Here is one of my favourite leadership stories found in the book of Acts in the Bible:
As Paul gathered an armful of sticks and was laying them on the fire, a poisonous snake, driven out by the heat, bit him on the hand. The people of the island saw it hanging from his hand and said to each other, “A murderer, no doubt! Though he escaped the sea, justice will not permit him to live.” But Paul shook off the snake into the fire and was unharmed. The people waited for him to swell up or suddenly drop dead. But when they had waited a long time and saw that he wasn’t harmed, they changed their minds and decided he was a god.
(Acts of the Apostles 28:3-6 NLT)
I like the story because it is pretty out of this world, and fun to imagine being there when
it happened. It is one of those scenarios that needs very little introduction to get people thinking about it and maybe putting themselves in the shoes of those described. As humorous and out of this world as it is, I also like it for its depiction of leadership and popularity that still wiggles its way into our current understanding of how we view leaders.
The interesting background on the story is that Paul was at this point a prisoner in transport. After he and the crew were shipwrecked we have this little snippet come to life. He was also considered an important leader within the growing church movement, which was part of the reason he was a prisoner.
Note how quickly the popular vote changes in the midst of this story: A stick gatherer, a murderer deserving justice, to a god.
I often balk at the concept of likability and popularity in choosing leadership. I do believe leadership is a call to influence, but I am not sure how popularity plays into it when we consider effectiveness. Some of the most influential people in my life were not the most popular, and not always the most likable. But they were effective and humbly brought about positive direction to their group. Social media does not help in discerning the nuances of relational leadership lived in real time, nor does our watching it for our opinion to be changed.
Having influence is part of the package, but it cannot be a popularity contest. Some great leaders have died for great causes, and some morally bankrupt individuals have ruled unimpeded. Good leadership must be evidenced by the character desired to represent the good of those being led.
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