Purpose matters

When you read about leadership, discern the purposes of the author and compare those purposes with yours.

Sometimes the simple things are the easiest to overlook.

We all know that the purpose of an effort or an organization makes a difference in the activities, the culture and the leadership. Other things matter as well, but purpose seems too simple to even bother mentioning.

Yet, when most of the books on leadership come from the military and business fields, do we consider the purposes of these industries as we read? It stands to reason that the purpose of an industry would have a significant impact on the models and methods of leadership.

One complication is that the purpose of a given industry is often in tension. For example, some would say that the purpose of the military is victory. Others would argue that the purpose is maintaining peace. These purposes might be related, but they are not the same. Aiming for victory might lead to bombing a community’s water supply to cut off water to an army. Aiming for peace might suggest that the long-term implications for civilians would outweigh the short-term gain of slowing down the army.

Similar complications are found in the purpose of business. Some aim for maximum shareholder value. Others aim for a profit. Once again, these purposes are aligned but are not the same. The factors that influence shareholder value include market share and growth rate. Companies can have excellent returns measured by profits and not invest much money in marketing. The result might be a low growth rate and lower share prices. Profit and shareholder value include many of the same measures, but the ultimate purpose determines how much weight each measure is given.

Christian views of leadership also include some of these same tensions. Some Christians aim to evangelize the world, leading as many people as possible to accept Jesus Christ as Lord. Others say the purpose of leadership is pointing to and participating in God’s reign. These purposes are aligned, but have some overlapping and some distinct activities.

When I was growing up, evangelizing the world meant getting every person to confess Jesus Christ is Lord. It was fine to provide clothes and food, but the purpose of those acts of kindness was to encourage a commitment to Christ.

At Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, we have articulated the purpose of Christian leadership as the cultivation of thriving communities that are signs, foretastes and instruments of the reign of God.

We believe that God has all the power needed to establish God’s reign. Our role is to actively participate in the creation of communities in this world that point to and provide a taste of God’s reign. God can use our work as an instrument. This includes sharing about Christ’s love and inviting the listener to confess his sins and proclaim Jesus as Lord. Being an instrument also includes sharing the abundance of creation with others in terms of food and shelter and, in so doing, creating the conditions for thriving in this day and time.

Clearly these are all theological convictions about which the Church has disagreed over the years. I don’t intend to persuade you that we are right. I encourage you to write your own purpose.

When you read about leadership, discern the purposes of the author and compare those purposes with yours. What is similar, and what is different? What should you listen to, and what might you leave behind?

Leadership requires a set of techniques. These can be picked up from all sorts of sources. One of the reasons that Faith & Leadership seeks out material from many different disciplines is because there is so much we can learn. Yet in all this learning, we do need to discern what is helpful. A great place to start is by asking, “What is this author’s purpose?”