What is the look of a leader?

By the Rev. Dr. Debora Jackson

Then he [Samuel] asked Jesse, “Is this it? Are there no more sons?”
“Well, yes, there’s the runt. But he’s out tending the sheep” (1 Samuel 16:11, MSG).

You are probably familiar with this exchange as recorded in the Bible. Samuel had been sent by God to Bethlehem to anoint one of Jesse’s sons as king over Israel. And, when Samuel saw Jesse’s son Eliab, he was convinced that he had found the anointed of God. What was it that made Samuel so sure? Was it Eliab’s height? His muscular build? Could it have been that he carried himself with great confidence and swagger? Or was it that he was handsome? Samuel did what so many of us do when considering the look of a leader. We regard the outer appearance as the determining factor. 
 
What is the look of a leader? When Jesse’s son David was presented to Samuel, God spoke and told Samuel to rise and anoint him. David did not have the look of a leader. He was a teenager. He was slight of build — the runt, as his father called him. But it was not the outward appearance that was God’s focus. David’s heart marked him for leadership in God’s eyes. Thus, this narrative is an important lesson for us as we seek leaders to help us confront challenges in our churches and other organizations. It is not the external look of the leader that guarantees success. To make progress on the challenges that confront us, we need a more expansive view and because of that, the look of the leader will be different than it has been in the past.
 
There is a look to which we gravitate by default. We overwhelmingly seek leadership in men, often of European descent, of a certain age, and with a defined profile. John Wayne comes to mind as that quintessential leader: tall, rugged, determined and proven, not to mention white and male. But that profile relies on the shrewd, savvy and charismatic leader who has all the answers. No one person has all the answers. If we continue to invest in the narrative of the all-knowing superhero as leader, we will ultimately be disappointed because our challenges will persist. If God looks in one’s heart as the measure, perhaps it is time for us to exercise greater discernment that we might do the same.
 
Consider your churches or organizations. Who have we overlooked as leaders? Was it the African-American woman or the Latino man? Have we passed over the 20- or 30-somethings or the person who seems reserved in a meeting? Do we keep recycling the one minority we know rather than digging deeper to discover new talent? Have we predetermined a certain profile that some have no hope of attaining because they have never been given the opportunity to gain the requisite skills?
 
Years ago, I attended a gathering about diversity in the church. The eight people in my predominantly female group represented a variety of ethnicities and backgrounds. As we considered the assignment, some were quick to speak and frame our discussion. Others were more reserved and quiet — a posture that was in keeping with their cultural norms but mistaken for ambivalence. The conversation was monopolized by those more accustomed to Western ways of dialogue, while others never contributed. Our expectations about leadership norms moved some to take over, leaving others to defer in silence. 
 
And this is the issue. Given the focus on what is generally accepted as normative in leadership, we may not make space for others whose look or way of being is different than the norm. However, as we look deeper, we become aware of alternatives. As we open ourselves to diversity, we invite innovation. As we yield to God’s Spirit, we can see the gifts of others. This is the look of leadership that is needed today. We need unfamiliar faces, fresh perspectives and practices that reach beyond what is normatively prescribed. As an African-American woman, my way of leading may be different than that of someone else. But embracing that difference and welcoming the contributions born of difference positions us to realize that which otherwise may have been absent. 
 
We have an opportunity to realize renewal in our churches and organizations by welcoming talent from diverse backgrounds. Finding this talent requires that we change our perception of the look of a leader.

As God told Samuel, “Looks aren’t everything. Don’t be impressed with his looks and stature. I’ve already eliminated him. God judges persons differently than humans do. Men and women look at the face; God looks into the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7, MSG). As we do likewise, we will thrive, and the world will learn from our success.


The Rev. Dr. Debora Jackson is director of Lifelong Learning at Yale Divinity School. Her book “Spiritual Practices for Effective Leadership: 7Rs of SANCTUARY for Pastors” is available through Judson Press.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.