Leaders Who Accidentally Diminish
What did Hezekiah the king do right? A couple of things. Number 1, he rejected his father’s idolatry. 2 Kings 18:4 tells us he removed the high places where the people would gather to worship idols. He destroyed the cultic stone pillars. He cut down the asherahs, these idolatrous poles that people would bow down before. He even smashed Moses’s bronze serpent that people had begun to turn into an idol. So, number 1, he rejected his father’s idolatry.
Number 2, he trusted in the Lord, chapter 18, verse 5. Also 2 Chronicles 29 tells us he opened up, he repaired, he cleansed the temple, he reinstated Passover.
Number 3, he refused to serve Assyria. Now, he didn’t do it perfectly. There were times later he placated Assyria. But he in general demonstrated real courage.
Number 4, he knew how to pray, and in answer to prayer, God miraculously delivered Jerusalem from the Assyrian invasion. God also miraculously healed Hezekiah and added fifteen years to his life.
Number 5, he oversaw some remarkable engineering accomplishments. The greatest of these is mentioned in verse 20 (we just read it), the conduit that brought water into the city. I took this video around six weeks ago when some of us from the church were exploring this tunnel in Jerusalem with headlamps. Hezekiah built this. (I know it’s hard to see. This is not professional. We’re also singing. That’s why we have the sound off.) Hezekiah built this about 2,700 years ago. In 701 BC, King Hezekiah realized that King Sennacherib, king of Assyria, intended to attack Jerusalem. The Gihon spring was Jerusalem’s only reliable source of water, and it was outside the city walls, therefore, very vulnerable in an attack. And so, Hezekiah’s engineers enclosed the spring and then tunneled through 1,750 feet of solid rock from both ends. And here’s the remarkable engineering part — they met in the middle and created an underground aqueduct between the spring on the north side and the pool of Siloam. And the tunnel, as you’ll see here, is rather …. That’s the sort of S-shaped thing. It is most likely S-shaped because they seem to have followed cracks in the rock in order to provide fresh water for the city and to keep it away from the Assyrians.
Hezekiah did a lot right. But the question remains, did he end well? And some people point out that Hezekiah responded (and this seems to be true) responded valiantly and humbly in the moment of crisis, but arrogantly in the moment of prosperity. And you get a glimpse of that in the text we just read. 2 Chronicles 32:25 commentates on that by stating “his heart was proud.” So, he was strutting and flaunting and God, the giver of good gifts, was not happy.
Look back at verse 16 of 2 Kings 20,
“Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, ‘Hear the word of the Lord: Behold, the days are coming, when all that is in your house, and that which your fathers have stored up till this day, shall be carried to Babylon. Nothing shall be left, says the Lord. And some of your own sons, who will come from you, whom you will father, shall be taken away, and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.’ Then Hezekiah said to Isaiah, ‘The word of the Lord that you have spoken is good.’ For he thought, ‘Why not, if there will be peace and security in my days?’”
Hmm. Verse 19 has stirred up a lot of debate. Is Hezekiah to be commended for embracing this hard word of prophecy? There are some clues that are positive. For example, in 2 Chronicles 29:26, he repented of his pride. That’s good. But yet, it seems as though Hezekiah’s response is an example of short sightedness at best, and therefore, I believe, represents a failure of leadership. Not that he was a total failure; he did a lot right, but that this is a failure. How do we know? A couple of clues.
One is we know that in the final fifteen years of life that was added on to Hezekiah, his greatest achievement was producing an heir named Manasseh. Manasseh became king at twelve years old and reigned over Judah for fifty-five years and became the absolute worst king Judah ever had — most idolatrous, most wicked, most unjust. So, that was Hezekiah’s final achievement.
But more specifically, he seemed to have elevated immediate success above long-term success. And we see this by comparing the two prophecies in chapter 20. Prophecy number 1 in 20:3 is when Isaiah predicted Hezekiah’s untimely death. How did Hezekiah respond? What did he do? Look at chapter 20, verse 3. He cried. Yeah. He “wept bitterly.” But then look a few verses later in chapter 20, verse 19. When God said there would be peace in your days, judgment to come, do you see any tears? No, he said, “That’s good.” And that, to me, makes it clear. Why didn’t he weep bitterly over the second prophecy?
And this is an important word for all of us whatever level of leadership you are in. A short-term, immediate, results-driven mindset can lead us to measure success by false metrics. For example, you can coerce your young child into obedience, but if his heart is full of bitterness and anger, that’s not going to go well long term. Or you can oversee a ministry and rally the troops, and through intimidation and motivation, get them to get the task done and accomplish great things in the short term, but damage your team in the process. That is not how God has called us to do ministry. Look at 1 Peter 5:2-3 again. Gregg read this a few minutes ago. The apostle Peter warned us (and we saw this last fall in our study of 1 Peter),
“Shepherd, the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, [how?] not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.”
