True Leadership
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

True Leadership

On January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler was elected chancellor of Germany. Judging from the perspective of history, it is a perfect example that democratic elections do not always guarantee good government.

Two days later, twenty-six-year-old Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who would become a famous Lutheran theologian and author, gave a radio address entitled “The Younger Generation’s Altered Concept of Leadership.” This concept was known as the Fuhrer Principle (Fuhrer means “the Leader.”)  Although the Principle had been around for decades, it found new life after the economic chaos Germany suffered after World War I. Young people were rejecting the kaiser and the church. They yearned for a different kind of leader to restore the old German glory. It was no accident that Hitler would adopt “The Fuhrer” moniker.

According to Bonhoeffer biographer* Eric Metaxas, the address had been planned for a long time and was not a direct response to Hitler’s election. But regardless of Bonhoeffer’s motivation, his thoughts would make him an early enemy of the Nazis.

Although spoken eighty years ago, Bonhoeffer’s reflections on leadership are timeless. By examining them, we can get an important insight into why there is a such a dearth of true leaders in our country.

Bonhoeffer’s first point is that the true leader must not only admit his limitations in his political role but also must constantly remind his followers of their own responsibility when it comes to good government. However, should he surrender to their wishes to meet their every desire, he easily becomes their idol. When that happens, “the image of the Leader (sic) will pass over into the image of the mis-leader, and he will be acting in a criminal way not only toward those he leads, but also toward himself.” Bonhoeffer adds that the true leader must be able to disillusion his followers from seeing him as the ultimate authority. He serves the state and can provide a great service to it if he “keeps strictly in his place . . . He must let himself be controlled, ordered, restricted.”

Speaking of service, Bonhoeffer sees the true leader as one who serves others by leading them to maturity. He writes, “He puts them above himself, as a good parent does a child, wishing to lead that child to someday be a good parent. Another word for this is discipleship.” (This word was significant for Bonhoeffer because it is the title of his greatest and mostly widely read book.) One should not misunderstand Bonhoeffer here. The true leader is not some doting, indulgent parent who gives his children whatever they wish. Instead, he says to his followers, “Learn from me. Accept my discipline. Let me show you how to be an adult and assume your proper role in the body politic.”

Above all, Bonhoeffer knows that true authority does not come from a charming personality or a handsome face or the ability to make good speeches and win elections:

Only when a man sees that office is a penultimate authority in the  face of an ultimate, indescribable authority, in the face of the authority of God, has the real situation been reached. And before this Authority the individual knows himself to be completely alone. The individual is responsible before God.

But this submission to the eternal authority is destroyed when the authority of the leader or his office becomes the ultimate authority. The true leader sees himself as a creature before his creator. This humility sets him free but at the same time commits him to be responsible in his position.

Bonhoeffer concludes his address with a dire warning for a leader who refuses to submit to God:

. . . anyone who lays violent hands on man here is infringing eternal laws and taking upon himself superhuman authority which will eventually crush him. The eternal law that the individual stands alone before God takes fearful vengeance where it is attacked and distorted . . . Leaders or offices which set themselves up as gods mock God and the individual who stands alone before him, and must perish.

The danger for the citizen is to be fooled by the “god-language” of the individual who holds office. How easy it is for politicians to quote from the Scriptures when it serves their purpose or to end a speech with “God bless America.” But many of them mock God by the positions they take and the laws they support. For example, when the President of the United States ends a speech with “God bless Planned Parenthood,” then God is clearly being mocked.

Adolph Hitler never publicly condemned God or Christianity, but Dietrich Bonhoeffer was never fooled by The Fuhrer’s rhetoric. Bonhoeffer looked beyond the personality and the slogans and saw the evil imbedded in the Nazi ideology. In the end, he would forfeit his life in an attempt to defeat it.

If Americans really want good leaders, they, too, will have to look behind the smoke and mirrors used by so many politicians to manipulate the voters. They will also have to be mature and responsible enough to reject the notion that government should be Santa Claus dispensing freebees to the people. Most importantly, they will have to discern if politicians are truly humble enough to submit to God’s authority.  If they aren’t, then they cannot be good leaders and are, therefore, unqualified to hold office.

*Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, by Eric Metaxas, Thomas Nelson, 2010.

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Written by
Thomas Addis