March 4, 2013

Strong Leaders and Baseball Bats


Of all the scenes in Brian de Palma’s movie about the Chicago mafia boss Al Capone,  The Untouchables,  the most famous is the shoot-out in the train station between Elliott Ness and Capone’s lackeys. However, for me the most memorable scene is more simple and far more brutal.

Capone is hosting his generals for dinner. The formalities have ended, the whisky and cigars are being passed around and the atmosphere is convivial – dangerously so. Capone starts talking baseball whilst twirling a bat in his beefy paws. Here’s how it goes:

Life goes on. A man becomes preeminent, he’s expected to have enthusiasms. Enthusiasms… Enthusiasms… What are mine? What draws my admiration? What is that which gives me joy? Baseball! A man stands alone at the plate. This is the time for what? For individual achievement. There he stands alone. But in the field, what? Part of a team. Teamwork…. Looks, throws, catches, hustles – part of one big team. Bats himself the live-long day, Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and so on. If his team don’t field… what is he? You follow me? No one! Sunny day, the stands are full of fans. What does he have to say? “I’m goin’ out there for myself. But… I get nowhere unless the team wins.”

He then proceeds to beat to death one of his men sitting at the table to the almost silent horror of the others.  Capone has sniffed out that the unfortunate, now very ex employee, didn’t really know who was boss.  And if there is one thing a mafia boss knows, it’s who is boss. Capone strongly asserts his leadership in the most effective manner possible.


Strong leadership seems to be buzzword in Australia today six months out from a Federal election. And our beleaguered Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has been keen to impress upon the public that she is a strong  leader.  That despite the setbacks, despite the policy backdowns, despite the perception that she is at the behest of other “faceless” men, she is a strong PM, that she won’t give up, and that she is determined to see through the tough times.

The problem, of course, is that in both cases (we are not comparing our PM with Capone incidentally – Ed) being a strong leader is not enough, in fact in Capone’s case it makes him a murderer!  It’s not the strength of his leadership that is the problem, it is the direction that strength is taking him in.  His personality has strong characteristics; he is more violent, more driven, more obsessive than anyone else around him, hence he has risen to the top of the tree. His desire to win is so strong that he will stop at nothing to ensure his victory.

Two questions: What does this tell us about “strength”?, and, in light of that, and in the interests of my blog,  What does it mean for the church to have strong leaders?  In regards to the first question, the two stories above indicate that “strength” is a qualifier, rather than a virtue in itself. To be a strong leader tells us nothing about the direction, character, nature or ethos of the leader, just that he/she is determined to push their vision or goals in a strong way. There may be no limit to what they would do to achieve their vision/goal, there may be no attempt to decipher whether it is the best vision/goal to achieve. It speaks about force of personality, not quality of character.

Which brings us to the second question, How does strong leadership play out in the church?  My first observation, which should come as no surprise, is that in the past twenty years “leadership” has grown to be the buzzword in Christian ministry. Conferences, books, mp3s, magazines – it’s a veritable avalanche.  As the church has moved from the centre of the culture to the edge – or closer to the edge than it was before – so the language of leadership has taken hold. In this respect it has mirrored the language of leadership among the secular professions. The church has attempted to regain cultural traction and credibility by demonstrating a commitment to professionalisation because professionalisation is a legitimising process.  John Piper’s book “Brothers, We are Not Professionals” is a clarion call to reject this move.

The idea of strong leadership is central to this push even in the church. Why? I believe it is because the church has gotten nervous. It looks at the stormy seas ahead, seismic shifts in the culture that are defined by rapid, discontinuous change, and decides that not only is leadership needed,  strong leadership is needed. Only strong leadership is visionary enough to map a path ahead. Only strong leaders will navigate the difficulties of a culture openly hostile to the gospel. So strong leaders are showcased, canvassed for their opinions, and, once they have established their credentials and carved their niche, are often open to discussing/writing books about the areas in which were actually quite weak along the way, but never let on (surely not bluffing it? – Ed).  

But if “strong” is a qualifier, not a quality, then as God’s people – those who are called to model King Jesus – then it is simply not enough, and may in fact be detrimental.  The leaders that the church needs as we enter uncharted waters must be strong “in” something, not simply forceful personalities who are able to push an agenda.  For, despite what we think, God is not only capable of using our weaknesses, he actually delights to do so, for in them he is being most glorified, rather than we.

What qualities are we looking for to which we can attach the “strong” qualifier.  Strength of character is the baseline isn’t it? By character we mean  an inner, deep integrity that results in the person living a “joined up” life, a life that is consistent and honest with itself and with others.  Strength of humility would come close on its heels. When the Bible describes Moses as the humblest man on earth in Numbers 12, it almost goes against the grain doesn’t it? Surely that title would have been held by a no-name in the back blocks somewhere? We don’t always pick strong leaders as humble leaders, but it is how Moses is described, and at the very time his important role as mediator between God and Israel was being challenged by his brother and sister.

Paul, in another context, calls for a whole congregation to “be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power” (Eph 6:10), hence it seems it is possible to be strong in ways other than “in the Lord”.  We get an inkling of how that might look in the short letter of 3 John:

I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us. 10 So when I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, spreading malicious nonsense about us. Not satisfied with that, he even refuses to welcome other believers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church.

Diotrephes is certainly exhibiting a certain strength, and is shaping the church in his mold, however he is certainly not strong in the Lord.  How do we know?  Because John says “he loves to be first”. The real giveaway that a leader is strong in all the wrong ways is not simply that they are first, but that they love to be so!  Being first is not something that they wrestle or struggle with, knowing that God has put them in a place of responsibility, but rather it is something they grasp at. They are the opposite of what Jesus was like, who gave up his right to be first and became a slave all the way to the cross. And those who love to be first generally have little love left over for others, as Diotrephes’ response to the apostles, and his actions towards fellow believers demonstrated.  It would be interesting to have seen him in action.  Would we, steeped in a strong leader culture, have picked his actions as wrong if the apostle John had not alerted us to it?

The strength that the church and its leaders need to exhibit in these uncertain times cannot ape the strength that is all quantity and no quality. Its core must be tested to determine whether there is more to it than sheer forcefulness. Leaders who have bucketfuls of strength, but thimblefuls of strength of character will do untold damage to the church’s life and witness.

Jesus took the mantle of humblest man on earth from Moses when he said “Come to me all you who are burdened and heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you shall find rest for your souls” (Matth11:28-29). The genius of Jesus’ qualitative strength was that it was safe: it drew the weak and weary to him in such a way that they found the very thing they were looking for – rest!  Often we think of strong leaders in exactly the opposite way – we observe them safely from a distance, and the closer we get to them the more dangerous they become to us for we may get crushed under the weight of their strength. There is not a lot of rest to be found hanging around a strong leader who lacks character – a lot of sleepless nights perhaps, but not a lot of rest.  The true qualitative test of a strong leader therefore, is to see what they are like up close and personal, for only that will indicate whether their strength is something that can be measured in terms of quantity or quality.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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