Relationships and Resources: Elijah & Elisha in LMX
The following post is adapted from my personal academic coursework.
Relationships & Resources: Elijah & Elisha in Leader-Member Exchange
As God created the world, He reflected on His work each day and “saw that it was good.” In fact, the first time that God saw something that was not good was in Genesis 2:18 (NKJV) where He observed that “it is not good for man to be alone.” At this point, God created Eve—her beauty was the crown to complete His paradise. At the end of the sixth day, “God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).
God created humanity to fellowship with one another, foremost in marriage, but in other relationships as well. He knows that “it is not good for man to be alone” and loneliness is one of the most disconcerting of human experiences. It is against this backdrop of loneliness that Elijah calls out to God in 1 Kings 19:10, “I alone am left; and [the children of Israel] seek to take my life.” Elijah’s cry was so desperate that God Himself showed up to comfort him. God told Elijah to anoint two kings, anoint his replacement, and that there was a remnant of 7,000 Israelites who had remained faithful to Him.
God’s choice of words that day concerning Elisha, “…you shall anoint as prophet in your place” (1 Kings 19:16) may not have sounded very comforting to Elijah in the moment. He was concerned about dying and God was sending him to anoint his replacement—the man who would do his job when he was no longer around. However, things began to turn around when he met Elisha. Elijah, who had spent his entire ministry dealing with some of the most stubborn people imaginable, must have been surprised when Elisha “left the oxen and ran after [him]” (1 Kings 19:20).
Elisha is the In-Group
It is important to recognize that Elijah had other followers. His references to being “alone” speak more to specific situations (1 Kings 18:22) and his emotions (1 Kings 19:10) than to the actual number of prophets in Israel. 1 Kings 18:3 mentions Obadiah hiding 100 prophets in a cave (1 Kings 18:3), and Bible Gateway’s Encyclopedia of the Bible identifies guilds of the sons of the prophets at Bethel, Jericho, Gilgal, and in the hill country of Ephraim. These followers were part of what Northouse might have described as Elijah’s out-group as they worked within their defined roles. However, Northouse might have described Elisha as being Elijah’s in-group because their dyadic relationship was “based on expanded and negotiated role responsibilities.”
While Northouse explained leadership making as a phenomenon relegated to group contexts, the phases he described are present in Elijah and Elisha’s relationship.
The stranger phase, which Northouse described as being characterized by relationships “within prescribed organizational roles,” is briefly on display when Elijah throws his mantle on Elisha and Elisha “left the oxen and ran after Elijah” (1 Kings 19:20). Elisha clearly understood Elijah’s expectation and fulfilled it.
Northouse described the acquaintance phase as one beginning with an offer for improved social exchanges and characterized by testing and a shift of interest away from self and toward the group. Elisha makes his offer for improved social exchange in his act of slaughtering a yoke of oxen, burning the equipment, and giving away the meat (1 Kings 19:21). This same act also demonstrates his shift away from self-interest. Merida highlighted the zeal with which Elisha left to follow Elijah: “Then we read of total abandonment of all things for God’s will. Elisha not only kisses his family good-bye but also kisses the world good-bye. He destroyed all of his old means of sustenance in verse 21. He tells everyone publically [sic] that he’s following God’s will. What’s more, he seems to be throwing a party to tell everyone. He isn’t reluctant; he’s excited.”
In the partnership phase of leadership making, Northouse explained that "People who have progressed to this stage in their relationships experience a high degree of mutual trust, respect, and obligation toward each other.” This is evident in the relationship between Elijah and Elisha in 2 Kings 2. Merida observed Elisha’s commitment to his leader: “Elijah will go town to town trying to shake Elijah [but] Elisha will not let Elijah shake him.” Elisha tells Elijah thrice, “As the Lord lives, and as your soul lives, I will not leave you!” (2 Kings 2:2, 4, & 6). Elijah similarly demonstrates his commitment to and regard for Elisha in 2 Kings 2:9 when “Elijah said to Elisha, “Ask! What may I do for you, before I am taken away from you?” The mutual respect and obligation between leader and follower after 18 years of co-ministry is substantial.
