Leadership and influence, a dialectic.

Jesus’ teaching style in the Gospels is never of the form: “Do this because I say so.” Instead, his instruction is always accompanied by the explanation of why this is the way we should live. He appeals to our ability to reason, so that we can acknowledge that what he is asking us to do is the right thing to do. Why did He teach this way?

Let me postulate that Jesus knew the way human psychology works.

John 2:23-25 And when he was in Jerusalem, at the Passover, at the feast, many believed on his name, beholding his signs which he wrought. But Jesus himself did not trust himself to them, because he knew all [men], and that he had not need that any should testify of man, for himself knew what was in man.

Jesus knew that the fact He could do miracles, that He healed so many people, gave Him an unfair advantage. I mean, if the guy who just saved your son’s life, told you to go and do something for him, wouldn’t you do it? Wouldn’t you feel you had to? And I am not talking just out of gratitude but out of compulsion. Deep inside you could worry that just as easily as he saved your child, he could let him get sick again and die. Someone with the power that Jesus displayed could easily coerce people to do His bidding.

Influence can lead to coercion.

We know this. And this is one of the reasons why being a leader, a manager in industry, or a professor in the university, requires that we be extra vigilant against the temptation or even the appearance of abuse of power.  

If your paycheck depends on my being happy with your performance, there is a real danger that I could take advantage of that and place demands on your time outside of work. And I wouldn’t have to give you a direct order to do this… the culture could make it understood; I would just need to give you a hint. This used to be a problem in Japan’s corporate culture. Everyone was expected (read: required) to go to drinking parties with the boss after work. The employee’s family life suffered as a result of this demand. Things have been changing. But you see the problem.

child dressed up as darth vader

Because power is so easily abused, I always found my role as a leader to require a delicate balancing act. And the way you perform this act affects your relationship with your employees and the morale of your team. I don’t know that I pulled it off the best way I could have. But the reality is that every year in a position of leadership is part of a long real-time learning experience.

I chose to err on the ultra-safe side. In other words, I endeavored to keep my influence focused as much as possible on the job. While other managers’ management style included going out after work “with the guys” for drinks, to socialize, that was never part of my style. Those managers would say they were strengthening the morale of the group by being friends with subordinates. I could never do that.

I have always been hesitant to blur the boundary separating friend from subordinate. If for no other reason, to avoid the appearance of favoritism: namely, preferring the ones that choose to go out and party with me over the ones whose life responsibilities did not afford them that luxury.

It is never that as a leader I value a subordinate less than a friend, it is exactly the opposite. As a leader, it is my job is to protect that subordinate and to work to give them opportunities to grow. To me leadership is a lot like the role of a parent.  And to my children, I was always first of all a father, not a friend.

The same dynamic carried over into my life as a university professor. You would think that the principle of academic freedom would give me license to promulgate my beliefs to everyone within earshot. However, in that position I had undue power over the students in any class I was teaching: they needed a passing grade and I was the one that gave it. Likewise, I had undue influence over the students I employed in my laboratory doing research. There it was a double whammy, because their pay as research assistants and their grade as graduate students all depended on me; their future livelihood, in a sense, was in my hands.

So how does a Christian, who happens also to be a leader in this world, carry out his duty to be a witness for the Lord? My answer is: Carefully. Using the influence of leadership to proselytize would be abuse of power. Hiding the reality of my Christianity would be dishonest and even cowardly. It is a balancing act.

In the case of Jesus – being the Son of God – wouldn’t his power of influence be infinite? But as you read the Gospels you don’t get the sense that any of his disciples were coerced into following him. In fact, we know that one of his inner circle, Judas Iscariot, betrayed him. How did this happen?

Indirect communication

The concept of Indirect Communication is central to Søren Kierkegaard’s teaching. The idea is that we cannot really accept the truth of a principle – accept in the sense of being committed to living by it – unless we have convinced ourselves of its validity. This being so, SK claimed that Direct Communication is counterproductive because if I tell you something is true, and expect you to believe it on my authority, then my presence as the communicator has actually tainted the communication. The principle under discussion isn’t true intrinsically anymore. Its validity somehow depends on (fallible) me. I have become an obstacle to the very communication I was trying to carry out.

Indirect Communication is the way around this problem. One way to implement it is to take the communicator out of the equation, reduce his influence to zero. SK did this in his pseudonymous works by presenting opposing sides of the same argument with equal force. The idea was to give the reader all the facts, and then let the reader reach his own conclusion. The idea is to elicit Truth from the listener, not to pound it into him. It is the Socratic method.

You could wonder if this is really a good idea. After all, that is not how we teach math to elementary school children. But then again children are not adults. Clearly, an implicit assumption in SK’s philosophy is that all of us have been created in God’s image and that therefore we know, deep in our hearts, how to recognize Truth. 

I believe Kierkegaard was right. I believe this is the reality behind Jesus’ statements: John 10:27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and John 6:45 It is written in the prophets, And they shall be all taught of God. Every one that has heard from the Father [himself], and has learned [of him], comes to me. Every one of us is able to recognize Truth. Every one of us can hear the voice of the Father.

So, how did Jesus accomplish Indirect Communication? How can the Son of the Living God, possessor of infinite power – able to raise the dead, calm the storm, walk on water – remove himself from the middle of the communication so that we the listeners are not coerced into accepting his will? So that we can exercise our own free will and accept his invitation?

Kierkegaard explains it this way:

photo of cover of Kierkegaard's book Practice in Christianity

“If someone says directly: I am God… the Father and I are one, this is direct communication. But if the person who says it, the communicator, is this individual human being, an individual human being just like others, then this communication is not quite entirely direct, because it is not entirely direct that an individual human being should be God— whereas what he says is entirely direct. Because of the communicator the communication contains a contradiction, it becomes indirect communication; it confronts you with a choice: whether you will believe him or not.” (Practice in Christianity, translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong; Princeton University Press; Kindle Edition. (My emphasis.))

The mystery of the Incarnation, that the Son of God became a human being, is probably an inexhaustible subject for study and preaching. We could spend hours discussing the number of reasons God the Father chose to carry out His Salvation this way. But here is one that is seldom mentioned:

By becoming man like all of us, Jesus stripped Himself of the infinite power to coerce.

The Truths that He uttered with an all too human mouth were freely available to be accepted by human ears and human hearts. It is still that way today. When I tell you about Jesus, all you see and hear is a human witness, just like you.

It is up to you today, as it was up to Jesus’ contemporaries, whether or not you choose to hear the voice of the Father in those words.

It is up to our free will to choose to open our hearts to hear the supernatural voice of the Holy Spirit that always accompanies the words of the Son of God. He won’t force us because he has given all of us the power to believe.

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