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31. Situational Leadership

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Gene Getz shows a fascinating interpretation of the criteria we typically use to select leaders in the form of a humorous “E-mail” from the “Jordan Management Consultants” sent to Jesus in response to his request for an assessment of the men he was considering as apostles. The message reads:

Thank you for submitting the resumes of the twelve men you have picked for management positions in your new organization. All of them have now taken our battery of tests; and we have not only run the results through our computer, but also arranged personal interviews for each of them with our psychologist and vocational aptitude consultant.

It is the staff’s opinion that most of your nominees are lacking in background, education, and vocational aptitude for the type of enterprise you are undertaking.

Simon Peter is emotionally unstable and given to fits of temper. Andrew has no qualities of leadership. The two brothers, James and John, sons of Zebedee, place personal interests above company loyalty. Thomas demonstrates a questioning attitude that would tend to undermine morale. We feel it our duty to tell you that Matthew has been blacklisted by the Greater Jerusalem Better Business Bureau. James, the son of Alphaeus, and particularly Simon the Zealot have radical leanings, and they both registered a high score on the manic-depressive scale. Thaddaeus is definitely sensitive, but he wants to make everyone happy.

One of the candidates, however, shows great potential. He is a man of ability and resourcefulness, meets people well, has a keen business mind, and has contacts in high places. He is highly motivated, ambitious, and responsible. We recommend Judas Iscariot as your controller and right-hand man. All of the other profiles are self-explanatory.

We wish you every success in your new venture.1

Paul discusses the kind of people God often chooses in 1 Corinthians 1:26-29. It serves as a humbling reminder to all who aspire to leadership in the kingdom:

Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.

This is not to suggest that evaluation tools and techniques are completely without merit. They can be quite useful when used correctly. However, it is clear that relying too heavily on these things can disqualify those whom the Lord would have us choose. These men were not chosen because they were the best and brightest. They became what they became because they spent time with Jesus. Through his discipleship program and the inner working of the Holy Spirit, these men were transformed into the greatest leaders the church has ever known. These men from humble and ragged beginnings, formed the nucleus of a group that went on to turn the world upside-down.

Luke records for us their choosing:

One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God. When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he designated apostles: Simon (whom he named Peter), his brother Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Simon who was called the Zealot, Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.

Luke 6:12-16

Jesus chose 12 men and developed them into the church’s first leaders. Within a few short years from this event, he would delegate the continuance of his kingdom to them (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:8).

Throughout Jesus’ ministry, it is difficult to detect a pattern in his behavior. Sometimes he heals people from a distance (John 4:46-53); sometimes he travels to see them (Luke 8:40-56). Sometimes he touches people (Mark 1:40-42); sometimes he spits on the ground and makes mud (John 9:6). Sometimes he runs away (John 6:14-15); sometimes he confronts (John 18:1-6). The one consistent theme is that we never know for sure how Jesus will act or react, but we can trust it will always be right for that specific situation.

Even a casual study of the manner in which Jesus prepared the 12 apostles shows us how effectively he adapted his leadership activity to the realities of the situation. He instructed them when they were uninformed, directed them when they were confused, prodded them when they were reluctant, encouraged them when they were downhearted. When they were ready, he allotted them limited tasks and responsibilities and then participated with them, guiding them through their assignments. Finally, he empowered and commissioned them as his apostles.

The Master Teacher shows us that effective leadership is situational. The leader’s whim or desire (even when that leader is Jesus) is not what drives intelligent action. Effectiveness in leadership is driven by what followers need. Jesus observed and understood what his followers needed, and he supplied it. He always interacted with them within the situation and responded appropriately to it. And within three years these obscure Galileans began to change the world.

As we observe Jesus’ training of the 12 in the Gospels, we notice how consistently his actions were exactly appropriate to the situation. Jesus was very intentional about situational leadership. Leaders who can analyze a situation and adapt their leadership activity to address it can function as servant leaders and as transformational leaders, and they can profoundly affect the lives of their followers.

Some Things Never Change, Some Things Do

Life in our world is replete with unexpected circumstances and situational twists. Our projections will not reliably carry us far into the future, but we serve a God who is surprised by nothing and who holds the future in his hands. Perhaps this is demonstrated best in Exodus 32:1-33:23. When Moses went up on the mountain to receive God’s law for his people, his protracted absence led them to take matters into their own hands;

When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.”