In addition to the relationship which Elijah and Elisha enjoyed for many years, there was also an exchange of resources. Within this dyadic relationship, Elijah received companionship and dedication and Elisha received Elijah’s anointing.
Elisha’s Companionship for Elijah
Recall that the relationship between Elijah and Elisha began when Elijah felt that he was alone against the rest of the world. His greatest need at that time was companionship, and God provided that through Elisha. Gregory and Osmonbekov suggested that “high-quality [leader-member exchange] may help to satisfy this fundamental aspect of well-being [a basic need to… …form strong relationships with others] through the formation of the quality relationship, itself.”
Elisha’s Dedication to Elijah
This companionship was a permanent feature of the relationship because of the other resource Elisha provided for Elijah—dedication. Elisha expressed his dedication when he killed the oxen and burned the plows. This dedication lasted up through the day God took Elijah away when Merida noted that Elisha “would not let Elijah shake him.” Finally, Elisha being known as the one “who poured water on the hands of Elijah” (2 Kings 3:11) years after Elijah’s death testifies of the longevity of Elisha’s dedication. Lee et al. also found that “the perception of personal importance ascribed to the leader-follower relationship was a significant moderator of the effect of [leader-member exchange] quality on feelings of obligation to the leader.” Elisha’s dedication to Elijah exemplified the importance he ascribed to their relationship.
Elijah’s Anointing to Elisha
Why was Elisha so loyal to Elijah? Tanskanen, et al. noted that “subordinates who are party to a high-quality relationship receive more inside information.” Elisha realized that God’s anointing and power rested upon Elijah. Elijah had something Elisha wanted, and Elisha believed the way to receive it was through his faithfulness. Just before God took Elijah, Elisha asked him for “a double portion of [his] spirit” (2 Kings 2:9). Lee et al. stated that “the [tangible and intangible] resources exchanged between individuals vary in perceived value, and that these variations in value have a powerful influence on the exchange process.” Elisha so greatly valued God’s presence and power that he dedicated his life in service to Elijah.
In conclusion, the relationship between Elijah and Elisha is an excellent example of the leader-member exchange theory of leadership. The dyadic relationship between these great prophets was in keeping with the Northouse’s explanation of the theoretical construct of an in-group and three phases of leadership development. Additionally, their relationship had an exchange in which both received what they most desired. Elijah received companionship and dedication and Elisha received Elijah’s anointing. Their relationship and joint ministry efforts leave a legacy of impact which has remained exemplary for leaders throughout history.
Encyclopedia of the Bible - Sons of Prophets. (n.d.). Bible Gateway. https://www.biblegateway.com/resources/encyclopedia-of-the-bible/Sons-Prophets
Gregory, B., & Osmonbekov, T. (2019). Leader-member exchange and employee health: An exploration of explanatory mechanisms. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 40(6), 699-711. https://doi.org/10.1108/LODJ-11-2018-0392
Holy Bible, New King James Version. (2020). Thomas Nelson (Original work published 1982).
Lee, A., Thomas, G., Martin, R., Guillaume, Y., & Marstand, A. F. (2019). Beyond relationship quality: The role of leader-member exchange importance in leader-follower dyads. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 92(4), 736-763. https://doi.org/10.1111/joop.12262
Merida, T. (2015). Christ-centered exposition commentary: Exalting Jesus in 1 & 2 Kings. B & H Publishing Group.
Northouse, P. G. (2019). Leadership: Theory and practice (8th ed.). SAGE Publications, Inc.
Tanskanen, J., Mäkelä, L., & Viitala, R. (2019). Linking managerial coaching and leader-member exchange on work engagement and performance. Journal of Happiness Studies, 20, 1217-1240. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-018-9996-9