Authenticity: A Cultural or Biblical Value?

“This lecture was powerful and moving.  But for the following three reasons I do not think it works in Japan for Christian leaders to be open and honest with their followers…”

These words were shared by Pastor A.*, a highly respected pastor in a doctoral seminary class that I was teaching a few years ago.  His comment led to a sudden change in plans for that day’s schedule.  We went into break-out groups to more fully discuss the implications of following Paul’s example of vulnerable and honest leadership.  Rather than a general discussion of the topic, however, it became a significant venue for personal stories among these Japanese pastors and leaders:

  • “… After confidentially sharing a struggle I had with two of my church leaders, I was so hurt that they would turn around and tell others.  I stopped sharing anything personal.”
  • “….I shared a personal issue and no one said anything. I could tell by their faces they were judging me instead of loving me.”
  • “…I tried for several years to be open with my leadership board but they said they only wanted to talk about the issues of the church.  I think they were afraid to hear about my weaknesses.”

Vulnerability.  Authenticity.  Openness.  This kind of leadership can be very painful.  Are these biblical values,  or leadership values that are cultural in nature and may only works in some parts of the world but not in others?

The apostle Paul’s leadership is marked through and through with frankness and openness** that I would guess at times shocked his followers (these are from his second letter to the Corinthians). 

  •  I wrote you as I did…out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears….not that you would be sad, but that you might know the love I have for you…  (2:3a,4a)
  •  I was so utterly, unbearably crushed that I despaired of life itself (1:8b)
  •  No!  You are in my heart, to die together and to live together  (7:3b)
  •  I feel a divine jealousy for you (11;2a)
  •  …and I will not be silenced…. And why?  Because I do not love you?  God knows I do!  (11:11)

Paul was committed to communicating truth boldly and clearly, often with emotion.  He did not hide from challenging problems confronting his churches.  He sought to communicate as much as possible with his followers, rather than communicating as little as possible.  I so appreciate Paul’s refreshing description of this leadership value in 2 Corinthians 4:2(MSG):     “We refuse to wear masks and play games.  We don’t maneuver and manipulate behind the scenes….we keep everything we do and say out in the open, the whole truth on display, so that those who want to can see and judge for themselves in the presence of God.”  

In their book, The Ascent of a Leader, Thrall et al write of two main ladders that leaders can use to climb — the capacity ladder (what I can do); or the character ladder (discovering what God can do).  It is the leaders who operate from the character ladder–living authentically by modeling vulnerability and submission to others– who create genuine communities of grace.  They define vulnerability as placing oneself under others’ influence — choosing to let others know you and your weaknesses, and have access to your life.  Not only being the influencer, but allowing others to influence you.  The character ladder of leadership, as my Japanese colleagues will attest to, can be painful.  But is it worth it?

A few examples of vulnerable leadership that I have seen modeled in recent years:

  •   The national leader from India* who stood up in front of several hundred people and shared that he had been abusive to his wife but is in the process of being healed;
  • The missionary leader in the Philippines* who shared with his followers his struggles with internet pornography and how he was taking healthy steps to deal with it; 
  • The missionary in South America* who wrote in detailed honesty to all of her supporters of the intense pain she was going through following a broken engagement. 

When I see this type of unmasked, authentic leadership modeled in the church around the globe — regardless of the culture — I am drawn in.  I am inspired to be more vulnerable.  Authentic leadership allows the world around us, as well, to see that our M.O. is different.  The primary concern is not image but authentic living following the ultimate authentic life of Jesus.  We learn from such leaders  that it is not only acceptable, but admirable, to “all the more boast about my weaknesses” (2 Corinthians 12:9).  

On the last day of our seminary class, Pastor A. asked if he could share.  He stood up slowly, and said he was mistaken on the three reasons why vulnerable, open leadership does not work in Japan.  With a shaky voice, he said that there is only one reason:  pride. 

Being a vulnerable leader requires courage, humility, and, of course, discretion.   It is sometimes not really welcomed by followers.  There are costs.  But Pastor A. concluded that he wanted to be a pastor, even in Japan, willing to lead with weakness and openness.  

Biblical?  Or cultural?  Weigh in.  


*Some details (locations, names) of these true stories have been modified.

**This leadership principle stems from work by J. Robert Clinton.