Rethinking leadership

How African village traditions and the Bible point toward renewed leadership

Growing up in a small Yoruba village in Nigeria, I was privileged to observe leadership first-hand. Decades later, this privilege continues as I have been serving in leadership of diverse teams from many cultural backgrounds and have observed leadership from around the world. Yet in my own discipleship journey, I have begun to grasp the influence of my origins on my leadership values and practice, and how the Holy Spirit, through the Word, can both use and transform my rich heritage as well as that of others. Let me share with you some of my own origins, dilemmas, and what I have observed in African leadership and my journey learning to grow into a more biblical leader.  

I grew up under the leadership structure of my village, with a king and complex system of advisors, higher chiefs, and lower chiefs. There, I observed integrity, mutual respect, accountability, truth telling, and character shaping happening towards the development of future leaders in the community. Our community leaders demonstrated shepherding by protecting the vulnerable; they demonstrated service by ensuring that the needs of the village were met, and they demonstrated stewardship through accountability that went from the young people right through to the king himself. All the same, African leadership in its cultural mode is far from perfect. Indeed, many aspects are unconducive to effectiveness in modern nations and to effective development of young leaders in the modern era. However, within Africa one can find a leadership development ethos that rivals any books on the shelf today. The question then is, what happened? What happened in the church and in the nations of Africa that these values have been lost and replaced by fraud, corruption, lying, squandering resources, and even abuse and exploitation of those led?

An entirely new set of values happened—values that arrived from the West and simply set up shop in the African context. The new values were not explicitly identified or examined in light of their impact upon existing value systems, in large part because the new values were assumed to be better than the ones long present there.  The Western democratic approach to leadership works most effectively under two conditions: where the norm is the rule of law based on individual rights, and where egalitarian ideas have taken root. Democracy does not work without a robust presence of the rule of law. What might have gone wrong with the way democratic values have been applied to Africa? A story from Malawi will help. Let us remember that democracy is a form of government, not necessarily a biblical model of leadership. 

Recently in Malawi, I asked two senior Christian leaders, one of whom is a top government official, to describe their leadership experiences growing up. Both were from different cultures and ethnicities, but they described a system of village chiefs as decision-makers that resembled that of my own village. I asked, how did leaders emerge and how was leadership succession carried out? They unanimously reported that leaders emerge through a natural progression of children growing up, learning from their parents and others, and gradually moving into chieftaincy roles as their elders pass on.

I further asked these leaders their observation of leadership in the church and even political leaders in the country. Their response was unanimous: they lead just like what they knew growing up in the village. They neither expect nor desire to give up leadership according to term limits; they do not develop younger leaders in the ways that we would call “development”; and they do not hold themselves accountable to the populace in a formal, democratic way. Surely this illustrates the power our origins can exert throughout the rest of our lives if they are left unexamined, no matter how different our lives as adults.  

Saul and David: the influence of background

 Saul was appointed king by God. When Samuel approached Saul to reveal God’s intention, the first concern Saul expressed was his humble background, “Am I not a Benjamite, of the smallest of the tribes of Israel, and my family the least of all the families of the tribe of Benjamin? Why then do you speak to me in this way?” (1 Sam 9:21) It is interesting that later, when Samuel rebuked Saul and told him that the consequences of his disobedience to God was his rejection as king over Israel, Samuel referenced Saul’s humble background. “Samuel said, “Is it not true, though you were little in your own eyes, you were made the head of the tribes of Israel? And the Lord anointed you king over Israel, …”Why then did you not obey the voice of the Lord but rushed upon the spoil and did what was evil in the sight of the Lord?” (1 Sam 15:17,19) It was as if Saul’s humble background never ceased to haunt him in his role as king. The anointing of the God of Israel Himself upon Saul did not seem to transform the heart or personal history of Saul. In short, Saul continued to be shaped by the forces outside of his anointing. 