Exodus 32:1

They succumbed to the delusion of idolatry by constructing a “god” whom they could see and measure and manipulate. Most religion is just an attempt to make God or “the gods” manageable. The God of the Bible, however, is not a cosmic vending machine. He will not be manipulated by us, as he is the sovereign one in the equation. His initial reaction in this situation is to wipe the people out:

“I have seen these people,” the Lord said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”

Exodus 32:9-10

A lesser man may have been tempted to succumb to that idea. Moses, however, has a heart for his people and proves himself willing to give up his own life to save theirs. At one point, he even says to God, “But now, please forgive their sin – but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written” (v. 32). Moses’ intercession was required to avert the disaster of divine destruction, and his appeal was based on God’s reputation among the nations:

Moses sought the favor of the Lord his God. “O Lord,” he said, “why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people.”

Exodus 32:11-12

It is interesting that Moses is so concerned with God’s reputation. We would save ourselves untold grief if we would consider how our decisions and their consequences may affect his honor.

Even when the Lord relented, he stated that, instead of accompanying his people himself, he would send an angel with the people to bring them into the promised land and drive our their enemies: “Go up to the land flowing with milk and honey. But I will not go with you, because you are a stiff-necked people and I might destroy you on the way” (33:3).

These grievous words were too much for Moses, who pleaded,

“If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?”

Exodus 33:15

Moses recognized that what distinguished his people from all the other nations was the One whom they followed. Because God was pleased with Moses, he honored his request (v. 17).

Moses responded to this negative situation with decisiveness and integrity. His brother Aaron had handled his delegated authority in an irresponsible manner, and the people were “running wild” and “out of control” (32:25). Thousands of people died in the ensuing judgment, but Moses was instrumental in averting wholesale annihilation because he discipled the people and interceded for them before the Lord. His situational leadership in this crisis was masterful because he acted on behalf of the people while at the same time calling them to account. Such balance of mercy and discipline is vital for leaders at all levels.

God knows the future; he holds it in his hands. Yet God is pleased to respond to the prayers of his people. There is a deep and profound mystery in God’s sovereignty. Sometimes we adopt a Doris Day theology, “Que será, será. Whatever will be will be.” We abdicate our responsibility in favor of God’s sovereignty, failing to recognize that God’s plan is to work in concert with our intercession. Oswald Chambers noted:

Prayer to us is not practical, it is stupid, and until we do see that prayer is stupid, that is, stupid from the ordinary, natural, common sense point of view, we will never pray. “It is absurd to think that God is going to alter things in answer to prayer.” But that is what Jesus says He will do. It sounds stupid, but it is a stupidity based on His redemption. The reason that our prayers are not answered is that we are not stupid enough to believe what Jesus says.2

Our decisions really do matter. And God expects us to cooperate with his plan. Chambers also wrote, “Some of the things we pray about are as absurd as if we prayed, ‘O Lord, take me out of this room,’ and then refused to go.”3 Our decisions are not trivial matters that are pre-determined by a grand puppet-master in the sky. Somehow, God’s sovereignty and our free choices intermingle and weave the tapestry of our lives.

One Size Does Not Fit All

Someone has quipped that the seven last words of a dying church are, “We never did it that way before.” Many people have a seemingly inborn resistance to change. However, if we hope to remain effective in our positions of leadership, we must be flexible enough to adapt to the new situations we will inevitably face. We read about Paul’s flexibility in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23:

Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

Jesus transformed Saul, the zealous Pharisee, into Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles. Paul understood what it meant to make a midcourse correction, and his passion to see people reconciled to God gave him the willingness to approach each situation in a case-specific manner. His desire was to see as many people as possible come to faith in Christ. Thus, he would act like one under the law or not under the law, depending on whether he was working with Jews or Gentiles.

He repeated this principle in another letter: “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Colossians 4:5-6). For Paul, to season graceful conversation with salt was to painstakingly adapt his approach to each situation which he faced.

The truth is one size does not fit all. Each person is unique and different and must be engaged in ways that are specific to that person. Most evangelistic tools used by churches treat all seeking people the same. They ask seeking people the same questions and invite them to the same programs to hear the same speakers give the same answers from the same script. There is very little personal interaction with them.

