Non-leaders: How to spot one a mile off

“So Moses arose with Joshua his servant, and Moses went up to the mountain of God” (Exodus 24:13). 

Always referred to as the servant of Moses, Joshua was used to taking orders as opposed to giving them.

That’s why, when the day arrived for Moses to announce that his earthly work was finished and God was recalling him and that Joshua would have to carry on (“Get these people into the Promised Land!”), he, Joshua, must have panicked.

For four decades Joshua has been warming the bench; now, he’s being sent into the game as the clock ticks down and everything is on the line.

What would he do without a boss over him, someone telling him what to do and how to do it, someone to whom he could report, who would grade him and pat him on the head when he did good or chew him out when his work fell short?

Throughout his life, Joshua had never taken the initiative in anything, but had obeyed as he was instructed.  In Exodus 17:9, the first mention of Joshua in Scripture, he leads a rag-tag army of ex-slaves against the Amalekites. However, on a distant hill, Moses was overseeing everything and giving guidance.

No one wants to follow a non-leader.  Readers will want to check out the final chapters of Deuteronomy and the early chapters of Joshua and count the number of times Moses, God, and the Israelites urged this surprised newly chosen leader to “be strong and of good courage.”

A leader must be strong to forge a path and take the heat and must be of good courage to endure the problems, headaches, and backstabbings.

It goes with the territory. As the saying goes, it’s why they pay the leader the big bucks.

Non-leaders are a sure recipe for defeat.

Imagine this….

The quarterback gathers the team around him to call the next play.  “Guys, what do y’all want to do next? Let’s take a poll.”

The baseball coach walks among the spectators in the grandstand while the game proceeds on the field. He asks the crowd, “So, should I take out this pitcher now? Let’s have a show of hands. And who should I replace him with?”

The President of the United States calls a press conference. “I had planned to attend the summit in Helsinki next week to meet with world leaders. However, my poll numbers are down and so I’d better stay at home and figure out who needs some federal projects in their district.”

A pastor asks his congregation, “What sermons do you want to hear?”  Or, “Let’s take a vote on whether we believe the Scriptures to be the Word of God.”  Or, “How many of you believe in a literal hell?  That will tell me whether it’s safe to preach about it or not.”

A non-leading pastor sure would not want to disturb the notions of his people by introducing a subject they could not handle, preaching a doctrine they had rejected, or leading in a direction they were unwilling to go.

The safest thing for a passive pastor to do is ask the people what they believe, what they want, where they would like to go.

A leader is a non-leader when?

Many years ago, United Technologies sponsored a full-page ad in a national newsmagazine, not to promote their products but to put a question before the American public.  I clipped it out, had it decoupaged, and over the years have shared it with countless elected officials.

This is the complete text of that advertisement:


When is a leader a non-leader?  When his ears are sharper than his ideas.  When he listens to what you want, then presents consensus opinion wrapped in a thin disguise as his program of progress.  How far would a football team go, if eleven men met in the huddle and voted on the next play?  How far can a society go, if it depends on guileful listeners rather than bold, imaginative leaders?  A man whose position in history as a leader is secure asked, ‘If to please the people, we offer what we ourselves disapprove, how can we afterwards defend our work?’

That ran in Newsweek over forty years ago.  The non-leaders in charge of our churches, communities, and nation have only grown more numerous since.  On every side we are asked to follow leaders who do not know the way, but who have commissioned a poll.

My “take” on  what non-leaders do–

1) Non-leaders announce they are consensus builders, as though this showed courage and wisdom.  You’ll hear them say, “I lead by consensus.” What that means is no one goes anywhere until everyone is on board. Consequently, very little gets done.

A real leader often leaves in his wake those who were unwilling to make a tough decision, take an unpopular position, do a hard thing.  Think of Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill….

2) Non-leaders depend too heavily on study committees. True, responsible committees fulfill a valuable function in any organization. But the leader who is forever stymied because the appropriate committee will not do its job has found a convenient excuse for his laziness and timidity.

3) Non-leaders live and die by their popularity ratings.  Once they find out that a large number of people oppose their position, they move away from it quicker than if they had squatted on a hot plate.

A young celebrity was interviewed by TIME magazine about her political convictions.  She was disappointed with the president at that time, she said.  “I really believed in him, and I’m not sure what he believes in anymore.” She was asked if there was one thing in particular that pushed her over the edge.  She named a particular issue, then said, “I know it’s a complicated job…. But I hope for a leader who will stand up and be unpopular.”

That seemingly contradictory statement is expressing a desire for a real leader, someone who does not move around according to the latest poll.

The great leaders in history were often beaten up in the press and hooted down by critics. Only by staying the course did they lead their nations to success.

4) Non-leaders do nothing until they know it’s safe. Whether something is right or ordained of God is lower on their list.

5) Non-leaders need permission before leading out. Once they know their key members and the staff are committed to an issue with them, they move out.  Again, no one is dismissing the importance of building a consensus, having a great majority or even unanimity, but a true leader will find a way to get the job done with or without a perfect situation.

6) Non-leaders worry afterwards about the decisions they made, and are paralyzed until they know how everything worked out.  Their spiritual gift is second-guessing themselves. Thus they make everyone around them–especially their spouses–miserable.

In delivering his final charge to Timothy, the Apostle Paul laid it on the line.

“Preach the word, be ready in season and out of season, reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction…. But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.” (2 Timothy 4:2,5)

Perhaps not unlike Joshua of old, Timothy needed reminding to be strong, exercise courage, and lead out.

What are you hesitating to do today because of the risks?


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