Monday, June 2, 2014

Leadership as Influence: Populism for the People

Leadership is influence. This identity sounds innocent enough, even flattering, yet as a definition it is too broad. The application is thus likely to be too broad also. Everyone is reckoned a leader, and no one a follower. Everyone is above average, and everyone is important. For lack of a better label, leadership is modern populism.

Being a student of comparative religion, I still occasionally visit the places of various religions and sects therein. On one Sunday morning, I listened as the pastor of an evangelical Christian megachurch talked about leadership as influence in a sermon that took up nearly the entire service. Parents, teachers, students, and artists—the cashiers at Walmart—and many other roles are actually leadership roles, according to the middle-aged pastor dressed in casual clothes presumably to fit in. “You need to get over the hurdle,” he said as if preaching to the choir, “of thinking that leadership only applies to kings and people on stages.” As influence, leadership applies to virtually anyone—all of us. Populism was the real message. Everyone in his congregation, and the many more he hoped would be added, are important. “A kingdom is actually any place of influence,” he said to rid leadership of its usual applicability. "Everyone is a king in his or her own kingdom by virtue of simply having influence." If everyone is a leader, who is left to follow? 

Theologically, the influence is God-given (Dan 4:17), for God is sovereign, after all. Yet it does not follow that the influence corresponds to the human concept of leadership. That leadership as influence is dangerously tautological, or too broadly defined, to have much integrity as a concept can be likened to collateral damage; the pastor’s ideological agenda of populism lines up nicely with his overarching goal to “grow the membership.” At the end of another sermon—also broadcast on a local television channel—he begged his congregants to bring their friends to church. Do whatever you have to! Just get them here!  In the context of such emotional investment in increasing his revenue base, as could be concluded from the fact that he drove a European sports car and brandished his gold American Express card at the local Starbucks, the emasculation of leadership of any real substance could easily be dismissed. “We are all experts,” the pastor might retort to a rare objector, even if such a foreign entity happened to actually be an expert on the topic. 

Nevertheless, to have influence—even to lead a congregation—does not mean that the person understands influence, or leadership more specifically. In assuming that having influence is always and necessarily a good thing, the minister had not an inkling of Oscar Wilde's reservations. "Influence is simply a transference of personality, a mode of giving away what is most precious in one's self, and its exercise produces a sense, and it may be, a reality of loss. Every disciple takes away something from his master."[1] A person caught up with his or her own influence, whether to get congregants to bring their friends to church or to squeeze out a bit more profit, is likely to miss the downside and thus to praise influence far and wide, beyond the influencer's native ken. 

1. Oscar Wilde, "The Portrait of Mr. W. H."