The same is true of corporate training. New employees are subjected to the same battery of tests and asked to sit through the same training programs. There is no room for variation in methods, no consideration of different learning modalities. There is simply a cookie-cutter approach to turning out the next wave of corporate executives.

The apostle Paul, however, modeled Jesus’ approach to people. He viewed each situation, and each person, independently and sought to do the right thing in that given time and place for that specific person.

Paul’s training of his co-laborers also revealed his situational leadership approach. To Titus he sent instruction. To Timothy he offered encouragement. He prepared and trained workers to continue what he had begun in various cities, adapting that training to the specific needs of each worker. In this way, he equipped a number of co-laborers and delegated increasing levels of responsibility to them. How flexible are you in responding to changing circumstances? Do you find yourself trying to change the circumstances rather than your game plan, or do you adapt to them and make the necessary adjustments?

Treating People as Individuals

Situational leadership is not the easy road. It demands the leader’s attention to the followers’ condition. It requires watching and listening. But, like almost any other resource, time well invested pays great dividends. Notice how Moses invested in Joshua’s development:

The Amalekites came and attacked the Israelites at Rephidim. Moses said to Joshua, “Choose some of our men and go out to fight the Amalekites. Tomorrow I will stand on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hands.”

So Joshua fought the Amalekites as Moses had ordered, and Moses, Aaron and Hur went to the top of the hill. As long as Moses help up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up – one on one side, one on the other – so that his hands remained steady till sunset. So Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword.

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Write this on a scroll as something to be remembered and make sure that Joshua hears it, because I will completely blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.”

Moses built an altar and called it The Lord is my Banner.

Exodus 17:8-15

This brief story is part of a larger event. Throughout the 40 years of wandering described in Exodus and Numbers, Moses was preparing Joshua for leadership. Joshua would inherit the leader’s job just as Israel was preparing to wrest the land from the Canaanites, who lived there in walled cities and boasted well-equipped armies. This single event within the context of the larger story communicates an important principle of leadership in general, and of leadership development in particular.

God intervened in this battle in a visible and memorable way (vv. 8-13). Like Jesus in the New Testament, God in the Old Testament never did the same thing in the same way. For example there are times in the Old Testament when God tells his people not to fight at all (Exodus 14:14); other times he tells them to fight (Joshua 8:1-2); still other times he tells them to march around the city (Joshua 6:2-5). Sometimes God raises up a man to deliver his people (Judges 3:9-11); other times he raises up a woman to do the job (Judges 4:9). God is infinitely creative; he adapts and adjusts and invites us to be creative enough to adapt as well.

When the battle was over, God told Moses to “make sure that Joshua hears it” (v. 14). Why? Because Joshua still needed development before taking over as Israel’s leader. Joshua was on the battlefield, unaware of the way in which the Lord had intervened. The record of God’s work needed to be preserved because Joshua needed to acknowledge that God alone was the source of his power. Without his intervention Joshua could never have gone head-to-head with the Canaanite armies. His nomadic shepherd-soldiers would have been unable to gain a single victory without God’s aid.

Moses practiced situational leadership with his young protégé by identifying those areas in which Joshua was in need of skill and attitude development. He then matched his leadership action to his follower’s need.

Situational leadership defines “intelligent” action as “what the follower, in this situation, requires.” The best leaders don’t treat all followers the same, nor do they treat any single follower in the same manner all the time. They analyze the situation, identify what the follower needs to function and grow in that particular situation, and then proceed accordingly. Moses did the intelligent thing because he did what the situation called for.

Revise Your Plans, Not Your Vision

Obviously, Nehemiah was an exceptional leader. We read his story and learn many significant principles of godly leadership. However, as we consider Nehemiah’s character through the lens of situational leadership, a new appreciation emerges for his leadership genius. Although he relied upon a wide variety of leadership attitudes, relationships and skills, we find in him unwavering consistency.