David on the other hand, had a different background story to his ascension to the throne of Israel. He was a shepherd, called in from the sheep to be anointed as God’s chosen king. When David’s ability to confront Goliath was questioned, David simply recounted stories from his background as a keeper of sheep. He had learnt that to be a shepherd means to protect the sheep at all cost; and to confront danger with courage, by faith in the God of Israel. These truths shaped David’s spontaneous response to Goliath and would shape much of his leadership as a shepherd-king. “But David said to Saul, ‘Your servant was tending his father’s sheep. When a lion or a bear came and took a lamb from the flock, I went out after him and attacked him, and rescued it from his mouth; and when he rose up against me, I seized him by his beard and struck him and killed him.’ … And David said,

“The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, He will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine” (1 Sam 17:34-35, 37).  It is well-known that David, as a young man, respected Saul’s anointing as God’s choice for the moment, even while Saul was mad and looking to kill him. David, as an old man, respected what God might have been accomplishing through Absalom, by accepting that God may have rejected him as king. Samuel said of David: “The Lord has sought out for Himself a man after His own heart.” (1 Sam 13:14b) The Psalmist testifies, “He also chose David His servant and took him from the sheepfolds; from the care of the ewes with suckling lambs He brought him to shepherd Jacob His people, and Israel His inheritance.” (Ps 78:70-71) Note the emphasis on David’s background and the description of his leadership—“integrity of heart and skillful hands.”  

To help leaders in Africa be renewed and reshaped by God’s truth for God’s purpose, we need to know where the leader is coming from. I know of no leadership development that intentionally investigates and invites the story of the individual to be part of the development process. None that I know seeks out the cultural values, life experiences, relationships, family ties, and traditions that have produced the individual that we are seeking to appoint or develop as a leader.  

Transition of power and accountability  

Examining our past will provide enormous insight for us as we develop the next generation of leaders. A common dilemma in Africa is the lack of intentional development of new leaders. Africa is full of leaders who spend decades in their roles as country presidents or church founders, and many times without accountability. Even at very old ages, many hold on to positions and power, and one wonders why. 

The stories from the men in Malawi give us a glimpse of the answer. The king or chief in Africa holds a hereditary, lifelong position. Traditionally, a leader is function and personality rolled into one—there is no compartmentalization of their identity. They are one with their title, position, status, and role. New people taking chieftaincy titles do not displace current chiefs. There is no need to fear young people growing up and moving into positions of power because the elders, who already hold titles of power, never lose theirs; they simply welcome new title holders into their midst. It is a process of addition, not subtraction or displacement. 

But a democratic system (and many evangelical churches have shaped their leadership along democratic lines, with leaders who are voted in and out) necessitates a rotation of leaders to fill a scheduled change of title and power. This practice is completely foreign to Africa’s traditional contexts. No wonder elections in Africa so often invite some level of violence. Elections in churches are sometimes no different. If someone is voted out of a position, then the question they must ask is, “Who am I?” In a shame culture, “who am I?” exists in relation to everyone else in the community. To remove the title and role is no less than to disassemble their identity. When change is needed, it is naive to allege that simple power is threatened; rather, the whole identity of the individual is at stake.

With this in mind, the lack of intentionality in developing new leaders should be no surprise. The village context that once groomed many generations of leaders is now an inadequate, increasingly irrelevant, and often unexamined blueprint for leader development.  

Another related area where looking back will sharpen our vision for looking forward is in accountability. In the new democracy with its inherent individualism, the protective accountability structure of the village is the first casualty. In a system where individuals campaign and get votes as independent persons and decision-makers, the age-old communal accountability structure no longer holds sway. It is replaced by the community looking up to the individual as a benefactor, because he or she now has means to do things for them. As we have seen, entire nations are the losers in the end. 

So, what is the solution? How can we be like King David who gained rich lessons from the pastures and sheepfolds of his childhood but was not “stuck” in the pasture or sheepfold decades later? The contexts of his boyhood were formational in his spiritual and leadership development. Yet he did not act like he was in a pasture when he was in a palace.  

Status and role   

To understand leadership expectations and development in an honor/shame society as in many parts of Africa requires understanding the impact of status and role. Put simply, a status is a position in a social hierarchy or structure. It is typically assigned but can be earned. A status can change over the course of a lifetime from childhood to being an elder. By contrast, a role is the behavior and actions a person performs. It is linked to one’s status but is more of “doing” than “being.” So, a role is not the only consideration in the African power structure. Age means higher status in many places, and an older person could, in some instances, supplant or undermine a person who holds a leadership role.  

When members of a society have strong, collective beliefs and expectations about the status and roles of a leader, the leader is pressured, consciously or not, to live up to these expectations, even when they conflict with democratic ideals or, more seriously, with biblical truth.  

Christian leaders are not exempt from having status and roles. How, then, does the presumed status of Christian leaders shape their role in society? Could some of the failures observed in some Christian leaders in Africa result from their status exerting pressure on their roles—their behaviors and actions?  Let’s look at this with stories.  

