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  • Writer's pictureMatt Garris

Leadership Theory and Biblical Application

The following post is adapted from my personal academic coursework.

Leadership Theory and Biblical Application

“We make a living by what we take; we make a life by what we give.” This anonymous quote, often misattributed to Sir Winston Churchill, speaks not only to charitable giving, but perhaps more importantly to giving of one’s self. Jesus tells his disciples in John 15:13 (NKJV), “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.” While Jesus was obviously speaking of His own impending death, His words also refer to the giving of one’s life—one day at a time—to others. Presidential candidate John McCain spoke similarly about the value of serving others during the 2008 campaign when he suggested that serving “a cause greater than self-interest” leads to “a happiness far more sublime than the fleeting pleasure of fame and fortune.” These quotations serve as insightful reminders that a person’s greatest legacy is always the people whom he or she influenced over the course of his or her life.

Through leadership, individuals can give of themselves to others, particularly through acts of influence. In fact, Northouse defined leadership as “a process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal.” He devotes the remainder of his 8th edition of Leadership: Theory and Practice to exploring established and emerging leadership theories related to this definition. These theories are rooted in the real world and are significant to leaders who want to make a difference in their respective leadership contexts. Through studying and applying leadership theories, people can lead more effectively, have a lasting positive impact in their spheres of influence, and make a life by what they give.


Components of a Disciplinary Field

Leadership theory is an academic field of study which encompasses multiple theoretical concepts applied across various fields. The “Academic Disciplines” entry in the Encyclopedia of Education states that among the elements necessary “to constitute a legitimate disciplinary field… …are the presence of a community of scholars; a tradition or history of inquiry; a mode of inquiry that defines how data is collected and interpreted, as well as defining the requirements for what constitutes new knowledge; and the existence of a communications network.” Leadership theory possesses many of these components. Regarding the presence of a community of scholars, Northouse acknowledged over 70 additional scholars who contributed to or reviewed Leadership: Theory and Practice in addition to the hundreds of published studies he cited throughout the book. The tradition of leadership theory research and resulting body of knowledge dates back for over a century as scholars have studied the field academically throughout the 20th century. Concerning the requirements for a mode of inquiry and procedures for identifying new knowledge, leadership theory has established these while accumulating a robust body of peer-reviewed research. Finally, leadership theory has several scholarly journals dedicated to publishing the field’s latest research and associated literature. Leadership theory meets these criteria for acknowledgement as a legitimate disciplinary field.

Profound Meaning and Moral Purity

Koka et al. stated that a vision “that has profound meaning derived from moral purity” should guide an academic discipline. They further explained that “the profound meaning must impact all of society by solving important problems and the moral purity ensures that the leadership actions are driven by the all-encompassing obligation to make the world a better place.” As a field of study, leadership theory meets these criteria. Through the implementation of leadership theories in practical situations, all society benefits regardless of whether one is directly involved in a leader-follower dyad. For instance, if transformational leadership leads an organization to create a new high-demand product which would not otherwise exist, then the leadership indirectly has impacted everyone who was involved with the producing, distributing, marketing, and purchasing the product. Leadership theory also meets Koka et al.’s criteria with regard to moral purity. While many researchers follow their desire to make the world a better place through ethical models of leadership, there is also a significant scholarly effort to address dark leadership styles or harmful leader behaviors. An example of this is Chaleff, who developed his followership typology in response to “a moral imperative to seek answers as to why people followed German leader Adolf Hitler, a purveyor of hate and death.” As an academic discipline, leadership theory exemplifies a high degree of moral purity.

Reflective Problematics

Karenga mirrored many of the above considerations, but suggests the inclusion of reflective problematics. He explained that: “Reflective problematics are those critical questions and foundational contentions that define a subject focus, field, or discipline; form the essential content and contours of its ongoing development and intellectual production; and generate and encourage deep and disciplined thought and educative discussion.” Leadership theory uses reflective problematics to guide its ongoing development. As such, this discipline also meets Karenga’s added criterion of including reflective problematics.

Significance to Business

The study of leadership theory is of tremendous value to the business world. Kodama suggested that leaders “must continually question how to create, use and share knowledge in their practical activities and consider what sort of strategic approaches are required for knowledge creation to achieve business innovation as overall organizational corporate activity.” Leadership theory is the connection between this continual questioning and business innovation. He added that for businesses, “the most pressing managerial issue is what kind of leadership practitioners should acquire and demonstrate... [to] ...strategically bring about new business innovation.” The scholarship of leadership theory is not merely relevant, but vital to the continued success of businesses around the world.

