Incarnational Leadership

Each summer, the Gary Cook School of Leadership undertakes a special travel study trip with doctoral students who are studying the theory and practice of leadership. Within the DBU context, leadership practice is taught in the form of servant leadership, taken from the classic concept by Robert Greenleaf but understood in the context of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.

The final study trip for doctoral students is to Oxford, England, where the students study both the implications of globalization on leadership, as well as contemplate the future of leadership within the complexities of world politics, economics, culture, and religion.

As a theme for this final trip, Dr. Adam Wright, current DBU President and former Dean of the Cook School of Leadership, developed the concept of Incarnational Leadership, a moniker that provides a clear understanding for why various locations were chosen, as well as historical examples of various aspects of Incarnational Leadership.

Incarnational Leadership is by no means a novel idea, and one could find various definitions of the term. While there may be connections to these other formulas, the travel study particularly utilizes this concept as a way to combine the need for a leader who thinks within a global framework and who infuses their leadership with a Christian focus on service to others.

Below are shortened lessons from the trip, provided by some of the teaching faculty who travel each year— Dr. Blake Killingsworth (Dean of the Cook School of Leadership and Assistant Professor of History and Leadership), Dr. Mary Nelson (Director of the Ph.D. in Leadership Studies Program and Professor of English), and Dr. Adam Wright (DBU President). 

Incarnational Leadership Videos 

The various videos highlight the lives of significant leaders in English history, covering the following ideas:

  1. Incarnational Courage (Cambridge Reformers)
  2. Incarnational Humility (C. S. Lewis)
  3. Incarnational Initiative (Henry VIII and Elizabeth I)
  4. Incarnational Love (William Carey)
  5. Incarnational Preparation (Winston Churchill)
  6. Incarnational Redemption (John Newton)
  7. Incarnational Sacrifice (Oxford Martyrs)
  8. Incarnational Strategy (William Wilberforce)

As with all definitions of leadership, our model should always begin and end with one individual—Jesus Christ. The concept of servant leadership, although not Christian in origin, does well to capture many of the aspects of the way in which Christ led. He looked to serve first, not lead first. He focused on the needs and well-being of others. He cared more about His community than about His own personal gain. He shared leadership with others by empowering them to be His disciples to all nations.

Paul's description of Christ's ministry in Philippians 2 is such an incredible example of His servant's attitude:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Philippians 2:3-11 (NIV)

With these words, we are reminded of the attitude, ministry, and sacrifice of our Savior, and we are to emulate this example in our daily lives.

With the concept of Incarnational Leadership, we want to fuse this concept of servanthood with an understanding of the global nature of the Kingdom—the reality of the various cultures, locally and internationally, that individuals encounter as they seek to lead.

To that end, we begin by looking at verse three in Philippians 4, as well as the prologue to the Book of John. In both of these places, we sense that Christ knew of His power and His place in the world. He was no fool. He understood that it was through Him that all things were held together. He knew that it was through Him that the world itself came to be. He knew that in Him dwelled the fullness of the glory of God.

Yet, He gave this up. He humbled Himself and became obedient to take on flesh and become a man, a man born into First Century Palestine. He grew up as an Israelite, engaging in all of the Jewish customs and ceremonies. He became one of them, not so that He could fool them, but so that He could serve and save them. This is the incarnation—Christ taking on flesh and walking among humanity in order to save humanity.

The incarnation, however, did not end there, and herein lies the beauty of Christ's message. This Jewish Messiah became Savior to those who were not Jews nor had to become Jews. He became the Christ, or the Annointed One to the Gentiles, and in so doing, the message of the Gospel became translated into Greek and Roman cultures. These new groups began to see Christ through their own eyes. Their own cultural understandings were challenged at times and affirmed at other times. In the end, a new tradition of Christianity arose that was philosophic in nature and sought to provide doctrinal formulas and ecclesiastical structures.

From the Roman world, the message continued to move on and incarnated itself over and over again into new and various cultures—European, Celtic, Western, Russian, Asian, Indian, Latin, African—each with their own unique way of experiencing and expressing the Gospel.

In this way, the concept of incarnation means more than just a single moment in time. It demonstrates the ways in which Christ continues to empty Himself and become a servant to all men and women of all cultures in all times by taking on the flesh of that culture and serving them where they are.

How does this connect to leadership? If we believe that the overarching drive in our leading is to be Christ to our followers, then we need to take serious the doctrine of the incarnation and the way in which it has been lived out over the centuries.

First, we must see others as more important than ourselves. This concept is an inherent part of servant leadership, and it is foundational in incarnational leadership.

Second, we must seek to understand our place in God's Kingdom. This understanding involves an acknowledgment of our gifting, our personality, our culture, and our education. We can bring to the table wonderful aspects of our backgrounds, and we should never be afraid to utilize them.

Third, we must abandon the concept that because of our background, we possess some innate superiority over the culture into which we must lead. While this can be said in any leadership arena, this is especially true of the global leader. We cannot enter into new cultures believing them to be inferior and in need of our help and knowledge. We do not forget our education and training, but we do relinquish the idea that our culture provides the only answer to a problem.

Fourth, we must embrace the new culture into which we are placed. We should do our best to follow Christ's example of taking on the culture of a Palestinian Jew as we take on the culture of the Southern United States or a Brazilian. We need to learn what it means to be South Korean, should we arrive in Seoul, or understand how to live as an Indian in New Delhi. This does not mean that we embrace all aspects of the culture, for Christ challenged the prevailing views of the day in as much as He also embraced the people. But it does mean that we try to become like the people we lead in order to better lead and serve them.

Fifth, we should see our role in the lives of our followers as being an example of Christ. This means that our frustrations, our plans, our aspirations, our demands, our challenges, our deadlines, our work culture, our communication style, our policies—all of what we do to lead is done in a way that demonstrates Christ first and foremost. What this means in various contexts is not clear, but the overarching principle is, beyond just being a servant leader, being the hands and feet of Christ to others.

Courage: Cambridge Reformers

Dr. Blake Killingsworth and the lessons of Incarnational Courage in the lives of the Cambridge Reformers.

Humility: C. S. Lewis

Dr. Mary Nelson and the leadership humility of C. S. Lewis.

Initiative: Henry VIII and Elizabeth I

Dr. Mary Nelson discusses the leadership legacies of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.

Love: William Carey

Dr. Adam C. Wright provides insights on William Carey's example of leadership and love of others.

Preparation: Winston Churchill

Dr. Blake Killingsworth analyzes the concept of leadership preparation with Winston Churchill.

Redemption: John Newton

Dr. Blake Killingsworth looks at the life of John Newton and the concept of redemption in leadership.

Sacrifice: Oxford Martyrs

Dr. Adam C. Wright explores the legacy of the Oxford Martyrs and their example of Incarnational Sacrifice.

Strategy: William Wilberforce

Dr. Blake Killingsworth discusses the leadership strategy of William Wilberforce.