Leadership Theory and the Church

Introduction

Intuitively, charismatic and transformational styles of leadership sit well within the Christian ethos. The Bible understood charismatic traits to be gifts of God in the Old1John L. McLaughlin, “Charismatic Leadership in the Bible,” The Bible Today 56, no. 4 (2018) and New Testaments.2Jay A. Conger, “Charismatic Leadership,” in The Sage Handbook of Leadership, ed. Alan Bryman, et al. (Los Angeles: Sage Publications Inc., 2011). See 1 Corinthians 12:4-11 Transformation is a major recurring Christian theme: The New Testament understands the word μετανοια as a turning away from former ways to God, i.e., a transformation;3Μετανοια in English translations of the New Testament is generally rendered as “repentance.” The manner by which Jesus trained his disciples is a type of mentoring, a characteristic of transformational leadership.4Matt Thomas, “The Indispensable Mark of Christian Leadership: Implications from Christ’s Methods of Leadership Development in Mark’s Gospel,” Perichoresis: The Theological Journal of Emanuel University 16, no. 3 (2018). Thus, theories on transformational and charismatic leadership should provide insights to pastoral leadership even if these theories derive mostly from secular business organizations.5Alice Stewart, “The Workplace of the Organised Church: Theories of Leadership and the Christian Leader,” Culture and Religion 9, no. 3 (2008). p306.

Notwithstanding decades of intensive leadership research, fundamental questions remain. Attempts to elaborate a General Theory of Leadership has so far been unsuccessful.6Georgia Sorenson, George Goethals, and Paige Haber, “The Enduring and Elusive Quest for a General Theory of Leadership: Initial Efforts and New Horizons,” in The Sage Handbook of Leadership, ed. Alan Bryman, et al. (Los Angeles: Sage Publications Inc, 2011). A novel perspective, the sacred space in which leadership emerges and exists7Keith Grint, “The Sacred in Leadership: Separation, Sacrifice and Silence,” Organization Studies 31, no. 1 (2009); David J. Worley, “Sacralizing Leadership: The Role of the Sacred in Enabling Organizational Sensemaking, Cohesion, and Identity,” Leadership 15, no. 5 (2018).
appears to be a step in this direction.

Transformational/Charismatic Leadership – History and Current Thought

Bass first proposed a binary understanding of leadership: transactional which metes out reward or punishment contingent on production; or, transformational, a style that elicits extraordinary outcomes beyond the expected.8Bernard M. Bass, Leadership and Performance Beyond Expectations (New York London: Free Press Collier Macmillan, 1985). In turn, transformational leaders are understood to have charismatic traits,9Bass, 35. charisma taken to be the lynchpin of transformational leadership.10Sverre Spoelstra, “The Paradigm of the Charismatic Leader,” Leadership 15, no. 6 (2019). 11-25.

There is general agreement that transformational leadership has four components:11Bernard M. Bass and Ronald E. Riggio, Transformational Leadership, 2nd ed. (Mahwah, N.J.: L. Erlbaum Associates, 2006); Héctor Díaz-Sáenz, “Transformational Leadership,” in The Sage Handbook of Leadership, ed. Alan Bryman, et al. (Los Angeles: Sage Publications Inc., 2011); Ketan H Mhatre and Ronald Riggio, “Charismatic and Transformational Leadership: Past, Present and Future,” in The Oxford Handbook of Leadership and Organizations, ed. David V. Day (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014); Deborah Foulkes-Bert et al., “The Relationship between Transformational Leadership Behavior, Adult Attachment, and God Attachment,” Journal of Psychology & Theology 47, no. 1 (2019); Peter Guy Northouse, Leadership : Theory and Practice, Eighth Edition. ed. (Los Angeles: SAGE Publications, 2019), 169-173. (a) Idealized influence; (b) Inspirational motivation; (c) Intellectual stimulation, and (d) Individualized consideration. First (a), idealized influence exists when the leader is a strong role model with whom the followers identify and emulate. The leader elicits trust and respect which is a charismatic trait. Further, the leader is perceived as highly moral with high ethical standards. Second (b), inspirational motivation arises from the leader’s exceptional communication skills who uses symbols and emotional appeals to motivate followers to achieve goals that go beyond their own self-interest. Additionally, the leader displays a commitment to the goals, elaborates a clear vision for the followership, and creates momentum to attain that vision. Third (c), intellectual stimulation is generated when the leader is creative and innovative, open to and supportive of followers in finding new solutions to old problems. Fourth (d), individualized consideration refers to the attentiveness of the leader to the needs of the followers. The leader acts as coach and/or adviser and creates conditions in which followers will most likely succeed.

