Leadership: Our Fascination And Fear
We live in an age that is simultaneously fascinated with and fearful of leadership. An endless barrage of conferences, books, blogs, and podcasts testify to a growing interest in the field. Yet, it seems so few are converting their interest into action. Like fans at an NFL football game, many of us are intrigued by the spectacle and may even daydream about stepping into the arena. But ultimately, our fear of embarrassment and injury keeps us in the stands.
Scripture reminds us that our fascination and fear have everything to do with who we are and how God has called us to lead. Throughout the Old and New Testaments, we see God calling His people to lead in various ways. We see leadership as a spiritual gift (Rom. 12:8), leadership as a husband's responsibility (Eph. 5:22-33), leadership as a pastor’s duty (1 Pet. 5:1-5), and what could be called "leadership as Christian identity": God’s call for every Christian to take initiative for the glory of God and the good of others. Unlike the previous three categories of biblical leadership, this fourth category applies to every Christian and is not limited by gifting, marital status, calling, gender, or age. All of us are called to take initiative for the glory of God and the good of others.
From Genesis to Revelation, we see God calling his image-bearers to lead as He has led. We see Him inviting us to step into the unknown and create space for others to flourish; to step toward the needy and hopeless; to fight for justice and equality; to proclaim Christ crucified to a broken and hostile world. Indeed, taking initiative for the glory of God and the good of others is central to our identity as sons and daughters of God. That is why we are fascinated with leadership. In the words of authors Eric Geiger and Kevin Peck, you and I are “designed to lead.”
That Queasy Feeling You Experienced As You Stepped Into The Arena Is Called Fear
Unfortunately, the universality of God’s call to lead does not make it any less frightening. Think about the last time you engaged in real leadership: you took initiative and exposed yourself to meaningful risk for the glory of God and the good of others. Maybe you followed God’s call to plant a church or start a new business. Perhaps you led a small group despite that nagging fear that you would fail. Maybe you overcame your fear of rejection and shared the gospel with your lost neighbor. Or perhaps you finally had the courage to repent to your spouse. That queasy feeling you felt as you stepped towards the arena is called fear.
Our fear is often driven by the reality that leadership exposes us to potential embarrassment, loneliness, and even pain. In his book Change the World, University of Michigan leadership professor Robert Quinn notes that the origin of the word leader literally means to “go forth and die.” He writes: “Leadership authors do not understand that leadership means 'Go forth to die.' If they did understand it, they would not be enticed to write about it— because people do not want to hear this message. Most people want to be told how to get extraordinary results with minimum risk. They want to know how to get out-of-the-box results with in-the-box courage.” Quinn is right. The willingness to step toward need and the associated uncertainty, risk, and exposure is at the very heart of leadership.
It turns out that beneath our fear and uncertainty are deeply ingrained insecurities. Both secular and sacred leadership theorists suggest that as we consider engaging in meaningful leadership, we often ask ourselves powerful questions like: Will this hurt me? What will this cost me? Will this expose my weaknesses? While many leadership theorists agree that these powerful questions guide if and how we lead, many disagree on how to overcome their immobilizing effects. In fact, in a very real sense, every leadership book is yet another attempt to answer the powerful questions lurking beneath our fear.
In response to our fear, we often retreat to the safety, comfort, and familiarity of the stands. In doing so, many forgo leadership altogether, or worse, engage in what author Andy Crouch calls “simulated risk”. In his book Strong and Weak, Crouch helps us understand what happens when we succumb to our fear of leadership: “In response to our fear, our temptation is not total disengagement, but powerful and rewarding simulations of engagement. The real temptation for most of us is not complete apathy but activities that simulate meaningful action and meaningful risk without actually asking much of us or transforming much in us.” Crouch has put his finger on a real and pervasive problem. Many of us are too scared to lead, but too proud to appear disengaged. Stuck in the middle, we simulate leadership.
This helps explain why many of us are tempted to tweet instead of engaging in meaningful dialogue with those with whom we disagree. It explains why we boast about living “on mission” without actually talking to our neighbors. Ultimately, we fear what might happen if we do.
We Don’t Need A Strategy. We Need a Father.
So how should Christians respond to our fear of leadership? According to secular leadership theorists, we should remember how desperately our leadership is needed or we should find inspiration in more experienced and courageous leaders. While these strategies often work for a season, they are incapable of fueling the depths of leadership God is calling us to. This is because our fear and anxiety is first and foremost a deeply spiritual reality. Long before we wonder if leadership will cost, hurt, or expose us, we wonder who we are and what implications our identity has on how we lead and engage the world around us.
Matthew 3-4 offers a profound window into the relationship between our identity and our leadership. Shortly before Jesus walked into the desert to be tempted by Satan, he stood in the Jordan to be baptized by John. Matthew tells us that “when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’” (Matt 3:16-17). Do not miss the connection between the baptism and temptation of Jesus. Our elder brother entered the wilderness with this message still ringing in his ears: "You are the son of the living God." Jesus knew exactly who He was and what that meant for how He, and we, are to live.
As Jesus entered the wilderness, Satan tempted Him to question his identity and inheritance as the Son of God. In his book Tempted and Tried, author Russell Moore reminds us that the temptation to turn stones into bread was another way of asking, “Will your Father really provide for you?” Similarly, the temptation to throw himself down off the temple was another way of asking, “Will your Father really protect you?” Finally, the temptation to prematurely inherit all the kingdoms of the earth was another way of asking, “Will you Father really exalt you?”
Nothing Can Separate Us From The Love Of God
Satan’s strategy was not new. Since the Garden of Eden, Satan has worked to distort and discredit God’s love for His children. He desperately wants would-be Christian leaders to question God’s promise to provide, protect, and care for His sons and daughters. He wants us to doubt God’s commitment to be with us, even to the end of the age. He wants us to tremble, wondering if God really has overcome the world. He wants us to shrink back from leadership, wondering if He will ever leave or forsake us. Satan will do anything he can to keep you from acting on your faith.
But faith is just what we need.
As we reflect on the temptation of Christ, we learn that our fear should be replaced by faith in the steadfast love of the Father. He sent His only begotten Son into the wilderness to shut the mouth of Satan once and for all. His perfect obedience and sacrificial death paid the penalty for our sin and His resurrection declared our victory over Satan, sin, and the grave. In Christ, we have entered into God’s family, becoming objects of the Father’s eternal provision, protection, and care. Though now we only experience shadows of these heavenly realities, in God’s good timing, we will experience the full measure of His glory.
It is upon the truth of this gospel that we can confidently say with the apostle Paul:
If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? ...Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?...For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:29-39)
Yes, God is calling us out of the stands and into the arena. He is calling us to follow Him deep into the wild and restless world around us. But we are not going there alone. He has gone before us and promises to go with us. He will surely give us everything we need.