To be consistent, according to Hersey, Blanchard and Johnson, a leader will invariably assess the circumstances and then do what the situation calls for. Consistency doesn’t imply that the leader always does the same thing regardless of circumstances. Nor does it suggest that a leader is predictable and will smile (or frown) regardless of what the follower does. It does mean that followers can count on the leader to do what is appropriate to the situation. If the follower’s action calls for a smile, the leader will smile. If it calls for a frown (or a more serious response), the follower can expect this as well.4

Nehemiah demonstrated mastery of a wide spectrum of leadership skills in chapters 4-6. He encountered various forms of opposition to the work he was overseeing. But notice that he did not deal with all opposition in the same manner. Nehemiah demonstrated consistency in his leadership, not because he acted consistently, but because he consistently acted in a manner that addressed the situation at hand.

There are three activities that provided Nehemiah with both the stability and flexibility to accomplish his goal. First, prayer was his first response to his critics (4:4-5). He didn’t take time to collect his thoughts or count to 10. His prayer is primal and emotional. He took all his thoughts and feelings to God – the only one who could do anything about the situation. He didn’t sugarcoat anything; he just unloaded. And then he went back to work (v. 6).

By doing so, he refused to allow his critics to steal his focus away from his vision. Prayer puts criticism into its proper perspective. Held up to the unlimited resources and wisdom of God, your critics lose their power. Anxiety shrinks and passion is rejuvenated. Prayers helps us evaluate criticism from God’s perspective and address our critics with grace and wisdom.

Second, Nehemiah recalled the source of his mission (v. 14). He thought back to how he had been brought to Jerusalem, how he had been able to procure permission from King Artaxerxes, how God had proven faithful thus far. The text implies that these memories didn’t just pop into his head; he intentionally brought them to mind.

By looking back, he discovered the resources to move forward. He dealt with the present crisis by reminding the people of God’s faithfulness in the past and God’s promises for the future. Rather than evaluating his own potential, Nehemiah recalled the strength and faithfulness of the God who called him to the present task.

Finally, Nehemiah made strategic revisions to his plan (vv. 9, 16-18). Leaders must understand the delicate balance between walking by faith and leading strategically. Our trust is in God. But at the same time we must not abandon our responsibility to do all we can do to further God’s work in this world. Posting a guard against a possible invasion by Sanballat and his crew hardly ensured a successful defense; the people were grossly outnumbered. Without God’s intervention, the workers would have faced insurmountable odds. But Nehemiah did what he knew to do and trusted God for the rest. His willingness to adapt his plan illustrates a principle that is important for leaders to observe: Never confuse your plans with God’s vision.

A vision is a snapshot of what could and should be; a plan is a guess as to the best way to make that vision a reality. It may be an educated guess, but it’s still just a guess. And even the smartest, most successful people know how wrong their guesses can be. For example, Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart, was clearly a giant in his industry. He had a vision for providing value to his customers in order to make their lives better, and he remained faithful to that vision throughout his career. However, his strategies were known to change frequently. His son, James, talked about this aspect of Walton’s success: “We all snickered at some writers who viewed Dad as a grand strategist who intuitively developed complex plans and implemented them with precision. Dad thrived on change, and no decision was ever sacred.”5

We can afford to be stubborn about the overall vision; but we must be flexible about our strategies and plans. The computer software used to write, edit and print the material you are reading right now went through thousands of revisions. Many of those revisions were made in response to criticisms the company received regarding the initial version of the product.

Why would a company that has been involved in word processing software for nearly 30 years spend so much time gathering suggestions from people who can’t write one line of code? Why let outsiders influence their agenda? Are they inept? Of course they’re not. It is their commitment to being the world’s leading producer of word processing software that drives them to revise their plans and refine their product.

Leaders who are unswervingly committed to their overall vision have the flexibility to adapt their strategy. Situational leadership shows us the wisdom of differentiating between the two. Only our pride would keep us from adapting one to serve the other.


1 Gene A. Getz, The Apostles (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1998), pp. 3-4.

2 Oswald Chambers, Prayer – A Holy Occupation (Grand Rapids: Discovery House, 1992), p. 25.

3 Ibid., 111.

4 Adapted from Paul Hersey, Kenneth H. Blanchard and Dewey E. Johnson, Management of Organizational Behavior, Seventh Edition, “Utilizing Human Resources,” (Escondido, CA: Leadership Studies, Inc.), pp. 138-139.

5 Sam Walton with John Huey, Made in America (New York: Doubleday, 1992), p. 70.

Related Topics: Leadership