In Greek mythology, Narcissus was the god who fell in love with his reflection in a pool of water. Today, we call people narcissists when they too, fall in love with themselves. Narcissists see everything from only their perspective. They have an excessive need for attention and approval (social media has fed this ailment). They exalt themselves. They are always right in their own eyes. They believe they are the center of the world. They have made an idol out of themselves and usurped even the very place of God. They use people to build their image and fame. Narcissist leaders are especially dangerous.
By now, you are probably already visualizing the narcissistic people and leaders in our culture, in politics, and even in our churches. In their attempt to exalt themselves, they damage the churches and the people they lead.
In my adjunct teaching role, we assess the strengths and weaknesses of an individual’s leadership tendencies. At the beginning of the course, I tell students that this will both be the easiest doctoral course they ever take, and it may also be the most painful. Leaders are born with deep cracks—we are all broken. Interestingly enough, some of what might make us effective leaders, in the beginning, may be the very things that ultimately lead us to crash, burn, and hurt the people we lead.
Too many churches, and organizations are held captive by such leaders who want the church to serve them, rather than their being willing to serve the church. They are the fount of all wisdom. They alone are right. Their way is the only way. “The rest of you don’t know what you’re talking about.” They want to be recognized. They want their vision. This is “my church.”
Narcissist leaders devalue the contributions of others. Their way is the only way. They get angry when they seem to lose their dominance. They become judgmental when someone else makes a contribution equal or greater in value than theirs. At any cost, their agenda is all that matters. They discount and reject the contributions of others.
Jesus, the greatest leader of all time, set a very different path for leaders. Of all humanity he alone was perfect in every way, yet the Apostle Paul writes that he, “who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped [held on tightly to], but emptied himself… he humbled himself…” (Ph 2:6-8). Rather than exalt himself, Jesus humbled himself, and then gave his life for us. This is true leadership greatness.
Jesus’ disciples did not find this easy to do. In fact, it was completely counterintuitive to all they thought they knew about life and leadership. At least one time, Jesus caught them arguing about which of them was the greatest. On another occasion, James and John’s mom came to ask Jesus for her sons to sit in positions of power and authority in Jesus’ kingdom.
Jesus said, “It must not be like that among you. On the contrary, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave, just as the Son of Man [Jesus] did not come to be served, but to serve, and give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mt 20:26-38).
Jesus gave his life and his leadership so that others might be saved. His purpose was not to glorify himself but to save humanity. Yes, he was ultimately exalted by the Father (Col 2:9) and this revealed who God is, but his great sacrificial act—the cross was motivated by his love for us. Though he was the greatest, he humbled himself and served us.
Pastors and church leaders, what does it mean for you to set aside the folly of your own self-importance and submit your agenda to God’s plan and purposes for those you lead? What does it look like for you to serve the people God has called you to lead? What will you have to give up for the sake of serving others?
Blanchard and Hodges write, “To successfully combat the temptation to be self-serving in your leadership, every day you must put your EGO [Edging God out, double entendre intended] on the altar and Exalt God Only.” (taken from Lead Like Jesus).
Ultimately, Christian leaders need to lead like Jesus.