Sunday, July 2, 2023 | Trey Comstock
If you happen to lead a group of people and want them to trust you, then, take on the least pleasant task yourself. Humans may fear a bully and comply with their demands. So, sure, you can beat up the biggest kid on the playground and develop a certain following. However, people truly desire a circle of safety and a leader capable of achieving it. Leadership author Simon Sinek, in his 2014 book, Leaders Eat Last, lays out the case for a more sacrificial leadership style. The title of the book comes from the principle within the Marine Corp that higher ranking officers eat after their subordinates, not before. Grunts need more food than leaders do, and it demonstrates a willingness to sacrifice for your troops. If food runs short, the leader will go without.
We often picture (and experience) leadership the other way around. The least pleasant tasks go to the lowest ranking person. Junior employees get assigned the dirty and tedious jobs. Lower wage earners get laid off, while executives keep their high salaries. Bosses throw others under the bus for mistakes or poor performance. Politicians sit comfortably in fancy buildings, fancy suits, and even fancier parties, while on main street, folks struggle to make ends meet. The prevalence of this kind of leadership might help explain why general social trust sits at what feels like an all time low.
We are wired to desire and trust the opposite of that. People will willingly suffer alongside an executive who cuts their pay to save jobs, chooses the less pleasant job for themselves, accepts blame on behalf of the group, or steps out of their comfort to serve others. These acts build the circle of safety. A leader who sacrifices for their charges is a leader that can be trusted.
The theologian and children’s author CS Lewis writes about humans being hardwired to be in relationship with God, and our standards for trustworthy leaders fits right in with that. In Genesis 22, Abraham gets assigned a task, to go and sacrifice his son. For the purpose of this particular discussion, it doesn’t matter if Abraham believed that he would actually have to do it or not. Regardless of his internal deliberations, God gives him a job to do, and Abraham sets about doing it. The key here is that Abraham doesn’t end up having to do it. At the last minute, God provides an alternative.
He said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.’ And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt-offering instead of his son. (Genesis 22:12-13 NRSV)
We get the slow, dramatic build up. Abraham holds the knife over his son. You can feel the sharp intake of breath from the audience. The knife seems to hang there on its own. Is he really going to do it? God’s words break the tension. A father does not have to sacrifice his son. God does not require this of Abraham.
Yet, we know well the story of a father who does make that sacrifice. Christ hangs on a cross, stripped and bleeding for the world to see. He cries out to his father, “Father, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus gulps his final breath. What God would not make Abraham do, God does, when the salvation of humanity stands on the line. We see God willing to suffer in a way that God would not require God’s creation to suffer. In the cross, we witness the perfect, ultimate source of power in the universe choose to hurt for the powerless and sinful. God puts us first and God’s self last.
Trust must be earned. There’s a wonderful scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail all about leadership. King Arthur comes across some common people and declares his kingship to them because he received Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake. One lady simply dismisses him with, “Well, I didn’t vote for you,” but one called Dennis gives a more pointed reply that “true executive power comes from a mandate from masses, not farcical aquatic ceremonies.” We should be like Dennis and have a healthy skepticism of those who declare themselves leader, king, or god. We need to know that they can be trusted, that they’ll sacrifice of themselves for the sake of those that they serve. We have to check the receipts on those who seek to set our direction. Blessedly for us, God more than lives up to this challenge. The Good News that God put us first, over and over. It’s key to who God is. What Abraham didn’t have to do; God did to carve a path of love across the universe.