A young African man had entered Europe illegally with the hope of getting a job and making money. But his dream had not come true. This man was a dedicated Christian and even a leader among the Christian youth in his country before he left for Europe. A friend of mine asked the man why he would not return home, since he was contravening the law, and had no work. The young man replied that he could not return to his family empty-handed—there would be too much shame. My friend was incredulous. This is difficult for a European, raised where the rule of law is paramount, to make sense of this man’s seemingly misguided priorities. To those from an honor/shame culture, saving face often eclipses keeping a law—whether legal, ethical, moral, and/or even theological. 

In the book, The Way Thais Lead, Larry Parsons tells the story of a wealthy man who was stopped and fined 200 baht for speeding. However, instead of coming to pay the fine, the man went to the head of the police and offered to take him to eat at a restaurant together. The meal would cost him more than 500 baht, but he preferred this to paying the fine. Why? The writer explains that this man’s intention was not to bribe the police chief, but rather to cover his own shame should it become known that he had been caught speeding. It was more acceptable to him to spend more money to take the chief of police out for a meal than to endure the shame of paying a smaller fine. How does one work through a biblical understanding of legal and ethical responsibilities, yet compassionately acknowledge the man’s cultural milieu? The expectations on many to fulfill a role—with its attendant status—may run contrary to Scripture, but the compulsion to save face keeps them bound in the cultural flow.  

The thinking of the African and Thai men is echoed in the biblical story of Saul who disobeyed the Lord and was losing the kingdom. Yet he said to Samuel, “I have sinned. BUT… please honor me before the elders and before Israel” (1 Sam 15:30, emphasis author’s). 

This deep-seated value of seeking to preserve honor by covering shame, imprinted since childhood, is rarely rationally or carefully examined, either by the leader or by the led. Nor does it get addressed by those seeking to “help” or “develop” the African leader.   

What is the answer to these seeming paradoxes of leadership in Africa? How can we allow the Word of God to collide with our cultural upbringing and worldview, transforming us into the image of Christ?  Below I will make suggestions: to work out our salvation more fully, to embrace the biblical images of leadership, to continually undergo personal transformation, and to embed ourselves in godly community. I hope others will think of more. 

1.  A fuller working out of salvation  

The teaching on salvation across Africa has focused almost exclusively on sins forgiven and guilt removed. Yet a corresponding truth is that shame is also covered. The work of Christ and redemption in Him is not only about guilt, it is also about the power to be free from sin, death, and the fear of shame and death. Leaders in Africa need this full understanding of the Scriptures sense of wholeness or shalom that Christ brings. The challenge of a guilt-based salvation story alone is that leaders can act in unbiblical ways to cover shame, believing they can ask God for forgiveness later. Their lives are dichotomized into dealing with guilt, shame, and even fear as totally different theological realities. The Bible has just as much to say about guilt-based forgiveness of sin as it has to say about shame and fear. 

It must also be taught that failure does not have to be associated with shame. In fact, failing can be a powerful step to greater honor if reflected upon and seized as an opportunity for learning and growing. If confession of sins and repentance are genuine, they mark the beginning of a new life, not the end of a life. 

Hebrews 12:2 says, “For the joy set before Him [Jesus] endured the cross, despising the shame, and [He] has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Jesus actually despised shame, but with a purpose: for joy. Like Jesus, every leader should take up his own cross and, likewise, despise shame. 

Scripturally transformational leaders are what Africa needs. The Holy Spirit working through the Word of God has the power to transform all aspects of a person—spiritually, mentally, emotionally, physically, environmentally. Even shame can be transformed into freedom in Christ. Only those who have experienced the transformative work of the Holy Spirit in all aspects of their lives can become transformative where they live and work. This is where personal godliness begins to have the potential to change a family, a community, an entire society.  

As the fullness of salvation is being worked out in our lives, the leader growing in Christ-likeness begins to truly reflect the biblical image of a leader, an image to be understood and embraced.    

2. Embracing the biblical image of a leader as shepherd, servant and steward 

An accurate reflection on the biblical image of leaders is important for a genuine transformation of leadership in Africa. David’s story is a great help to us. David, an excellent leader, was described as a shepherd. “He brought him to shepherd Jacob His people, and Israel His inheritance. So he shepherded them according to the integrity of his heart, and guided them with his skillful hands” (Ps 78:71-72). 

