Over the course of recent weeks, we have learned that Boko Haram has perpetrated another attack on a Nigerian village that included burning many of the victims alive in their huts and that ISIS is continuing to use local citizens as human shields in contested cities like Fallujah. The horrors of the acts are staggering, but the rapidity at which new atrocities are happening across the globe can cause us to become numb to their true impact. Evil acts are often perpetrated by isolated individuals, but Boko Haram and ISIS typify the extent to which evil can be enacted through organized leadership.
Popular leadership studies tend to focus overwhelmingly on the positive aspects of leadership. If they do bring up the negative side of leadership, it usually has to do with ineffective leadership, not moral evil. The lack of discussion in the popular sphere can be attributed to the lack of any kind of moral or ethical training in most MBA or management programs. If there is no deep reflection on evil, how do we expect to have the strength as a society to confront the evils we see on a daily basis?
One of the central problems is that within leadership studies, many of the traits that are glorified are also the traits that lead to evil actions. Take, for instance, narcissism. Malcolm Higgs, in an article on leadership and narcissism, shows that narcissism in a negative sense is seen through: arrogance, self absorption, attention-seeking, exploitation, entitlement, hypersensitivity to criticism, and poor listening skills. But he also explains that other elements of narcissism are correlated to positive leadership: confidence, the ability to focus by tuning out critical voices, and casting vision.
That’s why leadership without any moral foundation is incredibly difficult to articulate. It’s why leaders most often talk about what they’ve done rather than who they are. If we are left to measure our character as leaders on our own scale, we will always be prone to over-estimation and exaggeration, and will leave out anything negative.
We need an external source of truth outside ourselves. Teaching leadership from a biblical perspective is not popular in the mainstream culture mainly because it narrows and defines leadership in one person: Jesus. But it is this narrowing and defining that we as leaders need the most. If we teach from a secularist perspective that overvalues the significance of the individual and encourages young people to do whatever makes them happy, should we be surprised when their choices sometimes reveal sinister, ugly motives?
The lack of a defined criteria of leadership on the broader cultural level should encourage Christians to explore more vigorously how the Bible presents leadership. One of the ways we can do that is to consider how it instructs us to deal with evil and evil leadership. The following four brief points illustrate just a portion of what the Bible has to say on this complicated, deep issue.
First, we must recognize our own capacity for evil. In Matthew 15, Jesus explains to the disciples that “out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.” (Matthew 15:19) Jeremiah 17:9 adds that “the heart is deceitful above all things.” The disposition and habit of repentance is one we need to cultivate daily as followers of Christ.
Second, we must counter evil with good. Romans 12:21 commands us: “do not overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” As we seek to follow Christ by serving others, we are overcoming evil with good. As choose to love and forgive and seek reconciliation, we are overcoming evil with good. Even the most seemingly insignificant act of kindness and love is an act of courage.
Third, we must take the hard steps of confronting the evil we see around us. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of our great Christian heroes, reminds us that we cannot retreat into lives of “private virtuousness.” Instead, we must find the strength to confront evil by single-minded devotion to Jesus: “to be simple is to fix one’s eye solely on the simple truth of God at a time when all concepts are being confused, distorted and turned upside-down.”
Fourth, we must trust in God and his work of reconciliation, even when we see so much around that discourages us. Bonhoeffer leaves us with a word of tremendous hope as we seek to live courageously as Christian leaders:
“In him (Jesus) the world was reconciled with God. It is not by its overthrowing but by its reconciliation that the world is subdued. It is not by ideals and programmes or by conscience, duty, responsibility and virtue that reality can be confronted and overcome, but simply and solely by the perfect love of God. Here again it is not by a general idea of love that this is achieved, but by the really lived love of God in Jesus Christ. This love of God does not withdraw from reality into noble souls secluded from the world. It experiences and suffers the reality of the world in all its hardness.”