Leading Without Fear

Source: Ministry magazine, December 2005, https://www.ministrymagazine.org/archive/2005/12/leading-without-fear.html

By Stanley E. Patterson, Ph.D., is vice president of pastoral ministries, Georgia-Cumberland Conference, Calhoun, Georgia.

After nearly half a month in space, the seven astronauts on the space orbiter Columbia reentered earth's atmosphere and began colliding with the increasingly compressed molecules that ignited the damaged orbiter. Little did they know that they were also plummeting head-on into the consequence of a dysfunctional "organizational culture." The result? All seven were killed.

The official Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) cited the following as one of the three organizational culture issues at National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) that contributed to the disaster: "Organizational barriers that prevented effective communication of critical safety information and stifled professional differences of opinion."1

William Langewiesche, in the Atlantic Monthly, wrote, "Fear for their jobs silenced engineers."2 The Columbia was at risk. Langewiesche's interviews along with the CAIB report reveal that NASA engineers failed, out of fear, to warn their supervisors of the risks they suspected were there. Thus, the prevailing culture at NASA prevented the engineers responsible for the project from seriously questioning management decisions. Fear had become a management tool.


The use of fear as a motivator is certainly not new. Its use as a tool to motivate action has marked organizational behavior throughout history. Though certainly shrouded in more sophisticated garb than the despotic methods of Joseph Stalin, Adolph Hitler, and the likes, the fear that governed the organizational relationships at NASA bears the same basic philosophical brand.

Janet Hagberg 3 lists fear as the primary component in the most basic and least sophisticated model of how personal power may be used in leadership relations. It is an option clearly dependent upon the degree of personal power available to a leader or leadership structure. The balancing influence rests in the human relational values held by the leader(s). These relational values are foundational issues in the context of Christianity and require us to consider the ethical relevance of coercion and fear in our leadership and management structures.

The "do what I say or else" attitude is the primitive basis for all fear-based behavior that leads to physical, sexual, political, or emotional abuse. What we seldom discuss is the insidious fear at the hand of supervisors, managers, and "bosses" that many individuals face on a daily basis.

Leadership is the description of a special relationship that exists between people. Though the word is often employed as the description of a craft or skill that one person practices as a means of moving people toward the accomplishment of a common goal, it is much more than what a person does. Good leadership is based on the right kind of relationship between the leader and those whom he/she leads.

In reality we coexist in "coercive" relationships as a regular and even unavoidable part of our lives. The one placed in authority over me by my employer has a "coercive" relationship with me. An employee not only exchanges time and skill for a salary or wages but also agrees to be subject to the structures that govern the organization. The place where the leader chooses to function on the continuum of coercion will define whether the employment relationship is healthy or unhealthy. A healthy working relationship requires mutual respect and appreciation for what each brings to the common goal. The presence or absence of fear serves as a gauge of the health of the leadership relationship.

Joseph Rost proposes a definition of leadership that disallows the presence of coercion: "[leadership] as an influence relationship means that the behaviors used to persuade other people must be noncoercive."4

Management and leadership are not identical. If a coercive relationship exists, it must be defined as supervision or management. Leadership in the workplace is possible only when a manager or supervisor rises above the command and control structure that formally defines the relationship with subordinates. This is accomplished outside of management parameters through bonded relationships that mutually motivate toward a common goal.


Christian leadership as modeled in the early church is devoid of coercive structures designed to force obedience. Those devoted to full-time ministry were paid so they could do their work; they were not paid as a transactional reward for doing gospel ministry. The New Testament presents Jesus as the servant leader. There is no indication of a coercive structure that governed His relationship with the disciples. They were invited openly and freely to follow. It was their choice. Once the relationship was initiated, they stayed with Jesus by choice and were molded by His influence over the course of their time together.

Though granted authority by the Spirit, these men who became the apostles of the early church were commissioned to lead in an organization devoid of coercive structures. Those to whom they ministered were just as free to leave as they were to come into the body of Christ. The bond that held them together was love for the Master and for one another.

Jesus led these men in the context of a bonded relationship that He constantly sought to strengthen. During his final days, Jesus placed significant emphasis on the strength and maintenance of the love relationship. Oneness between themselves and oneness with the Godhead is revealed as a primary concern in His discourse before and during the Gethsemane prayer (John 17). According to His word, the success of their public ministry would be predicated on the strength and health of the relationships projected from their core group (John 13:35). As such, there is no hint of internal coercive structures among those early believers.

Hierarchy can be used to describe the organizational structure of the early church as elders and, later, deacons were appointed to serve. Though Jesus turned this traditional power structure upside down by suggesting that the first should be last and the greatest should serve, He did not challenge the need for order through proper organization. He rather challenged the attitude and behavior of traditional hierarchal systems.