Max Weber first ported the concept of charisma from its seat in the religious world into the secular.12Max Weber, “The Three Types of Legitimate Rule,” in Complex Organizations : A Sociological Reader, ed. Amitai Etzioni (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1961). The charismatic leader was imagined having uniquely extraordinary and Messiah-like powers enabling him/her to save followers from a crisis or an upheaval. Charismatic leadership however is not purely leader-centric but also relational. Weber: “Charismatic authority rests on the affectual and personal devotion of the follower to the lord.”13Weber, 10, 13 By nature this renders charismatic leadership unstable. The leader’s influence and authority exists only insofar as he/she is able to continually demonstrate or prove extraordinary powers for the benefit of the followers. In sum, charismatic authority emerges from two components: (a) the traits of the leader; and, (b) the attribution of authority by the followers to that individual.14Jay Alden Conger and Rabindra Nath Kanungo, Charismatic Leadership in Organizations (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1998); John Antonakis et al., “Charisma: An Ill-Defined and Ill-Measured Gift,” Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior 3, no. 1 (2016): 304.

The five traits that characterize charismatic leadership are indeed always in relation to followership directly and/or indirectly: (a) an extraordinarily gifted individual; (b) a crisis or desperate situation; (c) a solution to the crisis; (d) followers attracted to the gifted individual; (e) validation of the giftedness of the individual through repeated success.1515 Harrison M. Trice and Janice M. Beyer, “Charisma and Its Routinization in Two Social Movement Organizations,” Research in Organizational Behavior 8 (1986); Spoelstra, “The Paradigm of the Charismatic Leader.” 20-22.The charismatic leader maintains authority through a cyclical process of: (a) eliciting a motivating emotion among the followership; (b) directing the emotional forces to achieve the vision; (c) using positive outcomes as a springboard to restart the cycle.16Thomas Sy, Calen Horton, and Ronald Riggio, “Charismatic Leadership: Eliciting and Channeling Follower Emotions,” The Leadership Quarterly 29, no. 1 (2018). If the venture fails at step c, the cycle will break, the leadership fail.

There are calls to rethink the validity of both the transformational and charismatic models of leadership. The criticism focuses on a circularity between the instruments developed to ascertain transformational and charismatic styles, and then the use of the results thereof to define transformational and charismatic leadership.17Daan van Knippenberg and Sim B. Sitkin, “A Critical Assessment of Charismatic—Transformational Leadership Research: Back to the Drawing Board?,” Academy of Management Annals 7, no. 1 (2013); Antonakis et al., “Charisma: An Ill-Defined and Ill-Measured Gift.” Further, there are no hypotheses on how these various elements interact to form transformational and/or charismatic leadership. The problem arises from the endogeneity of the marker traits: they are not independent variables per se. Consequently, it is impossible to assign causality to any of these markers.