So, the why you lead and the way you lead matter. Look at those more specifically. “Shepherd the flock.” Three warnings — “not under compulsion.” In other words, you don’t shepherd because you’re driven to meet your own need as if something is compelling you besides just willing response to the call of God. I’ve got to prove something. I am somebody. All those voices are wrong about me. I can achieve stuff. Peter’s warning none of those should motivate us in the way we shepherd.
Second, “not for shameful gain,” driven to seek your own immediate gain. It’s worth it to sacrifice if I get paid enough or get enough applause or get something.
And then third, “not domineering over those in your charge,” driven to get your own way. No. Rather serve willingly, eagerly, being examples to the flock. And each of these warnings — “do not do it this way” — are describing the sacrificing the ultimate on the altar of the immediate. And we know that because the very next verse, verse 4 in 1 Peter 5, says,
“when the chief shepherd appears, you will receive [what?] a crown of life.”
In other words, Christian leaders are energized by things way beyond immediate results or benefits. There is something, someone fueling our ministry that creates a far healthier and more fruitful motivation for ministry.
Doris Kearns Goodwin, in her classic book, Leadership in Turbulent Times, describes the dark and the bright sides to President Lyndon Johnson. She had worked with him in the White House and helped him write his memoirs. She describes how Lyndon’s parents had a tension-filled marriage, so much so that Lyndon’s mother was in despair and began looking to him to find hope. He said prior to his birth, his mother was miserable.
“Then I came along, [he writes] and suddenly everything was right again, and I could do all the things she never did.”
At three years old, he could quote huge sections of Longfellow and Tennyson, and she would reward him with affection and love.
“I knew how much she needed me, [he writes] I liked that. It made me feel big and important. It made me feel I could do anything in the world.”
But there was a dark side. When he failed to meet her expectations, she withdrew her affection. She could ignore him for days to make him pay. And this pattern of parental leadership would be emulated by Johnson as he pursued his political career.
Goodwin writes this.
“He would blanket someone with generosity, care, and affection, but in recompense, expect total loyalty and sterling achievement. Failing this standard was perceived by him as betrayal. His affection would be withdrawn, a pattern of behavior so pronounced it earned the epithet, the Johnson ‘freeze-out.’”
You could go from being the hero to the villain in a second. And when you were the villain, you got the “freeze-out.”
His tendency to humiliate and manipulate his staff often produced remarkable results. But as Goodwin observes, he instilled fear. He kept everyone on edge. People were pitted against each other and feared public humiliation. And again, they produced remarkable results, but the price they paid was great.
This raises a big question that is relevant to Hezekiah’s story and has been super helpful to me. Is it possible that many of us are, as Liz Wiseman calls, accidental diminishers as leaders? What does that mean? Well, Hezekiah didn’t purposely desire for his sons to inherit judgment, but that’s what he passed on. Lyndon Johnson’s mother didn’t purposely want to harm her child through her rewards and punishments, but she did. Lyndon Johnson didn’t intend to harm his staff as they pursued their tasks, but he did. So, according to Wiseman, accidental diminishers are
“managers with the best intentions, good people who think they are doing a good job leading.”
But they are actually in some ways preventing their team from flourishing and hindering their mission long term. They are, in short … What’s an accidental diminisher? Someone who does not intend to drain the capacity of those around them, but they end up doing that rather than amplifying the capacity of those around them?
Wiseman gives a great example in Magic Johnson. When he was in high school, he was still known as Earvin Johnson, Jr., but he was a remarkably gifted basketball player. He was so good that the coach said, “Everyone get it to Johnson, and every time you get it, shoot it.” And he scored pretty much all the baskets, and they won pretty much all their games. But after one game, there were walking from the gym … This is amazingly observant for a high school player, but he noticed the faces of the parents who had come to watch their sons play basketball. And they hadn’t watched their sons play basketball. They watched him play basketball. Their son’s job was merely to get the ball to him. And he determined in that moment,
“I made a decision at this very young age that I would use my God-given talent to help everyone on the team be a better player.”
Magic went from being an accidental diminisher to being an intentional multiplayer. Wiseman writes this,
“This was the decision that gave Earvin the name ‘Magic’ — for his ability to raise the level of excellence of every team he ever played on and of every person on those teams.”
Now we look back on that, and we say “brilliant!” If you followed Magic’s career and the championships he won in the NBA, much to the dismay of Celtic fans, you still have to say “brilliant!” Yet, in the short run, I don’t think anybody was saying “brilliant,” right? Just picture the first time he could take a shot that he would most likely make, but instead he passes it to the guy who turns it over, and the coach is screaming. Imagine the first couple of games they begin to lose that they would have won. And people weren’t saying “brilliant.” They’re saying, “What are we doing?” So, if you measure things short term, it was a stupid decision. But there was something bigger going on.
