In previous columns, we’ve looked at the danger and prevalence of “one-directional leadership”—when a leader is skillful at fending off dangers that appear from only one direction while neglecting or ignoring dangers that come from other directions. (See here, here, here, and here.)
It’s easy to slip into unbalanced, one-directional leadership when we’re driven by fear—fear of a bad trajectory and the fear of losing status. We looked at these fears in detail last week. When you issue unpopular warnings against dangers that come from the opposite direction than what you and your followers are used to, you open yourself up to the charge that you’re going soft on the dangers you warned about beforehand. People question your soundness because you appear to be lending at least a little credence to concerns from people not in “your camp.”
All or Nothing Tribalism
The reason so many people have so little patience for warnings about dangers coming from multiple directions is that much of our society has slipped into an “all or nothing” battle, where any legitimation of concerns from people outside our “tribe” appears suspect. Some people are more united by disdain for their opponents than they are united by something they’re actually for. For example, on both sides of the political aisle many Democrats and Republicans find more unity in their despising the other side than they do in the specifics of their political platforms.
In evangelical circles, many of our online squabbles appear to be driven by similar sentiments. It is acceptable to cast doubt or aspersion on anyone in another “camp” within evangelicalism, but unacceptable for a leader in one camp to say about another, “I think they make a good point, and we should consider this critique.” Such an admission betrays the cause and lends ammo to the other side!
No wonder we prefer one-directional leadership. It’s easier. It’s simpler. It’s all or nothing. It’s black or white. You convince yourself that you’re faithful in fighting the dangers you see in front of you, without the slightest concern that you’re backing up into dangers behind you.
The Multi-Directional Leader Gets Wounded
But what happens when a shepherd takes a good long look around the field and sees wolves encroaching on the sheep from an unexpected direction?
What happens when that leader recognizes the dangers of one-directional leadership, rejects the fears that would hold them hostage, and decides to step out and issue multi-directional warnings?
Usually, the leader who becomes multi-directional appears to step “out of line,” and thus attracts anger from other leaders or from a subset of their followers. Because we live in a polarized era, multi-directional warnings can lead others to question your theological direction and overall soundness.
- Do the multi-directional warnings indicate theological slippage?
- Is the leader open now to theological aberration?
- Has the leader lost sight of the dangers they’ve always warned about?
In this way, the warnings of the multi-directional leader—instead of being appreciated for their desire to protect the flock from multifaceted dangers—accumulate as evidence that the shepherd has “strayed.”
Temptation for the Wounded Leader
Ironically, this line of attack, which in the beginning may be totally unjustified, can lead to its own fulfillment. This kind of criticism can actually make multi-directional leaders more vulnerable to straying than they might have been before. Here’s how the scenario works out.
When you take arrows from those who were once friendly toward you, you feel the wounds deeply. In response to the pain you’ve felt for “stepping out of line,” you gravitate toward people who have been in similar circumstances and experienced similar hurts. But instead of receiving counsel from people who have faced the sting of rejection and betrayal and yet share your convictions, you commiserate with people who belong to other theological or political “tribes.” When this happens, wounded shepherds often encourage the worst impulses in each other. Self-pity, a subtle form of pride, takes root. Your wounds get nursed (not healed) in a context of friendship built on commiseration in experience, not a commitment to the truth.
United In Tears, Not Truth
Here is the great peril for multi-directional leaders: Commiseration overcomes conviction. The people you feel a sense of camaraderie with in your hurt and pain may be the ones to lead you, ironically, back to one-directional leadership. Except this time, the direction of your warnings goes in the opposite of your warnings from a few years before. Your old theological opponents become your new emotional allies, and so now, for example, the stalwart conservative who once issued warnings about theological drift to their left only sounds the alarm about problems to their right. Alert to dangers on one side that you used to ignore, you issue warnings in a new direction but stop addressing the dangers you (rightly) used to warn about.
Over time, you develop a new set of followers who are animated by your new kind of one-directional leadership. And eventually, the fears that drive one-directional leadership now work in the opposite way, leading to the abandonment of your previous convictions.
Theological compromise usually doesn’t start with a change of conviction. It doesn’t start with the abandonment of biblical authority. It doesn’t begin with a newfound interpretation of biblical texts. It often starts with a feeling of solidarity with a new group of friends. Our convictions are formed not just cerebrally but in community. And the danger for multi-directional leaders is that when our spirits are wounded, we are tempted to abandon the community that would hold us accountable for a new group of people who would cheer us into compromise.
Jesus Above Tribe
As I bring this series to a close, let me reiterate how much we need leaders who move from a one-directional to multi-directional posture. We need wise and gracious shepherds who see beyond the political and theological tribalism that holds us captive. But as we pursue multi-directional leadership, we must remain aware of the costs associated with losing status among people whose respect we crave. We must also be aware of the temptations that would lead us to find new allies against old friends.
Multidirectional leadership puts Jesus above tribe. Our fear of God and love for Jesus must overcome our fear of losing status or our fear of the bad trajectory. Our commitment to the Bible must be so strong that we are willing to defy any manmade categories that would cause us to reduce the Great Commission or the Great Commandments. Our acknowledgment of our sinfulness and utter need for Jesus must be ever before us, lest the fearsome enemy of pride rob us of spiritual effectiveness. Our calling to provide instruction must take precedent over our desire to protect our influence. It matters more that we follow Jesus than that others follow us.
Most of all, our faith in Jesus crucified and raised must foster a cruciform way of leading, so that we sacrifice earthly status for the eternal treasure of knowing Jesus and serving his people.
Also for further reading:
Editors’ note: Check out Trevin Wax’s new book The Multi-Directional Leader (TGC, 2021), available now for preorder. We invite you to join us—either in person or online—for TGC’s 2021 National Conference. All registrants, including those who register for the livestream, will receive six free books, including Rebecca McLaughlin’s The Secular Creed and Ivan Mesa’s Before You Lose Your Faith. Learn more.