The difficulties in elaborating robust hypotheses to explain transformational and charismatic styles have led to calls to abandon these constructs and restart the process of theorizing on leadership.18van Knippenberg and Sitkin, “A Critical Assessment of Charismatic—Transformational Leadership Research: Back to the Drawing Board?” New approaches have been proposed. Antonakis et al. employed signal theory to define charisma in what they believe is a more precise manner: “Charisma is values-based, symbolic, and emotion-laden leader signaling.”19Antonakis et al., “Charisma: An Ill-Defined and Ill-Measured Gift.” 304. For their part, defending the utility of the four factors of transformational leadership,20See above. Deinert et al. proposed that the dimensions of each of the four factors be evaluated on the basis of the five major personality antecedents.21Anika Deinert et al., “Transformational Leadership Sub-Dimensions and Their Link to Leaders’ Personality and Performance,” The Leadership Quarterly 26, no. 6 (2015). The five major personality traits are: neuroticism; extraversion; openness to experience; agreeableness; conscientiousness. They propose that if the factors have significantly different personality antecedents, they are independent variables in and of themselves and quantifiable as such.

Others have proposed new research directions. Sianchokyoo et al. noted that which has been largely ignored: “a leader isn’t truly ‘transformational’ unless followers are transformed.”22Nathapon Siangchokyoo, Ryan L. Klinger, and Emily D. Campion, “Follower Transformation as the Linchpin of Transformational Leadership Theory: A Systematic Review and Future Research Agenda,” The Leadership Quarterly 31, no. 1 (2020). The majority of literature on the transformational style has indeed been centered on the traits of the leader23Travis L. Jones, “A New Transformational Leadership: A Meadian Framework for a New Way Forward,” Leadership 15, no. 5 (2018). without elaborating a theory of transformation per se. Research in these areas should be forthcoming.

Key learnings for pastoral leadership in the Western world

The Crossroads Church in Cincinnati is an example. Founded by former executives at Procter & Gamble, this multi-campus church is one of the fastest growing churches in the U.S.A.24Kelly Carr and Jonathan P. Willis, “The Business of Growing a Church: How Cincinnati’s Crossroads Uses Entrepreneurial Strategies for Gospel Ends,” Christianity Today 62, no. 4 (2018). The leadership exhibits charismatic/transformational traits: the senior pastor claims a divine calling through the Holy Spirit citing the metaphor of “new wineskins”;25Matthew 9:17; Mark 2:22 and Luke 5:33-39. the leadership is futuristic in that it has mapped out new directions attuned to the ethos of the male 25-35 age group; the crisis they engage are “a growing anxiety about jobs” and “a decline in church attendance in young people”;26Carr and Willis, 55. repeated success is evidenced by the 25% annual growth. Followership loyalty is expressed in a member’s statement: “If God has placed this on the hearts of our leaders, then we must trust what God is doing.”27Carr and Willis, 56. The transformational trait of new directions finds support in the Gospel of Mark.28Fryar, “Jesus as Leader in Mark’s Gospel: Reflecting on the Place of Transformational Leadership in Developing Leaders of Leaders in the Church Today,” Lutheran Theological Journal 41, no. 3 (2007). Jesus challenged the status quo and pointed to a new way of life.29Examples: Mark 2:8, 16-18, 23-28; Mark 3:5-6, 22-30; Mark 4:40; Mark 7:18; Mark 8:17-21, 30. He mentored his disciples30Examples: Mark 1:16ff; 6:7-12, 30-32. and modeled a new ethic centered on Godly moral values.31Example: Mark 11:15-17.

Ambiguities remain. In a new religious movement in Alberta, Joosse observed that unwitting displays of the leader’s “ordinariness” lowered his charismatic and transformational image.32Paul Joosse, “The Presentation of the Charismatic Self in Everyday Life: Reflections on a Canadian New Religious Movement,” Sociology of Religion 73, no. 2 (2012). In contrast, a study on twelve megachurches in the U.S.A. found that the senior pastors’ “ordinariness” enhanced the followership’s emotional attachment,33Katie E. Corcoran and James K. Wellman, Jr., “‘People Forget He’s Human’: Charismatic Leadership in Institutionalized Religion,” Sociology of Religion 77, no. 4 (2016). one of four traits of charismatic leadership.34See above. These contrasting findings call attention to a different dynamic in the attribution of charismatic authority to leaders in a new and small religious movement relative to that in more established and larger churches. To be effective, the transformational pastor must know how to navigate the thin boundary between “one of us” and “apart from us.”

