Saturday, April 12, 2014

Are spiritual leaders like political leaders?

Psychology of Leadership, Spirituality,
and a Palm Sunday Journey

As Christians celebrate the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, I take a look at perceptions of leadership then and now.

You can find the Gospel story in Matthew 21: 1-11. After procuring a donkey, Jesus rode into Jerusalem. A crowd placed their clothes and newly cut tree branches (possibly palm branches) on the road. These actions, and the words shouted by the people, link Jesus to the beloved warrior king David. And the Hosanna exclamation embodied both praise and hopes of salvation. But the writer knows what happens next and quotes an old prophet (Zechariah 9:9) who described the king as gentle. This king was not the warrior on a charging horse.

Then as now, people have expectations of their leaders. Established leaders are wary, if not paranoid, of potential challengers and would be assassins. Humility and gentleness are not on the short list of successful leadership traits. Not then and not now. I’ll come back to the Palm Sunday story shortly but first a look at the science of leadership.


Psychological research has looked at leadership traits in great depth. There’s a lot of folklore that’s hard to overcome. One consistent finding is a personality trait called the need for power. Psychological scientist David Winter has studied presidential power. The need for power is the best predictor of presidential success. I work around a lot of people who constantly complain about the current U.S. president. Their party is out of power. They want a leader who will get that power back. And some frequently spread stories and reports they hope will diminish the power of the president. People out of power want power. And successful leaders are driven by an inner need for power.


Many have observed the psychopathic traits of successful leaders. The evil men of history are well known. But psychological scientists have found some support for a dual process model. One dimension is adaptive and the other is not. Paul Babiak and Robert Hare wrote about psychopaths in the business community as “snakes in suits.” Perhaps Jesus saw the same thing when he addressed local leaders as a “brood of vipers" (Matthew 12:34). These charming leaders present well in job interviews and once on staff, they deploy their skills at manipulating others. A three-stage pattern unfolds: assess, manipulate, abandon. Nowadays you’re less likely to lose your head but if you lose your livelihood, life can be pretty miserable. 

I wouldn't get too worried over snakes in your organization. The percentage of psychopaths is low. But it probably helps to have a psychologist or other similarly trained professional on your interview team. And some knowledge of these hidden psychopathic traits could save board members a lot of trouble when hiring pastors and CEOs for Churches and Christian organizations. Of course, any organization will suffer if they hire folks with these sinister traits but Christian communities seem more vulnerable than others.


One way to identify what people want in a leader is to look at who they choose and who they reject. Every four years Americans vote for a president. Scott Lilienfeld and several colleagues studied the traits of U. S. Presidents. And they found evidence that one dimension of psychopathy, Fearless Dominance, was fairly strong amongst these successful leaders. 

You can recognize people high on Fearless Dominance by such traits as boldness, social dominance, charm, physical fearlessness, and low anxiety. These leaders are persuasive and communicate well. They manage crises, relate to other powerful leaders, control agendas, and take risks. In case you are wondering about the other dimension, it is Impulsive Antisociality, which is linked to those presidents who tolerate unethical behavior, present with negative character traits, and were associated with impeachment resolutions. These leaders break too many rules and fail to control their impulses.

People respect bold, dominant leaders. People respect power. People want fearless leaders. People want a savior from financial struggles, high work loads, debt, and oppression. And people want leaders who will kill the enemy and restore their company, tribe, religion, or nation to dominance ("it's rightful place"). Shrewd leaders know this. Perhaps you've seen people manufacture causes and crises to justify harmful acts, raise money, or rally troops toward a leader's goal. Going to war and killing enemies is a powerful way for leaders to show most people they are great leaders.


When you are oppressed you look for someone to deliver you. You want a strong leader to show the way. Someone to save you. Someone to set you free. The Jews had a history of liberators—Moses and David come to mind. And now comes a gentle king. And a few days later, Pilate realized Jesus was not seeking personal power. “My kingdom is not of this world,” he said (John 18: 28-38).

People still focus on different characteristics when they look at Jesus. Some focus on his boldness and outspoken attacks so they too attack others. They recall Jesus with a whip and his attack on money handlers at the Temple.

But many Christians attack social leaders and policies rather than the leaders of their own religion as Jesus did. Some would rather cover up the wrongdoing of their Christian leaders than expose it. Others Christians cling to old traditions that cause harm rather than produce freedom. Wouldn't bold leaders following Jesus' example attack the sin in their own religious tribes? Perhaps they are fearful of getting kicked out of their religious tribe-- losing a job and all the perks. It's pretty risky to expose wrongdoing. It seems like betrayal. If not literally killed you will lose your job, family, friends-- your life-- if you go too far in challenging the religious leaders of your tribe.

Some Christians focus on Jesus kindness, compassion, love, and forgiveness. They see Jesus helping outcasts- you know the people who are sick and disabled. People who can't help you get ahead in life. People who have anger problems and get into trouble for their sexual behavior. But those who see Jesus love may ignore some of those sayings that seem harsh and rejecting. According to the biblical text, the celebrations of Palm Sunday did not last long.


You can learn about power in the Easter story. The Jewish leaders had religious power bound up with a measure of social and political power. They could influence crowds. But they did not have ultimate power. The power over death was retained by the Romans. Jesus appeared bold and without anxiety when responding to the Roman leader. He was leading people in a different fight. He was not intimidated by death. He had spiritual power.

In some countries, those with political power have strong ties to a religion-- especially when a religion is dominant. Sometimes religious leaders vie for power with the political leaders. In Russia, Putin allied himself with the Russian Orthodox Church and Patriarch Kirill. In the UK, Queen Elizabeth is the head of the Church of England and part of her title is "Defender of the Faith." In the US, presidents were mostly associated with Christian protestant traditions until the Catholic, John F. Kennedy, was elected--people forget about the strong Anti-Catholic prejudice in the 1960s. Americans fretted about Kennedy's ties to the Pope. In recent years, American Christians have been active in social and political causes. The leaders have changed- some died, some were discredited.

Religious leaders have authority within their faith group. But this type of authority varies with the structure of their religious group and the tradition behind the position. But numbers matter too. Most of the world's Christians are Catholic. Their pope has a huge audience. But the church lost moral authority in the priest scandal. Pope Francis frequently deals with the ongoing effects of those destructive acts. 

Religious leaders often address moral issues. If they have a media presence- a measure of social power- they draw some attention. People scrutinize their morals. The power of religious leaders to influence others depends on their personal morality. And the morality of leaders within their faith tradition is important too.

Have you seen a servant-leader? I don't see a lot of religious leaders demonstrating power based on common notions of humility and gentleness. However, Pope Francis has garnered some attention for his focus on the poor and needy and his avoidance of the trappings of papal riches. US TV network, CBS, recently took a look at his change efforts. I hope he leads the faithful well.


About death and terror management theory -  When Children Die
Christians speaking out against World Vision - World Vision Morality Righteous Minds
Remembering a leader, Nelson Mandela

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Babiak, P., & Hare, R. D. ( 2006). Snakes in suits: When psychopaths go to work. New York, NY: ReganBooks. Link to the book page.

Lilienfeld, S. O., Waldman, I. D., Landfield, K., Watts, A. L., Rubenzer, S., & Faschingbauer, T. R. (2012). Fearless dominance and the U.S. presidency: Implications of psychopathic personality traits for successful and unsuccessful political leadership. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103(3), 489-505. doi:10.1037/a0029392

Winter, D. G. ( 2005). Things I've learned about personality by studying leaders at a distance. Journal of Personality, 73, 557– 584. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.2005.00321.x

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