The apostle Paul writes to the Corinthian church “Imitate me as I imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). Could it be that the apostle understands that many of us learn by watching and absorbing (imitating)? Indeed, it is difficult to read Paul’s pastoral letters without hearing his guidance that the character and behaviour of a leader (as well as their teaching) is essential to appropriate leadership in the church of Jesus Christ (eg 1 Timothy 3).
Again – could this be an indication of the importance of imitation in leadership?
I am reminded by this of one of the most important characteristics of leaders across the secular world (as described in the research of James Kouzes and Barry Posner – the Leadership Challenge) which is honesty or integrity. It seems that in survey after survey, we prefer to follow leaders who demonstrate consistency or alignment of our ‘walk’ with our ‘talk’.
I have observed a classic inconsistency across many companies for years. A leader of a company would stand in front of the company they lead and proclaim, “people are our most important asset” and many of their team would say things like “wow… aren’t they a terrific leader”… they recognise the importance of people”. Yet, when that same leader met with their direct reports they would automatically shift into ‘task orientation’ asking, “how has that project gone, how can we make it better, and what do we need to …?” We discover that when the rubber hits the road, the same person who proclaims that “people are our most important asset” actually fundamentally believes or models that “the task, or the project, or the thing is the most important asset” and not the person in front of them.
I admit that in company leadership roles in the past I have been guilty at times of this same inconsistency. I’ll leave it to those who I have had the pleasure to work with to judge how often I strayed from people.
But the cultural problem is this: usually that ‘direct report’ respects their leader and so when they work with their direct reports, what do you think they are likely to do? They copy what is modelled by their leader and so they talk about ‘people being the most important asset’ but in practice demonstrate that the task is practically of more importance.
Why do I mention this? Because the behaviour of leaders becomes the more dominant driver of culture (the way we do things around here) than the speeches we give. The culture of that company will tend to be task and outcome based, people might say differently but their learned behaviour, recognition and correction becomes centred around outcomes and tasks, not people.
The apostle Paul’s emphasis on imitation rings true, even in a secular situation.
What about in the church (whom Paul is writing to)? Is it at all possible that church leaders would be guilty of saying (or proclaiming) one thing and then modelling something different to those who have immediate connection with them? Is it possible that a Christian leader might speak like Paul speaks but fail to imitate his behaviour as he imitated Christ’s?
Put another way, is it possible that we would speak about making and maturing disciples of Jesus but model that the leadership of programs and plans is more important?
Let me encourage those of us who are leaders in the church to take Paul’s exhortation seriously. Let us ask God to help us both proclaim Christ crucified and live lives worthy of the calling we have received. Let us pray that we might live lives that imitate the Lord Jesus, and that our church culture might, under God, strive to shine like stars among our generation.