Foundational Theoretical Concepts

The following concepts are critical to comprehending and synthesizing leadership theories in order to effectively apply them in real-world scenarios. These ideas are prevalent throughout the literature and serve as an effective framework for understanding this academic discipline and its associated body of research.

Leadership is Influence

As previously mentioned, Northouse defined leadership as an influential process. This concept is foundational for three main reasons.

Lead is a Verb

First, it is vital to understand that leadership is an action, not a position. Just as “runner” is a description for those who run, “leader” is a description for those who lead. One cannot be a runner without running and one cannot be a leader without leading. Leadership is not a matter of who one is, but rather what one does.

Influence Requires Two Parties

Influence cannot take place in isolation. Influence consists of one person or group persuading another to make a change. If either party is absent, there is no influence. One cannot influence empty space, nor can empty space influence a person.

Influence Requires Change

Northouse mentioned “achiev[ing] a common goal” in his definition of leadership, but this raises an interesting point. Is leadership only if the goal is achieved? What if the “leader” of a mountain-climbing expedition turns the team back due to dangerous weather? Is this no longer leadership? Kim et al. discussed leadership within the context of goal setting theory and goal-focused leadership. This suggests that leadership exists outside of a goal.

However, there must be some evidence that the leader’s influence accomplished something. A leader without impact is either a neutral party or a follower. Leaders drive change. Instead of tying leadership to goal achievement, it is more appropriate to describe leaders as change agents. The result may manifest as a change of perspective, direction, outcome, or something else, but the litmus test of leadership is whether it inspires change.

Leadership is Multidimensional, Complex, and Dynamic

Northouse approached leadership as a complex process consisting of multiple interrelated dimensions. McLaughlin and Kunk-Czaplicki suggested that Northouse organized the chapters in Leadership: Theory and Practice based on this multidimensionality and complexity. They stated that Northouse’s theory, critique, case-study approach is a response to these characteristics inherent within the subject.


All human interactions are multidimensional. There are differences in backgrounds, culture, educational attainment, ethnicity, family, language and dialect, mood, occupation, personality, physical characteristics, political affiliation, religion, socioeconomic status, and many other traits which affect every interaction. Within a leadership context, one must also consider the personal history of the dyadic relationship, the power balance, organizational culture, leadership objectives, and additional dimensions unique to leadership. Understanding the interplay between these various dimensions is vital to leading successfully.


The relationships between these dimensions makes leadership a complex endeavor. Many would argue that the complex nature of leadership is well-known. However, Tourish argued that “a deeper engagement with process and communication theories helps to reveal leader-follower dynamics in a more consistently complex light than [complexity leadership theory] acknowledges.” Uhl-Bien and Arena addressed “interconnectivity and redistribution of power” as factors increasing the complexity of modern leadership contexts.

However, Tourish counters that the complexity modern leaders face, while different from previous generations, is neither unprecedented nor as excessive as other scholars suggest. He utilized the early 20th century as a backdrop against which to ask: “Are [modern challenges] really more complex than those involved in emerging from the Great Depression in the 1930s, defeating fascism in a world war, rebuilding Europe after 1945, or coping with a world in which Communism held sway over the vast landmasses of Russia, China, Eastern Europe and elsewhere?” Tourish’s question implied that he does not think they are. Ultimately, knowing which generation faced the most complexity is inconsequential. Rather, leaders should focus on the complexity present in their own leadership contexts. As Jesus taught in Matthew 6:34, “Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”


In addition to leadership being complex and overflowing with interactive dimensions, it is also a dynamic activity. Leadership constantly adapts to changes in context. Theoretical application of this principle means that research is necessarily ongoing as the field is continually evolving. Practically, this means that the effective leadership techniques of the past may not necessarily yield the same results in contemporary or future contexts. Northouse acknowledged that “organizations are recognizing that they are having to modify previous ways of doing things to meet [their followers’] needs.” Schulze and Pinkow discussed the importance of dynamic leadership to an organization’s ability to adapt and survive in the modern business climate.

