Single-Leader-Centered vs Group-Centered Leadership

By: Matthew Wesley Williams
July 20, 2010

Consider these two statements on leadership:

“Strong people don’t need strong leaders.”

“Leadership never ascends from the pew to the pulpit. It always descends from the pulpit to the pew.”

The first quote is a famous line from Ms. Ella Jo Baker, whose masterful work in organizing and leadership development helped to launch and stabilize the early work of many of the most significant civil rights organizations of the 20th century: NAACP, SCLC, SNCC and MFDP. The second quote is a lesser known line from a better known figure: the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. These two
contrasting statements open a chapter entitled: “The Preacher and The Organizer,” in Barbara Ransby’s landmark book: Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (Gender and American Culture). With these statements, Ransby positions Baker and King as symbolic representatives of two very different models of leadership.

Baker was a strong critic of a leadership style she saw embodied in King: a single-leader-centered model. This style of leadership tends to centralize power, decision making and responsibility for meaningful action in a single leader. She was convinced that this mode of leadership made superhuman figures out of ordinary individuals while robbing the masses of their own extraordinary power to value their own resources and change their collective condition. Group efforts at social change that are organized around a single leader tend to become focused on the needs and personality of that leader. More importantly, such efforts either die or are severely diminished when that leader meets his or her inevitable demise.

Ransby attributes Baker’s perspective, in part, to her early experiences at the feet of her mother and other female missionaries in the black church. As a girl, Baker observed that in the male-dominated Black Baptist church, ordinary, untitled and uncelebrated women were the ones who did the work of the church—feeding the hungry, organizing church activities, and making sure all of the “little things” in the church and community were in order. There, she developed a belief in the power of ordinary people organized to achieve collective aims. Baker was a strong proponent of the leadership style she saw in those women: group-centered leadership. This radically democratic mode of leadership shares power and responsibility, placing priority on the needs of the community. Baker’s deep-seated belief in this type of leadership was not based on a “Polly Anna” view of human beings. She held a sober paradoxical appreciation for the human capacity for both tragic frailty and innovative agency in community. She knew that group efforts that trust group members to own, lead, interpret and organize around their shared vision tend to generate patterns of change that last far beyond the limitations or life span of any single charismatic leader. It is a much more sustainable model of leadership.

What does this mean for pastoral leadership? Recently I posed these two models—single leader-centered leadership and group-centered leadership—to a gathering of young pastors who are active in social service and justice ministries. One young pastor’s response has both haunted and saddened me, “Well the Baker model is ideal and all but it doesn’t really work in real life…the reality is that the people want the King model.” This seems to suggest that despite his deepest ideals, values, and convictions about leadership, discipleship and ministry, pastors are, in many ways, subject to the limits of the leadership model resident in the imagination of the congregation they serve. One’s livelihood often seems to depend on whether he or she will conform (or deform) to meet the people’s demand for a “King”(see the story of King Saul). (By the way, my colleague Elizabeth Mitchell Clement posted a good reflection on this a while back)

If Baker’s experience and beliefs hold true—and I believe they do more often than not—congregations that hold to the model of single-leader-centered leadership are doomed to hitch their hopes for vitality to the certain decline or death of an individual. It is an unsustainable model. More importantly this is a model that stands in stark contrast to the model of Jesus found in the gospels. Jesus’ leadership style called ordinary people, gave them the keys to the kingdom, the power to tread on serpents, and access to the promise of Pentecost. Interestingly enough, even when some stranger outside of the inner circle was found exercising power on behalf of the people, Jesus suggested that it was not a threat to his status, but rather a cause for celebration. Jesus’ model of leadership was group-centered. In contrast, when Herod and the subjects of Caesar heard about Jesus and the movement that he generated, they decided that he had to be executed. Herod’s model of Empire was of a single-leader-centered group. This contrast begs the question, “If Jesus’ model of leadership was group-centered, from whence do we as church leaders derive a single-leader-centered leadership model?” More importantly, what would be required of a pastoral leader to help a congregation make a shift from dependence on a single leader to a group centered way of being?

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