Marion Wade founded the business ServiceMaster. He describes his philosophy in business this way.
“I was not asking for personal success as an individual or merely material success as a corporation. I do not equate this kind of success with Christianity. Whatever God wants is what I want. But I did try to build a business that would live longer than I would in the marketplace that would witness to Jesus Christ in the way the business was conducted.”
Do you see the long-term vision, the way it was done and the way it lives on? Now, yes, a business has to be profitable in order to endure. But if you read Wade’s view of his employees, he did not view them as pawns to be used to get profit. He viewed them as image-bearers, who had significant things to contribute because God made them. And his goal was to tap into that to produce something bigger than all of them.
Now, most of us are not universally a multiplier or universally a diminisher. Most of us, like Hezekiah, have things we do in our leadership styles that actually help others flourish and things we do that diminish or keep their gifts down.
Last year, I wanted to see what I can’t see about my leadership style and read Liz Wiseman’s book, but specifically that chapter on Accidental Diminishers — super helpful. Also on her website, she has a test you can take. It’s not a scientific test, but it will reveal whether you’re an accidental diminisher or not. And we talked about this with our staff. So, I want to show you a few examples she mentions. And she’s looking at this from in the business world, but I think it’s applicable to all of us as parents, ministry leaders, business leaders, educational leaders, whoever.
Here are a few examples — Idea Guy. This leader becomes the only one offering up new ideas. A leader who is a fountain of ideas can inadvertently paralyze his team by the quality and the quantity of his ideas. Well, how can that be diminishing? Well, the quality can leave the team feeling like, “Why should I even try? We just go to the fountain of ideas. So, my ideas are irrelevant.” The quantity of ideas can paralyze everyone because the staff can feel like they’re sitting under Niagara Falls every day as the ideas come down. Why work on that because there’s going to be a host of new ones tomorrow that we won’t be able to keep up with.” Idea Guy.
Second, Always On. This leader is always on but can leave the team always off. Her personality is so big she can fill the room, but she can quickly become white noise to her team.
Rescuer. This leader swoops in to rescue. It was interesting. When you take this test, you hear voices. I heard voices from the past saying “you tend to swoop in.” Really? Must be referring to someone else. This leader swoops in to rescue, yet eventually produces a helpless team. The leader who injects his opinion and assistance so often, so soon, can easily discourage or deplete the confidence of the team.
Pacesetter. This is the leader who takes off, assuming his team will follow, but looks in the rearview mirror and they’ve given up. In the name of motivating, this leader can move so fast as to leave others sitting on the bench.
Optimist. The leader says things like “how hard can it be?” That’s another one of those phrases that I heard myself saying many times to build confidence when the team might need the difficulty at least acknowledged.
Strategist. This leader casts vision but is too prescriptive. Others have no space to think through the challenges that strengthen their visional muscles. Better to seed a challenge than sell a vision.
Perfectionist. This leader goes beyond the high standard and ends up discouraging the team with constant critique. Wiseman writes,
“Sometimes a 90% solution executed with 100% ownership is better than getting it 100% right with a disengaged team.”
Do you see the tension between short term and long term?
That can be overwhelming. Where do I start? Where do I start? Number 1, listen to those around you. Now, in saying this, I am especially burdened for anyone … There are many among you who, when you see lists like this, you immediately just feel overwhelmed — “I guess I suck as a leader.” Maybe. Maybe not. The point here is not to try to figure all these details out at this moment. The point is to get a particular mindset that, when we go through life saying, “okay, Lord. I don’t have this down, but I do want to learn.” And the interesting thing you find, if you’ll look around, is most of what you need to become a better leader in home, in church, in the neighborhood, wherever, is right near you. The people near you know what you need to become a better leader. That doesn’t mean everything everyone says about you is true. There are people who will offer criticism that needs to be ignored but embedded in some of that criticism are pearls of wisdom, if you will be humble and listen.
When my kids were little, when we were memorizing many, many proverbs, this is one of them we memorized, and it is huge.
“Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you.”
Think about that. There’s a kind of person that when you offer suggestions or even a correction, you will get back hate. They will think you hate them, and they will hate you for offering any suggestions. Even if you look at the verse before that, they will abuse you in return because you wanted to help. Don’t be that kind of person, please. What Proverbs is saying is the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer when it comes to wisdom if you won’t listen.
Look at what he goes on to say.
“Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you; reprove a wise man, and he [what?] he will love you.”
Wow! Thank you! That’s hard, but helpful.
“Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser; teach a righteous man, and he will increase in learning.”