Leadership Requires Followership

Northouse opened his discussion of followership with an obvious, yet overlooked truth: “You cannot have leaders without followers.” Reverend Benjamin L. Hooks put it this way, “If you think you are leading and turn around to see no one following, then you are just taking a walk.” Followership is foundational to leadership and any theoretical or practical consideration of leadership should consider followership. Leadership without an awareness of followership is short-sighted and likely to produce disappointing results.

Leadership Begins with the Individual

Northouse devoted three chapters of his book to individual leaders. McLaughlin and Kunk-Czaplicki summarized these chapters as providing “a broad overview of individual leadership… …by covering traits, skills, and behavior approaches.” While there are non-individualized leadership contexts (e.g. distributed leadership, team leadership, etc.), these still consist of individual leaders working together on behalf of an organization.

Ultimately, individuals perform with other individuals for the sake of individuals. Thus, understanding the relationship between individuals and leadership is an important aspect of leadership theory. Northouse pointed out throughout these chapters that these individualized approaches to leadership are primarily descriptive, not prescriptive, because they focus in varying degrees upon leaders isolated from their leadership contexts.

Trait Approach

The trait approach to leadership focuses solely on the leader’s characteristics. This isolation is both a theoretical strength and weakness. Focusing on traits alone allows undiluted, straightforward approach that is often absent in leadership theory due to its complex, dynamic, and multidimensional nature. However, the nature of leadership also suggests that examining traits—or any singular aspect of leadership—in isolation leads to conclusions which, when applied to practice are of limited value, if any.

Skills Approach

The skills approach is closely related to the trait approach. Both focus primarily on individual leaders. However, the skills approach differs from the trait approach in that it focuses on developable skills rather than fixed traits.

Behavioral Approach

The behavioral approach to leadership focuses less on the characteristics and skills of leaders and instead on their actions. It focuses on individual leaders, but is more aligned with the action-centric concept of leadership.

Multiple Approaches to Leadership Contexts

Because leadership is a complex, dynamic, multidimensional, and individualized human endeavor, many scholars have divergent approaches to understanding leadership contexts. Northouse addressed several of these at various levels of leadership, from simple leader-follower dyads through team leadership of larger organizations.

Situational Leadership

Situational leadership is prescriptive and suggests applying the traits, skills, and behaviors of leaders to specific situations. Thompson and Glasø discussed the importance of situational leadership to organizational adaptability.

Path-Goal Theory

Northouse explained that path-goal theory focuses simultaneously on leader, followers, and the organization. This complex theory suggests that leaders utilize different styles with different followers and in different contexts.

Leader-Member Exchange

Northouse described how leader-member exchange focuses not on leaders or followers, but rather the interactions between them. Gregory and Osmonbekov discussed how these interactions, when positive, form better leader-member relationships which in turn lead to better individual outcomes.

Transformational Leadership

According to Northouse, transformational leadership is concerned with influencing positive change in one’s followers and organizational environment. This approach views leadership as an action with its efficacy validated by change.

Authentic Leadership

Northouse identified authentic leadership as a relatively new theory lacking a clear definition or singular operating mechanism.

Servant Leadership

Northouse stated that “servant leadership puts followers first.” Serving others can influence change just like directing or rewarding them.

Adaptive Leadership

Northouse described adaptive leadership as stressing “the activities of the leader in relation to the work of followers in the contexts in which they find themselves.” Adaptive leadership is a dynamic, active, and follower-centered approach.

Biblical Perspectives

In 2 Timothy 3:16-17, the apostle Paul taught Timothy that “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable… …that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” Therefore, those who consider themselves men and women of God should consult His word as they seek to become equipped for the tasks He has set before them. The Bible has much to say on a myriad of topics, and leadership is no exception. Through careful study of Scripture, modern Christian leaders can build upon the firm, tested foundation of the leadership principles and examples contained therein and avoid the many pitfalls that have caused others before them to stumble. The intersection of the Bible and leadership theory presents opportunities for theoretical case studies, personal case studies, and an ethical and spiritual framework within which to discuss extant and emerging leadership theories.

Theoretical Case Studies

Scripture, and particularly Biblical history, provides thousands of years of examples of leaders who succeeded and failed in their respective roles. This wealth of history provides ample space for the retroactive application of leadership theories. Several of the leadership approaches which Northouse discussed are readily evident in the lives of several prominent leaders whom Merida studied in his Christ-Centered Exposition: Exalting Jesus in 1 & 2 Kings. The following examples apply the trait theory and leader-member exchange to Biblical contexts.

