March 1, 2010| 0

Book Review: Incarnate Leadership: 5 Leadership Lessons from the Life of Jesus


by Bill Robinson (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009. 122 pp)

Bill Robinson is president of Whitworth University, a premier Christian university located in Spokane, Washington, and affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Robinson has served as president of Whitworth since 1993. Prior to arriving at Whitworth, he served as president of Manchester College in Indiana from 1986 to 1993.

Book review by Dave Eller and John Terrill

“Leadership is a delegated trust from the One who holds ultimate power”

With nearly 25 years of presidential service in higher education, Bill Robinson offers a unique perspective on the life of leadership, service, and faith.

He breaks down his insights into five key lessons:

  • Minding the gap. Learning to lead from among
  • Leading openly. Committing to lead with transparency
  • Bending the light. Leading humbly and reflecting the work and accomplishments of others
  • Living in grace and truth. Valuing both so as to create healthy, empowering cultures
  • Sacrificing. Recognizing ultimately that we lead best when serving others

We met for coffee over a series of weeks to discuss the contents of the book. Both of us have worked in a variety of organizational contexts across business, nonprofit, and higher education. We found Bill’s insights applicable to each of these settings. As it happened, we had to suspend our meetings while Dave traveled to Haiti to direct international aid in the wake of the devastating 2010 earthquake. This leadership experience enlivened our sharing and learning about what we were reading.

A characteristic that makes this book so helpful is its profound simplicity. Bill couples his ideas with personal stories and lessons learned from leading within the academy. He is vulnerable in sharing both his successes and failures, and he has a knack for capturing his insights in memorable words and phrases.

In the first chapter, for example, Bill makes a keen observation about Satan’s tempting of Jesus. In each of the three temptations, “Satan leads Jesus to higher ground.” They go from wilderness to the top of the temple to a high mountain. “Satan knows the intoxicating air of exaltation.” The Spirit of God, conversely, is more of a “down-and-outer,” leading Jesus down to the Jordan, down into muddy baptismal waters and then out to the wilderness. “Satan points us up. God points us down.” (p. 26)

Without forfeiting the responsibility and intentionality inherit in learning to lead and serve others well, Bill consistently reminds the reader that we achieve our best in a posture of dependency — on God and on others. Leadership is a delegated trust from the One who holds ultimate power.

We would do well to bear that in mind, particularly since our thought processes and modern constructs of leadership may run counter to God’s ideal. Pointing to the Scriptures, Bill reminds the reader in the final chapter of his book of the ancient Israelites, who begged God for a monarchy rather than a theocracy. In response to their pleas, God honored their request, calling and equipping David to be king, and thereby ushering in a new partnership model for leadership and governance. (See 1 Samuel:8)

In a crowded marketplace of leadership books, this is one book rooted in thoughtful reflections of the character of Jesus. It is definitely worth reading, and we encourage you to experience it in the context of dialogue and transparency with a circle of friends.

Dave Eller serves as president of World Concern, a nonprofit humanitarian organization providing community development and disaster response to the world’s poor. John Terrill directs the Center for Integrity in Business in the School of Business & Economics at Seattle Pacific University.

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