Dominance in Leadership: What I'm Learning
by Jess Mason
“I’m just not cut out to be a leader.”
My pastor at the time grinned with a twinkle in his eye and asked, “Why do you say that?”
I argued, “Because I’m not good at cutting people off at the knees to stay the center of attention.” He tried to tell me, That dubious “skill” is not what godly leadership is about. I’ve tried to believe him.
As part of our series on conflicting cultural ideals, I'm investigating what the Bible has to say about common ideals that society imposes on leaders and on women. In this post I spotlight the often unspoken cultural ideal that effective leaders are dominant.
My search begins with a well-known passage where Jesus coaches his disciples that, while Gentile rulers “lord it over” others, it should not be so with them. Following the trail of the Greek word for “lord it over” (katakurieuw and kurieuw) around the Bible, I discovered the first mention of “lording over” at the fall of Adam and Eve. A relationship of dominance is apparently part of the Curse—a consequence of sin—not part of God’s beautiful design.
Accordingly, Jesus, Paul, and Peter each taught against leading through dominance. Whenever the Bible mentions humans taking it upon themselves to lord over other humans, the context is never positive.
Recently I encountered a rather narcissistic individual. Narcissists have a pathological need for constant positive attention and adulation. I became increasingly agitated with this individual’s persistence in dominating the conversation and keeping themselves and their accomplishments in focus, to the detriment of meaningful action or decision making.
Reflecting on the experience, I flashed back to leadership roles in my past and came to a startling revelation—in many of my leadership experiences, I managed to center the situation around my thoughts or initiative, hold people in thrall, or get away with doing 75% of the talking. I'd confused leadership with narcissistic behaviors!
I’ve been conflicted about my occasional ability to dominate—it feels wrong when it happens, but when I can’t make it happen I see it as evidence that I'm not cut out to lead. I've repeatedly been disappointed with how my leadership eventually ends up feeling like The Jess Mason Show.
I’m waking up to the realization that, if godly leadership has nothing to do with the ability to dominate, apparently I've failed to understand in my bones what leading others well truly looks like. In my observation, dominance can co-occur with real leadership. Furthermore, people can mistake dominance for leadership and will follow dominators—even to their own detriment—in the absence of a true leader. But I now believe that a dominant personality is actually irrelevant to healthy leadership.
I’m not in a leadership role at the moment. That buys me some time to learn. How can I hope to discern whether I’m called to lead others again until I understand what leadership is? I’d like to share with you what I’m learning, from the Bible and from living example.
I’d like to return to the starting point of my search—Jesus and his disciples. This humble master clarifies that leaders should think of themselves as the servant of those they lead.
I take this to mean that while we usually think of leaders as “having” followers, Jesus turns this on its head. Instead he says that leaders should devote themselves to a vigilance for the good of those they lead, the way servants attend to their master’s good.
When Paul rejects dominance in leadership, he advocates that leaders instead should “work alongside others for their joy.” In contrast to the narcissist’s goal of using followers to supply them with positive attention, the true leader’s goal is to prompt others to deeper joy in God as a result of the leader’s partnership with them.
Peter also wrote to church leaders that instead of dominating their flocks, they should lead by example. This implies that an effective leader prioritizes personal obedience and discipleship over reprimand and force. In other words, she puts the lion’s share of her fervor into practicing what she preaches.
What strikes me about these biblical qualities for leadership is that they’re not inherently competitive. There can be more than one person in a group that exhibits these qualities. Not so with dominance, where There Can Be Only One. Biblical leadership includes. It collaborates.
I would like to give a shout-out to my supervisor, Stacie Mickelson, for the ways she models godly leadership to me. As my supervisor, she regularly and concretely protects the interests of my healthy functioning on the Woven team. She listens well and dislodges obstacles. She balances my commitments and attends to my professional development. She also follows through on details like making sure my office chair isn’t hurting my back.
In the team setting, Stacie leads meetings as though she’s working with friends and partners, not enemies to conquer or schlubs to drag along. In meetings she leads, even if she brings a clear agenda, I don’t get the sense she's forcing or dominating. Instead I find each of us heard and valued, as she shepherds the conversation towards healthy action.
Meet Your Obstacles
In your leadership context today, identify what if any obstacles you would have to overcome to (a) think of yourself as a servant, (b) lead by example, or (c) throw your lot in as a fellow worker with those you lead.
Share your obstacles with a fellow leader. What is the Holy Spirit saying to you through your conversation, the Scriptures, or your prayer? What step of faith is the Holy Spirit inviting you to take next?
Encourage a Woman Leader
Think of a Christian woman leader that you know who leads by (a) positive example, (b) a servant’s heart, or (c) working alongside others for their joy.
Tell her today in person, in a note, or in a text, what you appreciate about her example of Christian leadership. If you have the platform, with her permission, share publicly what you appreciate about her leadership that others might learn from. Pray for her continued effectiveness as a leader in her setting.
Pray for Our Leaders
Think of a leader—either someone you know or a public figure—who seems to lead primarily by dominance.
First, see that person as a human being, created in the image of God. Pray that the Holy Spirit would work in her/his heart to create in them a desire to serve others and work alongside them for the good of all.
Jess Mason is a licensed minister, spiritual director, and research associate in Applied Research & Consulting at EGC. Her passion is to see God’s goodness revealed to and through Christian leaders and pillars in the Boston area.