Gradually, then Suddenly. How the Cult of Leadership Has Finally Died

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“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked. “Two ways,” Mike said.

Gradually, then suddenly.” – Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises

Financially bankrupt. Or, morally. The description works in every instance. Leaders don’t wake up one morning and decide, I think I’ll have sex with my secretary today. At least, not the first time. Or, Today I think it’s time to annihilate another million countrymen.

You get the point. Years ago while completing the research for my doctoral dissertation, I concluded my extensive interview with Jim Bakker — recently released from prison, remarried and relocated to Branson, Missouri — with an offer to hypothesize about his moral downfall. Much to my surprise, he agreed to listen. I don’t have time nor space herein to review the full conversation. But let it suffice, and you add your own imaginative fill-in-the-blanks efforts, that it was a parable of gradually then, suddenly.

We once attended a thriving and growing church whose charismatic pastor was suddenly toppled from his pedestal due to a shocking moral failure. Had clues been evident for years? Probably. But the congregation’s deep need to idolize a leader heaped great fodder on the conflagration into which he fell and burned.

What is it with the human need to hyper-elevate leaders?

· Ancient Israelis demanded a king. God gave them Saul.

· Broken and defeated Germany demanded their soul and global status be restored after WWI. Welcome, Adolf.

· Marginalized and impoverished masses in China and Russia wanted revolution. They got Mao and Stalin.

And the list of “Worst Christian Leaders” is a fascinating study. Google it and you may agree.

A recent Fast Company article argues the intriguing proposition that the leadership cult of personality is dead. Citing examples like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, the author argues that a new and better way of decision-making and corporate success has arrived, collective intelligence.

A strong case is made for the benefits of this new wave of leadership:

· Diversity and inclusion open opportunities to “do more with more: new concepts, solutions and innovations.”

· Teams (collectively) working with leaders results in happier customers and a more robust bottom line.

· Active Intelligence — the state of continuous learning — results from a collective effort.

· Teamwork + big data = unparalleled and sustainable growth.

This is related. Just stay with me. Many years ago while I served as the Executive Producer for The 700 Club, a guest asked me what I thought the next move of God would look like. Not sure why he asked me, but my response was instant, It will be a grass-roots, non-celebrity driven phenomenon.

And the long list of debunked celebrity religious leaders since then makes my point. I still believe that prognostication to be true some 20+ years later.

We know the problems with fallen leaders. Nothing has changed since King Saul’s debacle. And former Wyoming senator Alan K. Simpson’s summary still rings true,

If you have integrity, nothing else matters. If you don’t have integrity, nothing else matters.

Here’s the point. Famous people (highly celebrated leaders in any field or ministry) too often become “intoxicated” by the power and prestige they’re given. Sycophants say “yes!” and, “that’s a brilliant idea!” Followers fawn. The public may or may not agree, but for those certain niched few, the media attention is overwhelming. And leaders fall into the truism, they believe their own press releases.

Much like I opined with Bakker, after an extended season of this adulation — and for many Christian leaders — the perception that God is making an exception just for them because of their “great value” to the Kingdom (that’s called delusion and deception), comes a distortion so pervasive that a return to rational or sobering honesty becomes impossible.

St. Paul’s prophetic vision of “last days” immorality also aptly describes celebrated leaders and their over-inflated sense of self today,” People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God — having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people. (2 Timothy 3:2–5)

Here’s what leadership guru Jim Collins noted about toxic celebrity leaders 20 years ago:

Virtually everything our modern culture believes about the type of leadership required to transform our institutions is wrong. It is also dangerous. There is perhaps no more corrosive trend to the health of our organizations than the rise of the celebrity CEO, the rock-star leader whose deepest ambition is first and foremost self-centric.

So, what is the antidote to the over-inflated egos and the often disastrous effects heaped on celebrated leaders’ organizations?

Let’s return to Jim Collins’ prescriptions from his seminal book, Good to Great.

Collins coined a concept: Level 5 Leadership. These are leaders, he discovered in his research of successful CEOs, who displayed a powerful mixture of personal humility and indomitable will. Additionally, they were ambitious, but ambition focused on the corporate cause, the enterprise they led and its purpose. Not personal ambition. He also discovered many Level 5 leaders to be personally self-effacing, quiet, reserved — even, shy. Their source of inspiring the “troops” was not their inspirational personality, but rather their focus on inspiring standards: goals, vision, action.

Let’s review, for those who’ve read the tome. And enlighten those who are yet to read it.

Collins’ framework describes a process of buildup that leads from good to great. He explains these three stages of healthy leadership that will move an organization forward:

· Disciplined People

· Disciplined Thought

· Disciplined Action

Disciplined People. It is within this construct that the ubiquitous mantra, Get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats was coined. Once everyone is on the bus, then disciplined leaders determine WHERE to drive the bus (enterprise). And he sets the record straight: the old adage that people are your greatest asset is wrong. Rather, he teaches, the right people become your greatest assets. This is all about a clear understanding of FIT.

Disciplined Thought. Herein, Collins urges aspiring Level 5 leaders to confront the brutal realities of their competitive environments along with honest internal assessments without losing faith in their long-term goals and plans. This is about maintaining an unwavering faith that success is possible and even imminent while simultaneously facing the very real challenges that confront your organization. For the religiously inclined, this one will preach!

Disciplined leadership thinking also includes what the author calls transcending the curse of competence. Think: Always Challenge the Process! In this case, Collins prescribes a realistic evaluation of your organization’s ability to be the very best in your space. If you aren’t, can’t or aren’t on a strong path to becoming great, you’ll remain at good.

Disciplined Action. Fascinating insights here about an internal culture of discipline. Collins’ truism goes like this, When you have disciplined people, you don’t need hierarchy. When you have disciplined thought, you don’t need bureaucracy. When you have disciplined action, you don’t need excessive controls. Corporate discipline + entrepreneurship = great performance.

Finally, under this action construct is the wise use of technology as an accelerator toward greatness. Smart companies use carefully selected technologies. The tech alone isn’t what makes a team great. It’s merely a well-used tool.

For the cult of celebrity leaders to finally dissolve into the ash heap of leadership history, one prescription must be taken: HUMILITY must replace ego, narcissism and the intoxication of celebrity and power.

The True North leaders’ handbook, The Bible, is not shy about how God views pride (the polar opposite of humility).

· …I HATE pride and arrogance. (Proverbs 8:13)

· James (4:6) is a bit more gracious. God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.

· Proverbs 16:5 isn’t. Everyone who is arrogant in heart is an ABOMINATION to the Lord.

· When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom. (Proverbs 11:2)

And of course the all-time favorite, and misquoted truth in the Bible, Pride goes before DESTRUCTION, and a haughty spirit before a fall. (Proverbs 16:18)

Like all other moral failures, pride grows — gradually, and then manifests suddenly. It’s a cancer that must be removed from the heart and mind of True North leaders if we are to succeed in the calling God has given.

Norm Mintle