The Routine Absurdity of Leaders Growing Large (Part 1)

by Dave Harvey June 9, 2017

Our church is preparing for a series on Daniel so I’ve been reacquainting myself with the great King Nebuchadnezzar. To indulge a random aside, simply writing his name takes me back to one of the most creatively corny pulpit jokes to ever grace a Sunday service. In his message from Daniel, our newly-minted pastor stumbled several times over the pronunciation of Nebuchadnezzar’s name. As the congregation eyed each other amusingly over his verbal groping, the pastor paused momentarily, and then said, “The problem is, I just ‘nebber-cud-nezzer’ pronounce his name correctly!”

The eyes rolled, a smile or two broke through, and our new church learned an important lesson. A pastor’s mind visits strange places when left alone in his study.

Nebuchadnezzar is a study of a mind visiting strange places.

The Story 

Exiled to Babylon around 605 BC, Daniel was selected to serve in Nebuchadnezzar’s court. In the opening verses of his book, we find Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, besieging Jerusalem. Nebuchadnezzar is not the central character in the book of Daniel, but God cast him in a role featured during the first few chapters. His reign symbolizes what happens when leaders – be it kings, politicians, preachers, elders, or entrepreneurs – get stung by pride and swell with their own importance.

Let’s look at our first symptom of a leader growing large.

Outrageous Demands

As the curtain on Daniel’s book opens, Nebuchadnezzar has had a nightmare. But this dream, peculiar and haunting in its particulars, had a cryptic echo of truth. Once awake, Nebuchadnezzar was trouble and assembled a cohort of counselors to search for the dreams’ interpretation. Nothing unusual there. If you’re a king with a bad dream that seems freakishly real, getting some help represents good government in action.

But Nebuchadnezzar had an absurd condition. The one who helps him, he decreed, must supply not only the interpretation of the dream, but the dream itself. “The word from me is firm: if you do not make known to me the dream and its interpretation, you shall be torn limb from limb, and your houses shall be laid in ruins.” (Daniel 2:5). Absent one person stepping forward with this prophetic knowledge, Nebuchadnezzar was going to exterminate his entire cabinet.

This was no bluff. You didn’t need to serve Nebuchadnezzar long to recognize his tyranny had teeth. His dream stayed impenetrable though, so his counselors remained quiet. Outraged over their ignorance, the king signed a death warrant. “Because of this the king was angry and very furious, and commanded that all the wise men of Babylon be destroyed. So the decree went out, and the wise men were about to be killed; and they sought Daniel and his companions, to kill them.” (Daniel 2:12–13)

Freeze the frame for a second. Why in the world is Nebuchadnezzar so upset? He’s about to burst a blood vessel because no one knows the specifics on a bad dream he had one night while he was asleep. He wanted a ‘dream-reader’, which is, I guess, a mind-reader who works the night shift. But in the world of dream-divining, this was a whole new set of metrics. The counselor was now expected to know not only the interpretation but the dream too!

Only hours before the slaughter, God provides what Nebuchadnezzar needs through Daniel. But God’s saving grace should not obscure the drive behind the royal demand.  When a person is empowered with leadership, the heart begins a war with expectation. The more they lose the war, the larger they grow.

The Path To Outrageous Demands

It works this way.

With leadership comes certain privileges and prerogatives. You have a title, a name, a platform, a budget, a staff, better benefits – nothing inherently wrong, just things that are inherently sticky. This means that our identity and expectations can quickly adhere to the privileges and prerogatives of our role. First, we appreciate the job perks, then we deserve the job perks. We start humbled by others’ deference, then we demand their deference.

Do you see? A seemingly subtle, yet altogether radical transformation has occurred:  We swell with significance, so our blessings become our rights. Our identity, which should be anchored outside of our role and grounded in what Christ accomplished, has adhered to our position. Because we hold X role, we demand Y benefits.

It’s the absurdity behind leaders growing large, and it’s pretty routine. We start empowered for service, then swell by expected preferences, and finally balloon to rupture-levels by the hot air of our entitlement.

The larger we get, the more we expect.

Nebuchadnezzar didn’t simply want a dream interpreted. He demanded the service of someone with the godlike ability to know his dreams. A man with divine gifts who could serve a king who himself was growing more divine. If the others couldn’t produce, well, then they were disposable.

When leaders grow large, their expectations become entitlements. The leader’s self-importance produces unreasonable demands because they see themselves as worthy of better help, even perfect help. Only those with god-like abilities need apply! People must produce amazing results for them because the king deserves it and his dreams require it.  Pity the poor counselor that has a bad day. For those unable to deliver on unreasonable or unsearchable goals, the leader becomes ‘furious.’

The Anger of Outrageous Demands

Nebuchadnezzar disintegrates into a funnel of fury. Few things peeve a king more than having people around him that don’t know his unspoken dreams.

How do you do when those around you don’t get you? Are you patient and gentle, or are you organizing assassinations like Nebuchadnezzar?

If you’re a leader, pay careful attention to what makes you angry. What incites your wrath reveals your heart. I remember barking at an assistant once because he made a mistake that made me look bad. I mean, assistants exist to always make their bosses look good, right? In this instance, he was failing at one of the very ends for his existence!

Expectations become irrational when the soul swells with self.

Thankfully, upon returning to my office, the Spirit of God was waiting for me with the sweet gift of conviction. And guess what. My anger was not ‘righteous’, as I so often assume. It was the wounded pride of a leader whose reputation was momentarily scratched. Out of the abundance of my self-love, my heart spoke (Matt. 12:34).

But the gospel spoke louder. Loud enough for me to hear; to repent and to return to my assistant with a contrite heart.

The gospel is God’s pin to pop the puffy heart and puncture the bloated head of entitled leaders. I’m grateful for His faithful ‘pricks’ that reduce my size and restore my heart to its proper proportion. When I can’t hear the gospel, my role grows large, my expectations swell and my mind visits some strange places and absurd ideas.

Just like Nebuchadnezzar.

In our next post, we will dive deeper into Nebuchadnezzar’s life and discover two other symptoms of leaders who swell with self. Then our final post will explore how grace meets leaders to help us stay small.

Editor's note: this originally published at Am I Called