In another study, Carter found statistically significant positive correlations between pastor effectiveness and the four traits of transformational leadership.35Judith Corbett Carter, “Transformational Leadership and Pastoral Leader Effectiveness,” Pastoral Psychology 58, no. 3 (2009). The subjects were ninety-three U.S.A. pastors. Of the four transformational traits, “Individualized consideration”36See above. was found to be a significant predictor of pastor effectiveness.37Pastor effectiveness was measured using a questionnaire developed by the author. Unfortunately, the questionnaire is not available online and is unpublished elsewhere. Thus, there is no verification of the validity of the instrument. Pastors who are alert to the needs of church members, who engage in individualized mentoring or coaching, and who create a positive environment in the church are perceived as effective. Similar to this is a study on German evangelical churches which found the same positive correlation between transformational leadership and pastor effectiveness.3838 Jens Rowold, “Effects of Transactional and Transformational Leadership of Pastors,” Pastoral Psychology 56, no. 4 (2008).

Lastly, implicit in the story of Crossroads Church above is the necessary engagement of the followership. Hansbrough and Schyns found that transformational leadership appeals only to followers who are themselves conscientious.39Hansbrough and Schyns, 29. Conscientiousness is defined as “self-determined and focused on high performance goals.” This model will work only if the followership is as motivated and determined as the leader.

the sacred space of leadership parallels Christian theology and praxis with respect to all components in both contributions by Grint and Worley. With respect to separation, Christian theology holds that God is the Wholly Other. Sacrifice and scapegoating point to Christ on the cross. With respect to silence, confidence in Christ’s work neutralizes existential fear. Worley’s feedback loop represents the ongoing process of theological inquiry, with Christianity’s core beliefs remaining the same

Leadership in a sacred space

Studies on transformational and charismatic models have dominated leadership research over the past decades,4040 Mhatre and Riggio, “Charismatic and Transformational Leadership: Past, Present and Future.” In The Oxford Handbook of Leadership and Organizations, ed. D.V. Day (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014). indications of possible diminished interest in the last few years notwithstanding.4141 William L. Gardner et al., “The Leadership Trilogy: A Review of the Third Decade of the Leadership Quarterly,” The Leadership Quarterly 31, no. 1 (2020). Despite extensive studies on these and other models there has yet been no consensus on the nature of leadership itself and why it even exists. A General Theory on Leadership that would serve as a starting point for all leadership phenomena remains elusive.42Sorenson, Goethals, and Haber, “The Enduring and Elusive Quest for a General Theory of Leadership: Initial Efforts and New Horizons.” The sacred space theory first proposed by Grint43Grint, “The Sacred in Leadership: Separation, Sacrifice and Silence.” and expanded by Worley44Worley, “Sacralizing Leadership: The Role of the Sacred in Enabling Organizational Sensemaking, Cohesion, and Identity.” promises to be a potential way forward towards elucidating the nature of all leadership.