The foundational principles of the kingdom placed love for God and love for our fellow human companions in an indisputable position of primacy: "'. . . love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength.' The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these" (Mark 12:29-31, NIV).

Scripture provides a clear model of leadership based on loving relationships. This being true, we must consider its application to the unavoidable management structures within which we function. Because the love mandate is clearly a relational directive and is not limited to any particular segment of life, we must assume that it has a powerful binding impact on those who claim to be Christian. It is fair to assume that the impact of so doing would be revealed in how we relate to those that are either over or beneath us in the organizational structure within which we serve.

Is it possible for an organization to function in harmony with the law of love and still survive in a competitive world where resources are limited and efficiency and productivity are not optional? If true leadership can be exercised only in the absence of fear, how does a leader motivate followers in a manner that allows both leader and follower to rise above the coercive structure of a management system and genuinely cooperate to accomplish the mission of the organization?

Let's explore a possible solution to the question of exercising appropriate coercive authority. If a manager is committed to the primacy of the law of love, it must be assumed that he (she) is first and foremost concerned with the welfare of the employee. He (she) must assume a role of serving the transformational needs of the individual placed in his (her) charge. This strategic commitment is served by the tactical decisions that

  • enhance the competency of the employee through professional development and mentoring;
  • strengthen the employee's sense of hope by encouraging personal and professional growth;
  • create a work environment that allows for creativity and the inevitable mistakes and errors that accompany it;
  • systematically empower the employee through trust;
  • reflect an attitude and behavior that does not rely on the coercive structures available in the formally defined manager/employee relationship;
  • communicate a genuine concern for the employee and his or her family.

The assumption contained within the law of love is that acceptable or even superior productivity will recommend the employee in a management relationship built upon this greatest of all laws.


The corporate and business world for the last decade or more have been gravitating toward a model of leadership and management that emphasizes the empowerment of the individual while minimizing the separation between management/employee. Several no-table corporations have discovered that it is possible to excel in business while adhering to a servant-based approach to leadership and management. It has been more than adequately demonstrated that the industrial model of efficiency and profitability through fear and exploitation of employees has a positive alternative in the servant model founded in the teachings of Jesus.

The late Robert Greenleaf, career trainer and researcher for AT&T, a telecommunication giant, launched the secular movement toward this model with his book Servant Leadership; it clearly reflects his Quaker roots. He taught that people are called by God to relate as "friends" in all aspects of life. Though many have since taken a profit-motivated, pragmatic (rather than an ideological) approach to apply ing the servant model to business and organizational culture, it has nonetheless proven itself as an effective leadership model.

The servant model does not depend upon the personal power of the "leader" but rather finds its effectiveness in the strength of the leadership relationship existing between all parties involved in the process. Leadership is indeed a relational process that results in the willing collaboration of "leaders and followers." This process leading to task accomplishment is realized without the use of the kind of coercive measures that so often give rise to fear and separation between leader and follower.

For this reason it is critical that all leaders and particularly Christian leaders realize the indispensable value of relationship development as an essential element of effective leadership. Though fear is a regrettable ingredient in any management or leadership environment, it is clearly unacceptable in the context of Christian leadership. Church leadership by design is devoid of any coercive structures based on personal power. Pastors and lay leaders are called to lead without coercive authority.

At times throughout history, the church and its leaders have been guilty of contriving coercive structures that allow the leader to rule rather than lead. Specific doctrines have been conceived and clearly born of a need to manipulate the ignorant toward behavior that suited the needs and wants of the church. When tempted to seek coercive means, the Christian leader needs to carefully reflect on the leadership modeled by the One after whom they are called Christian.

The management environment of the church should never allow for the presence of fear created by unhealthy coercion. Respect for each person regardless of his or her relative position in the organization is a must. Each is deserving of the dignity that is born of Christian love, and any leader who chooses to sacrifice another's dignity for any reason needs to become better acquainted with the One who led through love.

Does such a profile of leadership weaken the management process and place the organization at risk? No. A management responsibility as extreme as the termination of an employee is still to be governed by the law of love no exceptions. Love and service can be effectively maintained even through such a difficult task. The teachings of God's Word are faithful and true. The primacy of the law of love is reinforced in the first epistle of John: "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love" (1 John 4:18, NRSV).

No church member, whether employee or no, should ever have to live under a cloud of fear. Our heavenly Father does not require it of us and neither should we. He modeled that which we are able to do lead without fear.

1 Columbia Accident Investigation Board Report, vol. 1, August 2003, 9.

2 Atlantic Monthly, vol. 292, no, 4, November 2003.

3 Janet Hagberg, Real Power, rev. ed. (Salem, Wise: Sheffield, 1994), 223.

4 Joseph C. Rost, Leadership for the Twenty-First Century (Praeger Publishers, 1993), 105.