Needed: Leadable Leaders

As we watch some of the leadership catastrophes in Washington, D.C. – in the White House, Congress and Supreme Court – and in countless other places, it is evident that our leaders lack something crucial. And perhaps most of us lack it, too, since we helped put these "leaders" into office. How else do we explain the chaos of American foreign policy (Syria, Egypt, etc.), health care policy (Obamacare, etc.), and budgeting the public treasury (debt explosion, etc.)? Can we learn from contrasting our present leaders with earlier exemplary models of leadership?

Now we have an epidemic of ideology – and that is part of our present leadership crises. People act on ideology when they make an idea, even a great idea, into a lifeless idol that they faithfully serve. Ideology produces arrogance and intransigence – in the very circumstances that call for humility and flexibility. The problem is that the political idol – the ideological idea – is dead, unresponsive, intransigent, with the rigid rigor of rigor mortis. Nothing compares with wise political leadership that humbly serves the Living God and his purposes, above any political theory or social ideals. Ironically, in the same way that the best teachers are still teachable, the greatest leaders remain leadable, humble, flexible, and especially seeking the guiding Presence of the Living Lord.

Great leaders – such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan and the Biblical Joshua – were spiritually humble and personally flexible people, with Divine moral compasses. This is in contrast with the present intractable, rigid, proud, ideological "leaders" – including many Democrats and Republicans – who for the most part dominate all three branches of our American government, as well as political policies in many other places.

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Respecting the unique authority of Scriptures, please let me suggest a powerful lesson we can all learn from a transformative encounter between Joshua and the Lord – just as Joshua was to begin his extraordinary leadership of the nation of Israel, right after Moses' death. We know about Joshua's bio primarily from the Biblical books of Exodus and Numbers. Perhaps three steps stand out in his splendid background for this new leadership, with the emphasis on the highest peak of training: the Lord's Presence in his life:

1. Joshua was leadable out of slavery, along with the rest of the nation (Exodus 11-15)
2. Joshua was a crucial leader in protecting the nation against the Amelikites (Exodus 17) and providing a true report as a faithful spy (Numbers 13-14)
3. Joshua took his time in the Lord's Presence on the mountain (Exodus 24-32) and in the Tent of Presence (Exodus 33:11)

Curiously, these three steps are explicitly repeated in the Lord inaugural instruction to him (Joshua 1:5-9), only in reverse order – with the new Divine emphasis clearly on Joshua's ultimate leadability as a leader.

First, the lesson to be in the Lord's PRESENCE: No one will be able to stand up against you all the days of your life. As I AM with Moses, so I AM with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you (Joshua 1:5).

The LORD's first word to Joshua was reassurance that he, the awesome "I AM," would continue to be with him. We all outgrow the need for our parents to be with us. We all outgrow the need for our teachers to be with us. We even outgrow our need for our mentors to be with us. But we never outgrow the need for the "I AM" to be with us, and even in us. We are created in His image, He breathed his very life into us, and He is never far from us.

Notice that the LORD says that no one would be able to stand against him, Joshua. It is ultimately not that Joshua would have a great team of advisors, not that his body guard was the most excellent, not that his army was the best trained and most courageous. It was that Joshua himself had a presence, the Presence of the LORD.

The Lord's comparison is splendid, too. The "I AM" promised to be with Joshua as he was with Moses. Joshua knew what that meant, and we need to learn. After all, we have the Biblical record of these other men and women for direct comparison, instruction and motivation for our own lives now – not merely as fascinating museum pieces to admire at a distance, or even to find thrilling and inspiring to retell. The awesome "I AM" still wants to be close with each of us, always, so that we can be accurate, fulfilled, vibrant images of his Presence. There is no other way to fully "BE," since at the very central core of our being we are his images. Then we are ready to lead…

Second, the lesson to LEAD: Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their forefathers to give them (Joshua 1:6).

In addition to being the young man chosen by Moses 40 years earlier to recruit soldiers and lead the victorious battle against the Amelikites, Joshua had been a faithful leader in other opportunities as well. Especially well known was his assigned role to spy out the Promised Land, and to report to the nation what he saw and how they would receive it. Twelve spies were sent, but most of them came back with negative, discouraging, hopeless reports. Only Joshua and one other spy, Caleb, saw as the LORD guided them to see. Here is a mark of a person of excellence, a real leader: He led in the right direction, using the eyes and ears of the LORD, and without fearing that others were not following.

Third, the lesson to be LEADABLE: Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. This Book of the Law will not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you will be careful to do all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and the you will have success (Joshua 1:7-8).

The third part of this divine inaugural instruction is for the new supreme leader of the nation to be leadable, teachable! What a great mistake we make whenever we stop being teachable. However advanced any leader becomes in knowledge, wisdom or power, there is at least one Teacher with infinitely greater knowledge, wisdom and power. Leaders must always remain learners.    

Knowing the special challenge of being a leadable leader, the Lord uses the phrase "be very courageous" only in this third part of this inaugural instruction. Also, there is twice the quantity of instruction here as on either of the earlier two points. To our discredit, we often think of the role of being led as the humble beginning of the life of leadership, an early role to be overcome – "sooner rather than later." No wonder our leaders are often arrogant, insensate, self-centered and misguided. Perhaps the most important aspect of leadership is the willingness and capacity to be led – just as the most essential element in the life of an excellent teacher is to remain teachable.

How do we become leadable leaders and teachable teachers – and even 'ministerable' ministers?  The LORD says that we must have the Law "in our mouths" to speak it, in our minds to "meditate on it always," and to do it carefully, vigilantly. Then we will have success and prosperity. Let us take a look again at the four steps of Joshua 1:8:

* This Book of the Law will not depart from your mouth [because when we talk about something it is ten times more likely to be a part of our lives],
* but you shall meditate on it day and night [because what we concentrate our minds on most powerfully shapes what we become and do],
* so that you will be careful to do all that is written in it [the Word must lead to works, the Word must become flesh, or it is not affirmed as the Word];
* for then you will make your way prosperous, and the you will have success [there will certainly be good results, for the Word is always fruitful].

The LORD reminded Joshua that he would never have enough wisdom and knowledge within himself. The LORD's own vibrant leadership remained a necessary and grace-filled gift. In fact, the more Joshua became a leader, the more he needed to be led.  He understood leadability, and so listened to these inaugural instructions from the Lord and recorded them for our benefit.

Simply put, the greater any person's elevation in authority, the more profound is the vibrant humility needed, especially in relationship to the one true Source of all wisdom, authority, kingdom, power and glory. Let us destroy the dead idols of ideologies; let us become the faithful images of the Living Logos – for ourselves and our leaders.

And let us pray earnestly that our leaders will receive such wisdom. May they become Godly leadable leaders.

Dr. Paul de Vries is the president of New York Divinity School, and a pastor, speaker and author. Since 2004, he has served on the Board of the National Association of Evangelicals, representing 40 million evangelical Americans.

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