Trait Theory

Merida discusses Solomon’s wisdom, Elijah’s boldness, Ahab’s weakness, Elisha’s faithfulness, and Josiah’s humility as defining traits of their leadership.

Leader-Member Exchange

Merida described leader-member exchange in the relationship between Elijah and Elisha. Elijah provided his subordinate Elisha with prophetic power and Elisha responded by providing companionship for Elijah.

Personal Case Studies

In addition to Scripture’s usefulness as a context in which scholars can apply modern theories, these ancient texts are also valuable because they contain examples which modern scholars can study to further develop their understanding of leadership. Merida asserts that the dominant theme of 1 Kings 1 is kingship. This theme and the related theme of leadership are present throughout Merida’s discussion of kings, queens, princes, prophets, priests, and generals in his exposition on 1 & 2 Kings. While these leaders may have died long ago, their experiences remain relevant in the 21st century.

Leadership Successes

Merida identified several leaders who were generally successful. He described King Solomon as the wisest man alive who reigned “over Israel in a time of great prosperity…, …peace, great wealth, remarkable literature, and worldwide fame.” Merida described Elijah as having “won the ‘Super Bowl’ at Carmel” and later concluded his discussion on Elijah’s successful ministerial career by stating that the prophet “goes on to his eternal reward without tasting death.” Finally, Merida described Josiah’s leadership as “stellar,” stating that he was “the ideal king described in Deuteronomy.”

Leadership Failures

Merida’s exposition is filled with analysis of the shortcomings of Israel’s and Judah’s kings, priests, and prophets. The first of these is King Solomon, whom Merida recounted “made some foolish and destructive choices…, …didn’t always steward God’s blessings faithfully…, …didn’t keep [God’s law]…, …[and] led [Israel] into decline and set it up for collapse.” Merida also addressed the leadership failures of Rehoboam, who divided the nation in his first week on the job. Finally, Merida heavily analyzed the wickedness of Jezebel and her impotent husband Ahab. There is no shortage of Biblical wisdom about avoiding leadership pitfalls.

Biblical Ethics

Barbera et al. stated that religion affects leaders’ attitudes, behaviors, decision-making, and perceptions, and influences business and management practices. They further examined the reasons religion leads to these outcomes. One reason not covered in their research is the application of Biblical ethics. However, reading and interpreting the Bible is a key component of Evangelical and Protestant Christianity. Barbera et al. might have more accurately stated that the Bible affects Evangelical and Protestant Christian leaders’ attitudes, behaviors, decision-making, and perceptions, and influences business and management practices. Thus, the Bible is not only valuable for studying historic leaders, but also as a source of ethical and spiritual insight and wisdom to guide Evangelical and Protestant Christian leaders.


Scholarship in the field of leadership theory leads to continuous improvement and the development of emerging research-based leadership approaches. These approaches are vital as leaders across various industries navigate through complex, dynamic, and multidimensional leadership challenges. Understanding the foundational concepts related to the field of leadership theory not only contributes to superior scholarly research, but also benefits leaders in real-world contexts. As leaders implement these theories into practice, they produce real-world results. These results not only benefit their organizations, but also contribute to the betterment of society in general. By leading organizations and helping society, these practitioners are serving a cause greater than themselves and giving of themselves to their fellow man. Through their actions they glorify God and, little by little, make a life well lived by what they give.


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Benjamin Hooks Quotes. (n.d.) AZQuotes.

Gregory, B. & Osmonbekov, T. (2019). Leader-member exchange and employee health: An exploration of explanatory mechanisms. Leadership & Organization Development, 40(6), 699-711.

Holy Bible, New King James Version. (2020). Thomas Nelson (Original work published 1982).

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Schulze, J. H. & Pinkow, F. (2020). Leadership for organisational adaptability: How enabling leaders create adaptive space. Administrative Sciences, 10(3), 37-58.

Thompson, G. & Glasø, L. (2018). Situational leadership theory: A test from a leader-follower congruence approach. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 39(5), 574-591.

Tourish, D. (2019). Is complexity leadership theory complex enough? A critical appraisal, some modifications and suggestions for further research. Organization Studies, 40(2), 219–238.


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