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The Titanic Need for Authentic Leaders

How do you exercise authority without pretending you have it all together?

Sometimes I'm embarrassed to admit that I would rather jam out to My Chemical Romance than contemporary Christian music. "His Banner over Me," frankly, gives me heart palpitations. But "Welcome to the Black Parade"? Now that preaches. This may seem inconsistent with my profession as a writer and professor of Christian spiritual formation and leadership, but actually, nothing could be more emblematic of the changing leadership paradigms in the church.

Out of the shadows of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Americans started looking for a new kind of leader. We'd already begun to move from the "control and command" style of leadership that characterized some of history's greatest leaders—like Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher—toward a type of leadership that focused on people's needs rather than the objectives of the leader. This transformational leadership style focused on modeling the way, enabling others to act, inspiring vision, and encouraging the hearts of followers.

But September 11 changed that. Frank Rich of the New York Times aptly summarized the national ethos: "On a day when countless children in America lost their fathers, the rest of us started searching for a father, too. When a nation is under siege, it wants someone to tell us what to do, to protect us from bullies, to tell us that everything's O.K. and that it's safe to go home now."

It's no longer just transformational leadership we want. We want someone authentic, someone trustworthy to guide us, and the financial horrors of Enron, the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme, and the global financial crisis have only deepened that desire.

The church, for better or worse, is a microcosm of America's shifting leadership preferences. While there are still "command and control" type pastors in some pockets of the United States, for the most part we've been looking for leadership that is more like stewardship or servanthood. We're looking for leaders who say what they mean and mean what they say, who listen to differing views, make decisions on their core beliefs, and act in ways consistent with their beliefs.

Most of all, perhaps, we're looking for leaders who have the chutzpah to admit their failures, mistakes, and questions. Maybe we want authentic leaders who can admit that the Christian life isn't always contemporary-Christian-music-cookie-cutter-perfect, that sometimes it's a little more like "Welcome to the Black Parade"—fraught with brokenness and weakness.

The trouble for Christian women leaders, though, is that it can be difficult to be "authentic" and at the same time maintain a certain level of authority. The road for female Christian leaders hasn't been easy, and many have gotten to places of influence because of their ability to "have it altogether"—or at least appear to. So how can Christian women leaders work toward creating a culture of candor in their organizations?

First, remember that "authenticity" and "transparency" are not the same thing. Authenticity means acting in a way that is candid, truthful, and connected to those around you. It means saying truthful things—not saying everything. It's important to know yourself and be honest about who you are, but it is not necessary to reveal everything.

Second, engage in the process of spiritual formation. Grow. Sometimes leaders use authenticity as an excuse to behave badly—when we are being overly critical or judgmental or cranky, we are often at our most real selves, but certainly not our best. To be faithful in our calling as Christian leaders, we must take seriously the admonition that "to whom much is given, much is required." The apostle Paul freely admitted his faults and weaknesses, but was also able to say, "You should imitate me, just as I imitate Christ" (1 Corinthians 11:1).

Finally, build your leadership on solid relationships. Authentic leadership involves advocating for goals grounded in the shared values of the community for the purpose of benefitting others. This requires a strong line of relational communication between the leader and the followers.

What are some ways you have attempted to demonstrate an authentic leadership style? How well does it work in your church?

Halee Gray Scott, Ph.D., is a Millennial whose mission is to help Christian leaders live well and lead well. She currently teaches leadership and spiritual formation at Wesley Seminary and theological studies at A. W. Tozer Seminary. Drop by her blog and say hi.

April18, 2012 at 9:59 AM

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