kindly but firmly, has stayed with me; I can still see her older face, tried and tested, willing to mold me in love, as she said quietly: “You don’t teach them to like you; you teach them what is good, what is right, what is true, and what is beautiful.” In other words, “Tami, get your ego out of the way.” In the years since, I have assiduously fought this temptation, a wound I carry from childhood: the desire to be liked, to please others. I have watched other teachers do the same, from elementary school to college-level, though I think the temptation to both ego and guru-status grows in proportion to the level of education. I have learned, a little, that I must love my students. Fundamentally, that means to wish their good. Period. Is it not the same with all leadership?

If one is liked, this is a good, but it can be a cover for weak leadership, a leadership which refuses to make the decisions that might create conflict or unpopularity. I saw a real leader once who gave up his own position, his livelihood, to protect those under him. It was like watching a colonel rushing out on an eighteenth-century battlefield with the standard to call his men to safety and better position, and getting blown up in the process, the flag held up in a steely, dying fist, to guide, to save, to lead. A leader, a real one, can admit he or she doesn’t know something because his or her real authority is the Lord, who knows all. One can only be humble, truly, because of the riches of God; while not ever truly alone, a leader can afford to face loneliness in hard decisions, in positions of leadership. A leader can lay down his life only because he has already died with Christ.

But the world often appoints those, like the Ancient Greeks, who have the most prowess; we often end up giving the reins of power to psychopathic types, even, because they tend to “get things done” Machiavelli-like, but this is a short-term gain, and does not lead people into their true good: I have known people given leadership because they were polymaths, and seemed to have an answer for everything. This isn’t bad in itself, but it is not the fundamental quality for the Lamb’s leaders, and if it is the sole reason, it will most likely cause untold destruction in many lives. I have seen it.

Rather, along with spiritual maturity, and humility, Col. Norrish points to stability of character, integrity, discernment, faith, and love: a person with the stability that comes from a settled, undivided, not ego-offended heart; a person who has the integrity shown by faithfulness in small things. A sign of this is often a willingness to show himself or herself to others, the real self: we express it in terms like “down to earth” or “real” or “there in all his warted reality.” Beware those who look and feel like Ken and Barbie, or a plastic wall of image-mongering and perfection. Beware of those whose hair is too perfectly coiffed at all times; this may sound strange, but in this particularist vein, I have, for example, found some of the most telling remarks of wolves in sheeps’ clothing from Julius Caesar’s Life as portrayed by Plutarch:

Cicero was the first who had any suspicions of his designs upon the government, and, as a good pilot is apprehensive of a storm when the sea is most smiling, saw the designing temper of the man through this disguise of good-humor and affability, and said, that in general, in all he did and undertook, he detected the ambition for absolute power, “but when I see his hair so carefully arranged, and observe him adjusting it with one finger, I cannot imagine it should enter into such a man’s thoughts to subvert the Roman state.”

Cicero, in his delightfully ironic way, tells us subtly that the small phenomena can tell us much, if we also look deep enough into a person’s character. Furthermore, Caesar himself knew that small things can often be a signpost for a deeper disposition, for Caesar, also in Plutarch, pinpoints the treachery in Cassius when he remarks to Antony that he fears, above all else, those with a “lean, hungry look.” He was right. Beware also the person who has an image of humility, the phony humble type my Italian mother-in-law used to call “a cafone,” or a jerk posing as a slob. Beware a person who projects anything. This is often a clue to a fractured, egoistic, even narcissistic soul. In the end, people do, though with varying degrees of subtlety, display their soul: the truly, deeply bad man, the clever and cunning one, will often cover his badness in a plasticine perfection; the less-bad man will inadvertently show his badness in ugly, unrepented signals of pride, selfishness, and ego; the repentant man will look more like a carpet man, worn and traveling and still in the making; the good man will have light shining through the tatters; the saint will simply disappear in the light of God, and one will, when leaving an encounter with a lamb like this, feel that one has left heaven, and will think of goodness, and God, will be inspired to serve likewise, will not think of the saint at all.

A true leader will be like Moses, who understood both his sin and his weaknesses well enough to beg off the throne to which God called him, a man who understood his humble place well enough to finally accept God’s call and to follow God’s vision—not his own—with the words, “Lord, show me Your way” (Exodus 33:13). Like Moses, a true leader will be a man of faith who will understand Col. Norrish’s exhortations: “Never doubt in the darkness what God has shown in the light” and “Where there is no vision, missions stagnate.”

This vision—born of God, discerned only by the humble, integrated leader—is what a nascent and mature leader must look towards, so that those in his care will tread the right path. To hunger, and thirst, as the deer for flowing streams, for the vision of God big and small, around a banquet table, or if necessary, within what appears as the trash of the world, is the mark of a true leader. It is a vision that begins and ends in love of service, of the other, and that demands the perseverance, fortitude, and courage to spend one’s life-blood in service of the Lamb Amidst the Throne.

Fr. Cizek, the Polish hero who served Christ in Siberian prisons, says it most bluntly: “Tell them to do God’s will every day. Tell them to give God’s will their lousy best.”

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

All comments are moderated and must be civil, concise, and constructive to the conversation. Comments that are critical of an essay may be approved, but comments containing ad hominem criticism of the author will not be published. Also, comments containing web links or block quotations are unlikely to be approved. Keep in mind that essays represent the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Imaginative Conservative or its editor or publisher.

Leave a Comment
Print Friendly, PDF & Email