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Killing the Jerk Gene in Leadership

  • Daniel Darling

    Daniel Darlingis the Director of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement. He previously served as the Senior VP for Communications at National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) and VP of Communications…

  • Updated Jun 20, 2012


In a defense of polarizing NBA superstar Lebron James, sportswriter Rick Reilly wrote this: 

You think of the great athletes of our generation -- Jordan, Woods, Lance Armstrong. They all had a bit of the jerk gene in them. James is missing it. He is loved by his teammates, not feared. So sue.

I'm not a big fan of Lebron James or the Miami Heat (if you've read my Twitter feed, you'll most certainly know this). I'm a Bulls fan that who feels it is a moral imperative for the Miami Heat to continually lose. That heavy bias aside, Reilly's piece was spot-on. Lebron is hated by sports fans, in many ways, because he's not a jerk like Michael or Woods or others. He's not cutthroat. 

The question is this: must you have a "jerk gene" to be a great leader? I've heard this conversation, not simply about athletes, but leaders of all stripes, including pastors. I've heard it said that this trait is indispensable for a successful coach or CEO or pastor. 

But I beg to differ. Not only do I think a "jerk gene" is unnecessary. I think it's unhealthy, and as I read more of what Jesus and Paul and James and Peter say about leadership, unbiblical. Sadly, there are certain circles in Christian leadership that highly prize the jerk gene. Of course it's not phrased this way. We speak of "toughness" or "willingness to take a stand." Often what we mean, however, is an authoritarian, "my way or the highway" style of leadership. I've been in pastoral gatherings where pastors traded war stories of the people they "told off, " one-upping each other on the various ways they used the Bible to deliver a creative and sarcastic comeback to some ignorant parishioner. Thankfully none of these men were my models. 

To be sure, there is a place in Christian leadership for strength, for rebuke, for confrontation, for resolve. To lead well takes courage. But if you read every passage about Christian leadership in the Bible, you will inevitably find words like "gentleness, servanthood, kindness." You will find warnings against things like "brawling, contention, division." You will hear Jesus say that the world prizes authoritarian leadership, but the Kingdom model is something different (Matthew 20:25-28). 

I have heard pastors or their fans excuse their out of control behavior by saying things like, "Well, all great leaders act this way." And to an extent they are right. But again, are we not supposed to be different? The world says that the "jerk gene" is necessary for greatness. Jesus says that servanthood is the way to greatness. How can we spiritually lead our people if we use worldly leadership models? The truth is that we can't, at least effectively. We may browbeat people into submission and create a culture of fear. It may "work" but it may not be what God intended for His church. 

There is a place in leadership for firmness, for being resolute, even times when controlled anger is necessary. But the point of our courage shouldn't be to defend ourselves or our authority, but in service of the body. In other words, our leadership should not simply be about us and who we are, but about what we are doing to build up Christ's body. 

I dare say that every human has a "jerk gene" in them, innate selfishness brought about by the Fall. It is this fleshly nature Jesus came to kill and so we must cooperate with the Holy Spirit in putting our ego to death and replacing it with servanthood.