Shepherd

To shepherd is the role and priority of a leader. Jesus’ words to Peter in John 21 were, “Tend My lambs,” Shepherd My sheep,” and “Tend My sheep” all point in the same direction. The image of a shepherd is a common metaphor of a leader in both the Old and the New Testaments. A community without a godly leader is described as “sheep without a shepherd” (Matt 9:36). Jesus described himself as the Good Shepherd, and commanded Peter to be a shepherd to his flock. Peter demanded the same of the leaders of the diaspora church (1 Peter 5:2), and Paul of the church in Ephesus (Acts 20:28). Shepherding is the primary role and duty of all God-appointed leaders.  

The shepherd’s primary responsibility is the wellbeing of people, God’s sheep. It is to love and to nurture God’s people spiritually, emotionally and in all aspects of life. It is to provide guidance to God’s people, to point them faithfully and continually to the One who died and rose again for them. It is also to protect them from false teaching by providing true teaching, to protect them from deception (Phil 3:19).  The shepherd image is a rich leadership image.  

Servant

While servant leadership is the most talked about Christian image of leadership, it is one of the least understood. A reason for this is the limits of languages across cultures. A church leader from West Africa once told my friend, who had spoken on servant leadership, that he (the leader) could never be a servant leader. He added, “I cannot see myself carrying out the functions of a housemaid.” Like this leader, every listener hears and interprets words based on their associated image and experiences. 

In the English Bible, four different Greek words (two basically masculine and feminine) are translated “servant”. Each word was distinct in the mind of the original hearers: παῖς (pais) – a boy, youth, child, slave, or servant (Matt 8:6); παιδίσκη (paidiskē ) – a female slave (Matt 26:69); δοῦλος (doulos) – a slave or subject, (Romans 1:1). However, the word Jesus used was διακονέω (diakoneō )- to be at one’s service, help, serve, minister, care for (Matt 20:26, BDAG). This is the same root word translated “deacons” in 1 Timothy 3. In other words, the biblical understanding of servant leadership is closer to the Ephesian church’s understanding of the role of a deacon (1 Tim 3), than to our friend in West Africa’s understanding of a housemaid. Biblically, servants meet needs that encourage and enable people to be who God has created and called them to be, and to do what God has called them to do. 

Stewart

A steward holds in trust people, their skills, and gifts, and all the resources that God has given to His people. He or she is accountable. Stewardship is the attribute, quality, characteristic or trait of a godly leader. 

True leadership and authority come from righteousness, both for individuals and for nations (Prov 14:34). There is no servanthood without stewardship, and real stewardship is only as it comes out of a servant heart. A leader who seeks the kingdom of God should have a steward’s perspective on life. He or she is in a continuous state of being and becoming, as he stewards his gifts and talents, people, the trust of others, and resources, all as gifts from the hand of the Lord. He is always in a process of growing and developing, while developing others to become true stewards of gifts and grace.  

These images create for African leaders a wholesome view of their status and role, the godly attitude behind their leadership, and the accountability expected of a godly shepherd. Its strong community value connects them with their upbringing and with their new life as Christ’s under-shepherds. 

To continue the discipleship journey as one saved by grace and to embrace the biblical images of a shepherd, servant and steward is to set the stage for still deeper transformation—both for the leader and the community. 

3.  Transformed leaders transform communities 

As the Christian leader on a discipleship journey experiences the work of transformation, the core of Christian leadership, like Christ’s, should be the transformation of people, families, communities, and societies, for “everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40). For a transformational leader, the central issue is the being and core identity of the leader. The core being of any Christian leader must first undergo the work of the Holy Spirit in transformation, before he or she can be a leader of and for transformation (Rom 12:2). The being of the leader is the core upon which leadership rests.

Peter Koestenbaum writes, “The mistakes lie in thinking that human beings improve if the system changes. This ignores the personal side, since the deeper transformation required … is an act of will: …And that resoluteness comes from a different part of the soul—the heart, not the head; the personal side, not the strategic” (47).  Leaders must not just lead from the heart, but they need to lead to the heart. This is contextually transformative leadership, and it is the kind of Christian leadership urgently needed in our African context and around the world. It is leading the people of God to love and serve God with all their heart, mind, and strength. 

For a deep work of transformation, leadership development in Africa must invite leaders to articulate their underlying, often unconscious, philosophy of leadership, beliefs and values about leadership. Patterns of attitude, behaviors and choices often relate to spiritual state, theological disposition, moral sensitivity, cultural expectation, worldview, environmental and/or community influences, and the loyalties in one’s life.  Wise mentors and counsellors can journey with a leader to discover what lies behind their leadership actions. There is no other way to get to the depth of what makes the leader who he or she is. 