There is a kind of leader … Again, it doesn’t mean you believe everything that’s said about you. Sometimes someone will say things about you where 80%, 90% is not true, but there’s 10% in there that’s gold if you can hear and receive. And by God’s grace. You know, this is one of the hardest things. We want to be leaders who listen. It doesn’t mean driven by the fear of man, doesn’t mean worrying about what people think, but when God brings someone along who loves you enough to speak the truth, will you hear?
I keep thinking about this Hezekiah story. Imagine if, when he heard that prophecy, he said rather than “this is good,” if he said, “okay, God, what can I do? How can I repent? How can I change, not for my generation, but for future generations?” That is a humble leader.
Secondly, and obviously this is the right answer to every question, look to Jesus. Look to Jesus. Look at Mark 10:42.
“Jesus called them [his disciples] and said to them, ‘You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.’”
Stop for a second. What Jesus is describing is in every culture, but the leaders are very concerned about their own status and their own rank and producing peace and security in my days. Look at our politicians. If you ran for office and you said, “Listen, I’ve got some changes to bring about, and for the next ten years the economy is going to be horrible. Your lives are going to be hard. But after that, it’s going to be gold!” That person will not get a vote because people don’t want that, and leaders won’t produce that. They don’t think vision. They don’t think next generation. They’re not “what can we do today that can make things better for tomorrow?” It’s all today. It’s like a drug addict. Hit me today. And what Jesus is saying … That kind of status-rank, productivity-at-all costs leadership is not what I’ve called you to. Look at verse 43.
“But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant. Whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Notice the immediate sacrifice, ultimate success.
Our lives today are transformed because Jesus did not say what Hezekiah said. Jesus did not say “peace and security in my days,” right? He said, “suffering and cross in my day; peace and security for my children.” And he’s calling us to that mindset. Right now, we stand forgiven and free because Jesus humbled himself and embraced short-term sacrifice, long-term gain. And he calls us into that — take on the mind of Christ. It’s a different way of thinking.
And so, on this ordination Sunday, we have the privilege of ordaining two new elders, but as we also pray for leadership as a whole, wherever God puts you. We have hundreds and hundreds of business leaders and educational leaders, political leaders, student leaders, parents, ministry leaders by the hundreds and hundreds who sacrifice weekly. And we want to soak in the mind of Christ and say, “This year, Lord, fill me with your Spirit so that I not only accomplished the tasks you call me to accomplish, but I magnify and amplify the capacity of those around me. This isn’t a matter of ‘as long as I get it done, I’m good to go.’ I want that grace that you pour out on me to flow into others, to empower others, to free up others, even if they get the spotlight. I want to see the team flourish.”
And we want to take on that mindset through the Lord’s Supper. So, in a moment, I’m going to pray, and some people are going to come forward. They’re going to pass out a piece of broken bread, a cup representing the broken body of Jesus, the shed blood of Jesus, where he did not say “peace and security in my days,” but rather gave himself for us that we might flourish.
And then I will, after we pass those out, I will come back up and we’ll take this together. If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, you’re saying “yes” to him today as his Spirit convicts and comforts and encourages you, we invite you to participate. If you’re not a believer, please just pass it along and use this time to ask him to search your heart and draw you. Let’s pray.
Jesus, thank you, that one of the characteristics of your coming is that you turn the fathers’ hearts toward their children. You give them a bigger vision than just what is good for me, what is comfortable for me, what will make my life better, easier. So, we pray that you would fuel us, all of us, with a bigger vision than merely “peace and security in my days.” We pray for our elders again, Lord, we would not be myopic, we would not be short sighted, but would shepherd wisely and humbly. We thank you again for the hundreds of volunteers, ministry leaders you have raised up here, the staff, the deacons, who serve so faithfully, the life group leaders, the counselors, the teachers, children’s ministry leaders, musicians, sound techs, volunteers in Financial Peace, and re:gen, and re|engage, and Alive volunteers, and mentors, and literacy volunteers, and greeters, and ushers, and safety, and hundreds of volunteers in outreach ministries throughout this community, and missionaries going around the world.
God, we stand in awe of your work in and through your people, and we beg you to pour out your Spirit on us this year so that we as leaders, no matter where you’ve put us, would accomplish humbly and faithfully what you’ve called us to do, but also the overflow of that would amplify and encourage and fuel others, that you would give us a bigger vision to love and lead, to cause others to flourish in their giftedness.
And we pause now as you search your hearts, as we cry out to you, as we remember your sacrifice. Lord, that’s the fuel right there. It’s not “I got to prove something, I’ve got to offset bad stuff from my past, I’ve got to make sure my family knows I’m up to something good,” none of that garbage. We are fueled by the sacrifice of Jesus. So, search us now and speak to us, we pray. Our eyes are on you. In Jesus’s name, Amen.