Review of Leadership in Christian Perspective: Biblical Foundations and Contemporary Practices for Servant Leadership by Irving and Strauss

January 17, 2020

Irving, Justin A. and Strauss, Mark L. Leadership in Christian Perspective: Biblical Foundations and Contemporary Practices for Servant Leadership. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2019, pp.218, $22.99, pb.

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Leadership books set themselves to a series of common tasks—they promise to encourage, inspire, equip, and motivate leaders and organizations to greater effectiveness and increased success. Typically, the warrant for such a book is the success and effectiveness of its author, a highly qualified exemplar whose personal use of the methods testifies to its implicit worth. Irving and Strauss, in their 2019 volume Leadership in Christian Perspective: Biblical Foundations and Contemporary Practices for Servant Leaders, are not those kinds of figures. Instead, what they have done is bring together biblical commentary (from Strauss), together with a broad summary of insights from research into leadership models (from Irving), in a topic by topic survey of what they consider to be the key qualities of ‘servant leadership.’ The result is a competent if forgettable book on ‘Christian’ leadership.

The governing idea for Irving and Straus’s book is that “the most effective approaches to leadership move leaders from a focus on follower control to a focus on follower empowerment” (p. 12). Toward this goal they divide their research into three sections with three chapters per section. The first section focuses on the leader’s authenticity and purpose, with emphases on modeling, self-evaluation, and presenting a vision for collaboration. The second section focuses on the leader’s relationship to followers, with emphases on appreciation, individuation, and effective use of relational skills. The final section focuses on leaders and followers together, with emphases on communication, accountability, and resourcing. Each chapter follows a common pattern. A brief introduction to the topic utilizes a popular example, Strauss offers a few pages of biblical reflection on the subject, and then Irving, for the remainder of the chapter, highlights insights from a broad range of content within leadership research.

A summary of a single chapter will give an accurate feel for the whole. One of the best chapters in the book was the seventh, “Communicating with Clarity.” The chapter opens by highlighting the example of former US Secretary of State Colin Powell, who “learned that leaders must not only regularly communicate to followers, but they must also nurture regular communication from followers” (p. 141). With his example in view, the chapter will seek to show how it is that “clear and effective communication is central to the work of leadership” (p. 142). In the biblical section, Strauss looks to Paul’s clear account of his own preaching in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, noting that “It was a simple message, so simple that it was sometimes dismissed as foolishness” (p. 143). To the simplicity of the message, Irving adds that the message must also attend to one’s audience (highlighting Jesus’s agrarian parables), depends on good listening (quoting James 1:19-20), and should seek to benefit the listener (quoting Ephesians 4:29). With this foundation laid, Irving takes up the question of communication “in contemporary perspective,” which focuses on the importance of leaders possessing “the capacity to communicate [their organizational] priorities to teams, organizations, and relevant stakeholders effectively and clearly” (p. 147). Irving draws from Stephen Littlejohn’s Theories of Human Communication, then notes the roles of filters and feedback in communication. He appeals to Mark McCloskey’s Tell It Often—Tell It Well to reinforce the role of “other-centered communication” in their model (p. 150), then to David Horsager’s The Trust Edge to emphasize the importance of clarity (pp. 151-2). Irving then rapidly lists fifteen practices for effective communication, and after this, the reader is exhorted to utilize “compelling channels” of communication, whether face to face, letters, phone calls, or otherwise. To close, the chapter highlights the example of Martin Luther King Jr. as an effective communicator, especially in his use of anaphora, and then offers some recommendations for practicing communication, including “finding your voice” (which encompassing asking yourself a series of questions), working for “two-way communication” (to which they appeal to USC’s model of “artful listening” [p. 158]), and making communication about your followers (to which they appeal to Max De Pree’s advice of referring to his “people” as “the people I serve” [p. 159]). A series of “next steps” offer bullet point summaries of some of the chapter contents.

As can be seen from the above summary, what may be the best feature of Leadership in Christian Perspective is its premise: a commitment to a model of servant leadership. As a model for organizations, rethinking the power dynamics (and purposes) of persons in authority is certainly a helpful corrective. In accord with this, Irving and Strauss in their book offer a compendium of useful resources for further reading.  Overall, Leadership in Christian Perspective competently informs the reader about what its authors believe servant leadership is, but fails to educate readers on how one might performatively act on it.

To this concern is added two significant others. First, Irving and Strauss state explicitly at the beginning of the volume that “Leadership in Christian Perspective is intentionally an integrative project” (p. 3). They attempt a combination of biblical accounts and contemporary leadership perspectives, and yet no real integration ever happens. Each chapter is neatly divided into two (unequal) biblical and leadership sections, with little or no cross pollination between them (4-5 pages of Bible, 12-15 pages of leadership content). While they rightly acknowledge that the Bible is not a manual for leadership (4), gluing Bible studies to leadership material does not qualify as ‘integration.’

Second, there is a question of audience. The expectation from the title and marketing of the book suggests that this is a book for the church. However, of its many examples and illustrations, only a handful came from ecclesiological sources; most were from the secular business world, and few (to none) of the applications took account of the unique challenges of church leadership. Additionally, when the authors highlight the example of Jesus as a leader, they make the interesting comment that “his whole life was lived for the benefit of others—to bring them back into a right relationship with God” (p. 6). This is true, in a sense, but it is more true to say that Jesus’s whole life was lived in obedience to the Father. It is a difficult sell to co-opt the ministry of Jesus to a follower-oriented model; he was an obedience orientated leader. The key was that his obedience was to Someone else. (A reader might note with interest that the only reference to obedience in Irving and Strauss’s book was pejorative [p. 61].) In Christianity, the concepts of leadership and obedience are inseparable. This concern tethers out to a raft of unasked and unanswered questions regarding the relationship between church leadership to the Mission Dei, the concept of calling, the role of spiritual formation, the place of anointing or spiritual gifts, and the definition of success for Christian organizations. To these questions, Irving and Strauss are silent.

It would appear, instead, that the primary audience for the book is American Christian Businessmen. Secular business, not ecclesial organizations, is the focus. Secular businesses run by Christians who care about the Bible narrows the focus further. And Americanism runs throughout the book as well. As an example of the tacit cultural perspective, consider the opening example for their first chapter. There the authors recount the story—as an example of a leader who models his own beliefs—of Lt. Col. Hal Moore, American soldier in Vietnam who promised to “Almighty God” to be first on the ground and last to leave the battle of Ia Drang (p. 17). It is worth asking, how would I respond to this if I were either (a) Vietnamese (b) not American (c) a pacifist or (d) concerned about the association between American military and religious belief? This, and many other explicit examples from America, limit the scope of its readership.

If you are an American Christian Businessman, looking for a resource to help you think through some of the questions around operating as a servant leader, then doubtless Irving and Strauss’s volume will provide you with some competent insights. If you are anyone else, chances are this book is not for you.

Jeremy Rios

University of St Andrews

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