The call to leadership is the call to come and die—including to cultural predispositions and to a particular background and upbringing. To come and die is an invitation to a new life in which Christ reigns. “For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:3). How many leaders lead as dead men or women?    

Transformative leadership is that the leader and those led may walk in the Spirit together, as image-bearers of God, accomplishing the purposes of God. These purposes find expression, as the Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it, in the “chief purpose of man,” which is “to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” 

4.  Creating a community of the committed 

Just as a community’s expectations of a leader can negatively pressure the leader, so righteous communities can influence a leader towards Christ-likeness.  

Malachi 3:16 gives us a biblical option to consider: “Then those who feared the Lord spoke to one another, and the Lord gave attention and heard it, and a book of remembrance was written before Him for those who fear the Lord and who esteem His name.” The strength to stand is found in a new and godly community, formal and informal, where those who fear the Lord speak often one to another, encouraging and supporting each other. 

It is therefore necessary, indeed urgent, to create a network of Christian leaders of integrity in countries across Africa. For individual leaders to stand for godliness in their difficult situations, they will need a support group of people of similar commitment. Such a group becomes a community around such leaders when they face the threat of isolation from those who choose a less godly way. A community of support could also provide an appropriate forum for such leaders to be checked and corrected by people of similar age and/or status.  

As laid out above, a leader may stick to power not for the sake of power itself, but because their identity is one with the status and role. Those who stand alone for what is right or who step down are faced with the risk of losing out. They may be considered to have thrown away a community’s opportunity and prestigious position. They are not just an individual in a position; rather, the whole community shares in that position. Yet remaining in certain corrupt contexts can mean compromise or becoming corrupt oneself.

One of the most painful experiences for someone from a shame culture is to be isolated or accused of shaming one’s family and community. It is to be shunned and unwelcomed in the community to which one should belong. Inclusion is a key need in a shame culture, therefore isolation is feared and the threat of it can lead to compromise.  

Therefore, to help African leaders in the church and in the nations embrace a new paradigm of leadership, it is imperative that we address the isolation and identity crisis, though many will not articulate their feelings in these terms. Christian leaders in Africa must be intentional in creating a community that can support and uphold the leader who is pursuing righteousness. 

Conclusion

For most in Africa, the most natural model of a leader is the village chief.  And surely the village king is closer to the biblical idea of a shepherd than national officeholders can reach. But the time has come to begin a conversation about creating a new model—a model that courageously takes the best of the village chief, the best of the democratic ideals, and submits them all to biblical evaluation, to lead for the wholeness of people and communities. This is the discipline of bringing a Scripturally-based transformation to bear on a village chief-shaped understanding of leadership. 

Indeed, each of us can learn much from the examples of leadership that we grew up with. Perhaps you grew up in urban Manila, or on a farm in New Zealand, or in a fishing town on the Mediterranean coast. Just as good principles characterize African leadership and can be redeemed and re-purposed in the light of Scripture, so there are characteristics of leadership from other cultures that can be redeemed and re-purposed in light of Scripture.  

But to fully understand and appreciate the impact of deep-seated, cultural models, it will be necessary to engage in Holy Spirit-led reflection, to compassionately yet critically examine where we are. The dominance of the village setting is fading in many parts of Africa—and the cultures of your past may be fading, too—yet I believe we can be nourished by our roots to grow a new, biblical leadership for the future, the future of a world that is everywhere desperate for godly leaders. There is much to learn, much to research and investigate, and much to transform; the journey is not a simple one. Let’s begin! 

Discussion questions

  1. What do you consider your most important identity? 
  2. What were the ways you observed leaders emerging and leadership being carried out in your culture, village, or home?
  3. Who were your leader heroes growing up, and what attracted you to them? Has your hero changed? Why or why not?  
  4. What is your first consideration in decision-making? Do you consider its impact on your standing in your family and community? Do you fear being shamed? Do think of your relationship with Jesus first? 
  5. How do you use Scriptures in your decision-making process?  
  6. Read 1 Sam 9:21 and 1 Sam 15:17-19 about Saul and 1 Sam 13:14, 1 Sam 17:34-37, and Ps 78:70-72 about David. For each king, how does their upbringing and experience form them as leaders? 

Works cited

  • Koestenbaum, Peter. Leadership: The Inner Side of Greatness, a Philosophy for Leaders. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1991. 
  • Persons, Larry S. The Way Thais Lead: Face as Social Capital. Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books, 2016. 

Bible quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. 

BDAG: Bauer, Walter. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature). Edited by Frederick W. Danker. 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. 

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