I recently wrote an article for an aviation magazine in which I discussed leadership principles for professional pilots — a subject with a sometimes-severe background. The most deadly accident in aviation history was the result of a breakdown in communication between an airline captain and his junior crew. This tragically resulted in the collision of two Boeing 747 aircraft on the runway at Tenerife airport on the Canary Islands. Of the 644 people involved, only 61 would survive.
The airport was shrouded in fog at the time. Due to a delay, the pilots of KLM Flight 4805 were in danger of exceeding their duty limits — which would have postponed the flight an additional 10 hours. The captain was immensely eager to depart in order to avoid the delay: as a result, he attempted to take off without a clearance to do so. At the same time as this was occurring, Pan Am Flight 1736 was taxiing in the opposite direction down the runway.
The crew of KLM 4805 would finally see the other aircraft in the fog while accelerating through 150 mph. The captain would take off early in an attempt to avoid the collision, but was unable to clear the top of the fuselage. The impact severely damaged both aircrafts, and KLM 4805 crashed several seconds later. All 61 survivors were onboard the Pan Am flight, which burst into flames on the ground.
Both the first officer and the flight engineer for KLM 4805 voiced uneasiness during the takeoff. The captain — who was clearly in a hurry to depart — failed to recognize the significance of those concerns. He had the toxic combination of tunnel vision and total authority. He never stopped to consider if his decision was correct, and the crew was not assertive enough to force the issue. As a result of this tragedy, airlines would revisit the concept of leadership aboard an aircraft.
The concept of leadership in Christianity is relatively straight-forward: to be a leader, you must first be a servant.
“But Jesus called them to him and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’” (Matthew 20:25-28, ESV).
Being servant-hearted does not mean that a leader should become a slave to consensus building. Leaders have a responsibility to keep their minds open to the perspective of others. However, leaders must also commit to a course of action at some point. Second-guessing well-thought-out decisions is a distraction that effective leaders avoid at all costs.
Serving, as a concept, also involves submitting to authority. As Cody taught in his sermon “A Christian Citizen,” the Bible is unapologetic in instructing Christians to obey the authorities. Christians are also commanded to avoid speaking poorly about leaders. In our era of savage political commentary, this feels like an impossible caveat. Yet the Bible is unambiguous:
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” -Romans 13:1
“Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution … Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also the unjust.” -1 Peter 2:13, 18
“You shall not revile God, nor curse a ruler of your people.” -Exodus 22:28, quoted by Paul in Act 23:5
“Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” -Romans 13:2
How do we question authorities without challenging them (a skill that would have averted the tragedy at Tenerife)? This has become a major theme in the modern world. Whether we are anxious about political leaders, the police or our bosses, we likely face this question many times a week. In the Christian life, grace is a good answer. We are all sinners — including our leaders. We are called to forgive, not to judge.
We are at our most persuasive when we seek to change minds through a service-oriented heart. This, paradoxically, does not require us to be subservient; rather it requires us to be respectful. In the book of Acts we find a passage that recounts a significant shift in the evangelism of the early church. In it, Stephen begins his ministry as a servant:
“…a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve said, ‘It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables” (Act 6:1-2).
Stephen was one of seven men who were selected to “serve tables.” This same Stephen would evangelize boldly, and as a result would eventually be stoned to death. Stephen — the waiter of tables — proved to be the prototype of an effective servant-leader, giving his life in an unrelenting confession of Christ. He would challenge the authorities, but would never condemn them (he would ultimately mimic Jesus on the cross, exclaiming with his final breath: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them”).
Saul (later known as Paul) would approve the execution, and would proceed to persecute the early church (driving him madly towards his Damascus road redemption). Paul would ultimately continue what Stephen started: the evangelism of Christianity into the Hellenized world. All the “gods” of Rome would eventually fall before the testimony of Christ.
Serving in the Christian tradition is a concept with a rich history. Ministry is about leading people to Christ — largely by serving them. Christian leaders do not view authority as a means to lavishness, but rather as a responsibility from the true authority in heaven. This empowers Christians to excel as leaders, to be properly subject to authorities, and to be servants in the ministry to others.
A simple definition of leadership: picking up the leaf before you paint the line…