The Dark Side of Leadership: Guest Post by Jerry Rankin

I am pleased to have Jerry Rankin, President Emeritus of the Southern Baptist International Mission Board, on the blog today.  It has been a privilege to get to know Jerry and his wife, Bobbye, in meetings we attend together.  He gave this sobering message to a group of mission CEO’s—I thought you should have a chance to hear from this man of God.

The idealized vision of leadership is often shattered once the dark side of burdensome responsibilities begin to emerge.One is often disillusioned to realize that top levels of mission leadership are not just the rewarding process of organizing for effectiveness and guiding global strategies, but entail sacrifice and suffering. A sense of empowerment and status is tarnished as the leader has to take responsibility for managing public relations fiascos, dealing with internal conflicts and moral failures, and finding a remedy for budget shortfallOne of my favorite definitions of leadership is “being responsible for what you would have been against if you had known about it.” It is impossible to micro-manage a large staff and global organization. Delegation is essential, and it is easy for things to get out of control.Unfortunately there is a personal cost of leadership, and the sacrifice entangles one’s family. We are all familiar with the principle of God first, family second and work or vocation third. But mission leadership can become totally consuming. One does not walk away and leave a crisis on the desk because the kids get home from school at four o’clock; it is a 24/7 commitment.

In 2 Timothy 1:8-12 Paul is suffering in prison because of his obedience to God’s call of leadership. He appeals to Timothy not to be ashamed but to share in suffering for the gospel. In verse 11 he says that he was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher, “which is why I suffer.”

Just as we are not saved by our own works or merit, we are not appointed leaders to a kingdom task because we are qualified and deserve it. There is a giftedness and levels of experience behind being chosen for a leadership role, but it is due to God’s purpose and grace. Paul wanted Timothy to understand that suffering goes with the territory.

In James 3:1 we are told not to aspire to becoming teachers for there is a greater judgment and accountability that goes with that role. The same could be said for leaders. The accountability demands laying on the altar any personal ambition and desire for power or esteem. But God has promised to provide what is needed.

In Exodus 4 when Moses appropriately expressed his lack of ability and qualifications, God assured him that He would provide. The staff that Moses threw down was not the same one he picked up. Mission leadership is a spiritual role, and there is an anointing that goes with that role. But it is available only to the one who is willing to lay down all personal desires and convenience for the sake of obedience as God’s servant leader.

After Jesus sent away the rich young ruler who was not willing to sacrifice all to follow Him in Mark 10, Peter exclaims, “See, we have left everything and followed you” (v. 28). The statement implies, “Now, what’s in it for us?” Jesus replied that those who had left mother or father or houses and lands for his sake and the gospel would, indeed, receive rewards a hundredfold and in the age to come eternal life.

That would be great, but He also inserted assurance of receiving persecution. We have a stereotyped concept of suffering and persecution, but they are appropriate terms for the downside of leadership. There are rewards in serving a kingdom task, but it is not without cost.  Here are some of those costs.

The loss of significant hands-on involvement

My most joyous and fulfilling role was church planting in Indonesia. There is nothing more gratifying that sharing the gospel with those who have never heard of Jesus. Seeing people come into the kingdom, discipling new believers, training indigenous leaders and seeing churches planted--that was the calling on my life.

Why would God demote me from such a significant and high calling to serve in an administrative role? Because in guiding and equipping others I could multiply effectiveness and impact far beyond what I could do as an individual missionary.

A leadership role is to fill a need of serving others or a component of the organization for which one is gifted in order for a greater synergy to occur. There were not many days of feeling overwhelmed by the burden of leadership that I did not dream of going back to the field and getting lost in the villages of East Java, but how selfish to hold on to one’s own preferences and desires instead of sacrificing them for the sake of obedience to where God has placed you.

Too much negative knowledge

One in a leadership role is exposed to the problems and conflicts within an organization that most never know about--dealing with moral failures, terminating long-term staff when incompetency becomes evident, sorting out financial mismanagement and walking the tight-rope between ethical integrity and guarding security.

The negative issues may seem to dominate, create depression and divert a leader from providing creative leadership with joy and charisma. Someone has to take on the burden of problem-solving and conflict resolution for the sake of the greater good of the organization.

Constant criticism

Everyone needs someone to blame, especially at a grassroots level of those who perceive themselves to be far-removed from decision-making. The leader is susceptible to misunderstanding and distorted perceptions. His motives will be questioned. Communication is never adequate. And criticism hurts. Criticism can also be expected from our outside constituency, and it is especially painful when attacks come from our staff or board. Sadly, people seldom are interested in the facts nor do they have grace to confirm the truth of their perceptions before speaking unjustly or writing an angry letter.

An unfortunate aspect of leadership is that criticism and personal attacks are often needed and come through God’s providence to keep us humble, broken, on our knees and dependent on Him. Sometimes the criticism is justified, but it hurts nevertheless. It is the unusual leader who embraces adversity, recognizing it as an opportunity for growth--another nail in living the crucified life which is the greatest qualifier for spiritual leadership.

Isolation and ostracism

One of the greatest costs of top-level leadership is the fact that it is lonely at the top. You are no longer a part of the “good ol’ boy” network as when you were a part of the management team. You note that conversation stops or changes when you walk in the room.

As one who relished “blue-sky” discussions and free-flowing visioning, I realized that I no longer had a personal opinion. Whenever I shared an idea, it was treated as an executive decision. It was hard to get honest feedback as the team wanted to be perceived as supporting the leader.

The cost to family

All of the factors that cost the leader spill over to the family as well. They have to suffer the loss of previous roles and relationships. My wife affirmed God’s leadership in my life as we moved into regional leadership although it entailed a relocation. We had served in Indonesia for 14 years and raised our children there. It was a grievous experience for them to leave our roots, the close-knit family relationships with missionary colleagues and national co-workers and the culture that had become home.

Moves required by my leadership role resulted in my daughter attending four different high schools. It was difficult for her socially at that age in life. She cried as she later reflected on those years, but responded to my heartfelt apology for what my work had cost her by saying, “But, daddy, you had to be obedient to what God was leading you to do, and through it all I learned that there is a cost to obedience.” Today she is faithfully serving in a difficult, isolated assignment in Central Asia.

In Matthew 10:37-38 Jesus says, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” We know he is not saying we should not love our family; indeed, Jesus clearly teaches otherwise.

But our love and devotion to His Lordship and obedience to the leadership role to which He calls us has to supersede our convenience and personal preferences. It will entail suffering and sacrifice for our family as well.

The privilege of leading in a kingdom task is an awesome privilege. There is tremendous reward in seeing visions fulfilled, strategies proven effective, personnel equipped and resourced and the kingdoms of this world becoming the kingdom of God.

But there is a cost to such a role, because it requires a crucified life. It is a role that is assured of God’s anointing and empowerment, but only as one dies to self and realizes it is not about me but about God and His glory among the nations.

Dr. Jerry Rankin is the president emeritus of the Southern Baptist International Mission Board (IMB).  He served with the IMB for 40 years, the last 17 years as president. Prior to becoming president of the IMB, Dr. Rankin and his wife Bobbye served for 23 years in Asia.  He currently speaks and writes broadly.  You can read more from Jerry at his website or follow him on Twitter @RankinOnMission.