By Billy Strother
A great deal of discussion and training on the subject of “authentic leadership” has occurred since Bill George published a book by that title in 2003. Authenticity is the quality of being genuine or real. Authentic Christian leaders are those who are perceived as genuine in their walk with the Lord and in their loving investment in the congregants they serve.
There remains no agreed-upon definition for authentic leadership theory among those who discuss it. Generally, however, an authentic leader is a person who possesses the characteristics of self-awareness, empathy, relational transparency, consistency, and ethical focus.
Authentic Leadership Modeled
As a 25-year-old preacher in the mid-1980s, I found myself serving as senior minister of a church of 75 people. (In addition to myself, the staff consisted of a part-time administrative assistant and a paid Sunday-only organist.) In my first days there, I encountered an elderly elder, Doc Gabhardt, who gave me a precious gift. Though in his late 80s, Doc took this kid preacher under his wing, loved me, and modeled an authentic Christian leader several decades before it became a hot topic in leadership training circles.
Doc taught me how to be self-aware, to evaluate myself—the good, the bad, the ugly, my strengths and weaknesses, both professional and personal. Why? So I could capitalize on using my professional and spiritual strengths in ministry, and to identify weaknesses that needed repairing and/or training.
Doc taught me empathy by being the first on the scene to empathize with me. When he asked questions about my life, he really listened to my problems and struggles. He was the first to put an arm around my shoulder and share an encouraging word when I was struggling with unfair—or even fair—criticism in my ministry. He listened with his heart. Authentic leaders lead with their heart and wrap that heart around even the most broken of souls.
Doc taught me relational transparency . . . that one of the most important things we can share with others is who we really are and how we really feel. Doc never let me feel isolated by my struggles. He shared his own past stories of struggle or failure as messages of hope that an imperfect person like me could still serve the Lord.
Doc taught me consistency and to be the same person in both private and public. Too often, people—especially church leaders—are tempted to adopt a different personality in public. When our inauthenticity—our “pretend personality”—is exposed, we lose all leadership capital. Doc taught me that if you are broken in private, get it fixed, because it will eventually come out in public.
Doc taught me the importance of possessing a biblical ethic to guide personal and professional leadership decisions and actions. Doc taught me that, while I could not always trust my feelings, I could eternally trust the Bible . . . every single word of the Word.
Biblical vs. Transactional Leadership
The subject of authentic leadership may be trendy in secular circles, but it also is biblical. Authentic leadership is modeled throughout the Bible. From Abraham to the apostle John, from Genesis through Revelation, authentic leadership informs and models healthy leadership for elders, ministers, and servant leaders in the church.
The apostle Paul encouraged authentic leadership: “And you should imitate me, just as I imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1, New Living Translation).
The opposite of authentic leadership is transactional leadership. Transactional leaders see people as little more than tools to accomplish a goal. The value of people in an organization is reduced to their contribution to the leader’s goal. A transactional leader will reward or punish those under their leadership influence based solely on what is done or not done to accomplish the leader’s goals. A transactional leader cares not for a person’s feelings or struggles. A transactional leader does not lead with empathy for others; such a leader values only the bottom line.
Remember Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan? A transactional leader would walk on the other side of the roadway—there was nothing a dying guy could do to help him accomplish his religious goals or institutional mission. An authentic leader, however, would jump into the ditch and minister to a bleeding, naked man who had been mugged and left for dead, regardless of the circumstances or the ethnicity of the victim, because every person matters.
As a young man, I prayed I would become an authentic leader like Doc someday. Doc has been with the Lord for nearly three decades. I am still trying to be more like Doc, a truly authentic leader.
If it be God’s will and I live another 25 years, I will be as old as Doc was when we first met. I will pray for you, if you will pray for me, to grow as an authentic Christian leader.
Dr. Billy Strother has been preaching and teaching for 37 years. He currently serves as dean of graduate studies and professor of preaching and New Testament at Central Christian College of the Bible, Moberly, Missouri. He also serves as a bench member with e2: effective elders.