Grint reviewed the traditional and historical view of leadership dominated by men: saints, heroes or gods with extraordinary abilities and powerful influence with a followership devoid of such.45 The irony is not lost that this traditional stance resurfaced in the charismatic and transformational leadership models. The reaction to this hegemony was a push towards theories of distributive or collective leadership, or one where leadership is unnecessary or at most merely temporal and contingent on need. Grint contends that on a large scale, these alternative theories either have not worked or lasted long. He cites the French Revolution as an attempt at a distributed leadership that overthrew centralized leadership represented by the monarchy and the Catholic Church. The violent movement morphed through several iterations: the Cult of Reason, the Cult of the Supreme Being, and back to Catholicism and the Emperor Napoleon. Durkheim in studying primitive religions proposed that a society sacralizes its essence, ideas and symbols into a collective entity and sacralizing them as god(s).46Émile Durkheim, Carol Cosman, and Mark Sydney Cladis, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford ;: Oxford University Press, 2001). Thus, the French Revolution’s objective to equalize and to rid itself of religion itself became sacralized. This propensity to make collective identity sacred brought France back to where it began – Catholicism and Empire. The propensity to sacralize collective identity creates the sacred space for leadership.

The fundamental characteristics of leadership according to Grint derive from the nature of the sacred itself: separation, sacrifice and silencing. First, attribution of authority is itself a separation, a distancing of leadership from followership. Without separation there is no leadership. Further, distancing permits the followership to absolve themselves of organizational outcomes, a nod to existentialism. Distancing gives space to the leadership to see patterns “from above” and to execute tasks dispassionately. At the same time, breaching the divide can lead to new paradigms – a transformational characteristic. Grint cites Gorbachev as an example, one who transgressed the boundaries of the Communist Party which led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Second, Grint argues that sacrifice “constructs the sacred space without which leadership cannot occur.”47Grint, 100. Sacrifice and scapegoating are endemic in all organizations. Martyrdom intensifies organizational loyalty and cohesion be it religious or patriotic. George Patton’s infamous speech on making the enemy sacrifice their lives inspired his troops. Employment termination, demotions and removal of CEOs are all forms of sacrifice. Lee Iacocca’s $1/year salary was a public statement of sacrifice. Third, as the sacred evokes silence and reverence, leadership can attenuate anxieties of the followership. The Existentialist fear of freedom explains the followership’s need for leadership. The responsibilities that come with complete freedom of will is too heavy a burden for most. Delegation of responsibilities to a leadership relieves the angst. Grint goes back to traditional understandings: “post-heroic alternatives remain unviable because they would undermine the sacred nature of leadership and that… would destabilize the ability of an organization to function.”48Grint, 103.

Taking Grint’s lead, Worley affirms that “leadership functions as sacred in our… world”49Worley, 591. in the Durkheimian sense:50Durkheim et al. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life societies continually create sacred entities embodied in leaders. For Durkheim, societies sacralize that which is the essence of the collective, and that which is held sacred in turn interprets the collective back to the individual. The society constructs its meaning via complex relationships within, sacralizes it, and the “made-sacred” feeds back into the individual as if coming from the “outside.” Sacralized leadership emerges from this necessarily compulsive meaning-making, the feedback cycle underlying the fluidity of what the society deems sacred to itself. Thus, leadership concentrated on a few or the one is always inevitable be it on the rise or in decline. It generates group cohesion and generates meaning for the individual within the organization. Worley disagrees with Grint on the primacy of sacrifice as that which generates space for leadership. To Worley, the society’s collective identity and its values remain the same; sacrifice merely re-initiates sacralization in the feedback loop. The sacrifice of firing of a leader is meant to preserve the society as it is and to restart sacralization of the new or incoming leadership.51I hold that Worley’s critique of Grint, re, the primacy of sacrifice, is weak. Worley’s insistence that sacrifice merely initiates re-sacralization is equivalent to stating that sacrifice is necessary for re-sacralization to occur. This is qualitatively the same as Grint’s thesis, that sacrifice creates the space in which leadership operates.

It is evident that the concept of the sacred space of leadership parallels Christian theology and praxis with respect to all components in both contributions by Grint and Worley. With respect to separation, Christian theology holds that God is the Wholly Other. Sacrifice and scapegoating point to Christ on the cross. With respect to silence, confidence in Christ’s work neutralizes existential fear. Worley’s feedback loop represents the ongoing process of theological inquiry, with Christianity’s core beliefs remaining the same.


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