We have hosted a monthly men’s forum periodically over the years, and this year’s topic is dedicated to leadership. Each month we are watching video clips giving some significant exhortation on what great leadership is. This month’s meeting began with a clip from a Patrick Lencioni talk on the Five Dysfunctions of a Team which you can find here. We watched the first twelve minutes or so in which Lencioni covers his first rule for leadership teams, which is the necessity of “vulnerability-based trust.” What Lencioni means is that leadership requires the kind of honesty that can admit failures and weaknesses. When a leader refuses to trust his team by admitting mistakes or deficiencies, he signals his fellow team members that it is not safe to admit weaknesses. And when a leadership team is unwilling to admit weaknesses or failures, it’s only a matter of time before the ship is sunk. Leaders who are unwilling to admit weaknesses or blindspots cannot make course corrections, and most importantly, people cannot really trust them because they cannot be trusted to tell the truth. All significant decisions are ultimately measured against the ego or image of a leader or group of leaders, rather than against the truth, reality, justice, etc.
Lencioni is a practicing Roman Catholic and explicitly roots this appeal to leaders to admit their humanity in the incarnation, God’s condescension to us, embracing our humanity in all of its limitations and humiliation. If God is willing to be vulnerable in this way to us, how much more so should humans admit their own limitations, weaknesses, their own humanity? And of course Lencioni’s message resonates with many people because he’s pointing out something that is unmistakably true. A pastor that will not admit failures or wrongs cannot expect a congregation to trust him, much less follow him. A husband who is impervious to the admonitions and input of his wife is leading his marriage into certain disaster. A father who never apologizes to his children is raising hypocrites who will neither respect him nor trust him.
But one of the other important factors that people need to keep their eye on is the way the incarnation has changed the world. In some ways, we are light years away from the simple Achillean or Odyssian or even Alexandrian hero codes of the ancient world. Thanks in great part to the success of the gospel, heroes today are rarely the god-like Odysseus or god-like Achilles or Alexander the Great conquerors. Heroes today are made much more human, with weaknesses and vulnerabilities, and (importantly) those weaknesses are what make us trust them, relate to them, look up to them. While the ancient heroes all had weaknesses and vulnerabilities (like an uncharmed heel for example) — they were tragic weaknesses, and the real virtues in the ancient heroes were their imperviousness, stubbornness, tenacity, and unyielding pride, even to the point of death. And all that is to say that part of what we are up against in our modern context is an insidious mixture of both of these ways of existing and leading in this world. In other words, because Jesus has become a cultural “hero”, people rarely lead with the grasping braggadocio of an Achilles anymore even though their hearts are still frequently chalk full of it. So what they lead with instead is a mincing, apologetic, faux-vulnerability in order to get what they want. I believe the clinical name for this is passive aggressive.
So what’s to be done? The answer is the gospel, and I don’t mean that as a hand-waving, topic changing distraction tactic. I mean that the death and resurrection of Jesus is both the source of and model for Christian leadership. In the death of Jesus we do see true humility, awful vulnerability, a shame-filled identification with weakness and sin. “He who knew no sin became sin for us” (2 Cor. 5:21). “Though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6-8). Lencioni says in his talk that great leaders let their people see them sweat. And when Jesus faced the agony of the cross, He allowed His disciples to see Him in agony in prayer, “and His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Lk. 22:44). And from the cross, Jesus was no stoic, He cried out in agony, in loss, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
This is true vulnerability and weakness, and in the first instance, it is vulnerability for us, for our sakes. He became sin for us. He became sin for our sin. And this is the only basis upon which human beings can brave the scrutiny of the world. It is precisely because Jesus became vulnerable in this way that human beings can become vulnerable to others and for others in the right way. We can confess our sins, admit our failures, and own our weaknesses because Jesus is our righteousness. The truth about our sin and weakness is claimed by Jesus in His death. Absolute justice has been done. God’s perfect justice has been satisfied, and therefore God has gladly accepted us. He doesn’t receive us for sentimental reasons. He receives us on account of the death of His beloved Son.
And it is for the very same reason that we must refuse to participate in every duplicitous form of vulnerability. The deep hunger and yearning many have for their leaders to be vulnerable is actually an idolatrous desire for another savior. And every time a leader caves to demands for an apology when the facts don’t call for one, he’s failing to lead and represent Jesus well. He’s unintentionally (usually) and ironically attempting to take the wrong hit. And this is why it’s done so often and so easily by Christian leaders. We instinctively know that we must imitate Jesus and take hits for our people. But sometimes the right hit is the one of bearing with the demands for vulnerability and cheerfully, patiently refusing to budge. It turns out that refusing to budge is actually a far less popular form of vulnerability. It’s the sort of vulnerability that will get you nailed to a cross naked. The books of Job and Psalms are also full of this kind of stubborn and righteous vulnerability.
Not only did Jesus make Himself weak and vulnerable for us and for our sins, but He did so by telling the truth about sin, Satan, and death and refusing to apologize for it. His vulnerability included His identification with us and our weakness, but it also included His identification with His Father and the truth of His calling. In other words, as one of the gents at our men’s forum discussion pointed out the other night: true, biblical vulnerability is first of all and most fundamentally the righteousness that comes from complete vulnerability before God. A leader who is completely vulnerable before God has only one hope and that is the blood and righteousness of Jesus. It is only there, by faith in the finished work of Christ, that he has what it takes to openly and readily admit true failures when they occur and resolutely stand by his obedience despite all appearances. Because it isn’t about him. It isn’t about his ego or his pride or his brand. It’s about Jesus. It’s about the truth. It’s about the gospel of free grace.