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True leadership is defined by the meek--those who embrace the risky demands of servanthood and relinquish their need for control.
Few leaders exemplify meekness more than Abraham Lincoln did. Its young men gone to death or in prisoner-of-war camps far in the North, its heartland in ashes, and its agriculture and industry destroyed, the South, in 1865, was shattered. Postwar poverty, and a deep sense of shame and defeat gripped the states of the former Confederacy with economic and psychosocial depression.

The Army and the congress wanted the conquered rebel states occupied, gutted and forever stripped of full participation in the republic. Lincoln, as war-weary as any, with as great a reason for vengeance as they, would have none of it. With the power to punish them bitterly or even to return slavery for slavery, Lincoln longed instead to return the wayward safely to the fold.

Only his meekness, his refusal to use his power in unrestrained vengeance, saved the South and the nation from a postwar nightmare even worse than it was. Long known for his honesty, Lincoln proved the depth of his character with meekness. In his second inaugural address, Lincoln boldly called on Americans for healing love:

"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

The greatness of the powerful is made manifest in restraint, and meekness is the virtue of the victor, not the vanquished. Misunderstood by many, meekness is often thought to be only for the weak-sister types. Nothing could be further from the truth. Meekness is the supreme virtue of leadership without which power becomes tyranny. Meekness is power under control.

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Christianity itself is a paradox that turns upside down the world's comprehension of what it means to live triumphantly. In that sense, meekness is the epitome of Christian virtue.

Now, in all virtues there is what might be called the conviction of the virtue. That is what we believe to be true about it. Then there is its theater of operation. That is, some circumstance is necessary to put the virtue in action. Fear, for example, must be present or courage cannot be called into action. Likewise, meekness can only be demonstrated in the context of power.

A big boy hits a small boy. The small boy endures it quietly because he has no other option. Inwardly, however, he seethes with lust for revenge. Because he is subdued in the face of violence, we may mislabel him as meek.

Yet, he is actually consumed with murderous rage. He foregoes vengeance, but he is not meek. He is simply resigned. If, however, the small boy hits the larger fellow first, it is the offended party who has the power. The large boy can break the smaller boy in half, yet he bears it quietly. That's meekness.

There are two words, when used together, paint a completely wrong picture of meekness. Those two words are "meek" and "little." We often say, "He is a meek little fellow." We envision this man as an impotent, powerless bloke. In reality, however, we would be better to say, "What a big, strong, powerful, rugged, meek fellow." When we identify meekness with being effete, we pervert the virtue.

Meekness is not even possible until power is at risk. We can learn meekness by observing a mother lion lying quietly with her gentle cubs playing about her. In their weakness they nip each other with all their strength.

Watching them, we may think they are just playing. They are not playing. They are fighting. They are learning to be full-grown lions. They simply do not have the power to hurt one another. They are biting with all their might, but their little jaws are like the pincers of crabs. They nip and pinch and irritate, but they cannot possibly inflict serious wounds.

Now, behold the great lioness. With strength in her jaws sufficient to snap the hind legs of a full-grown impala, she reaches down and picks up the cubs in her fearsome mouth. She has the power to snuff out their lives, yet the babies lie quietly and safely between her ominous jaws. She, not the cubs, is meek.

Meekness is rarely provoked. It is easily pacified. It is controlled, patient and easily entreated. It is willing to forgive when forgiveness will earn no reward. Meekness is love in the driver's seat.

When culture distorts meekness to mean weakness, its leaders grow ruthless. "Might makes right" becomes the motto of such a culture, and the weak are plowed under. Thus, the weak in any society depend for protection, not on the mighty, but on the meek. When meekness disappears, the most defenseless elements of the society are at risk.

Meekness in every level of society is important, but it is absolutely essential in leadership. The distortion or loss of meekness in political, military, economic and religious leadership will thoroughly pervert any culture.

Ascending to the throne after his father's death, young Rehoboam sought counsel. To follow Solomon's fame and glory was no easy task for the young king. He needed wisdom.

The elders who had served his father, Solomon, suggested, "'If today you will be a servant to these people and serve them and give them a favorable answer, they will always be your servants" (1 Kin. 12:7, NIV). The graybeards--the elders who understood that character and servanthood were necessary in the leader of a nation--advised that he be meek.

The young men, outraged at such an idea, gave very different counsel.

"'Tell these people who have said to you, "Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but make our yoke lighter"--tell them, "My little finger is thicker than my father's waist. My father laid on you a heavy yoke; I will make it even heavier. My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions"'" (1 Kin. 12:10-11).

Their blatant appeal to Rehoboam's insecurity won out. The obscene comparison between Rehoboam and his father, Solomon, did not miss the mark either. It may have been sophomoric and irrational, but it touched the raw nerves of Rehoboam's self-doubts.

The nation shuddered at the new king's first speech. At a time when meekness would have engendered his people's loyalty, Rehoboam made it clear that he was no man's servant.

The CEO who wants to lead in the style of Jesus takes upon himself the mantle of meekness. He never asks himself how his employees can further his career, but seeks instead to help his employees fulfill their potential as human beings and productive members of society.

The meek pastor does not ask how his staff, elders and membership can help fulfill his ambitions. He asks himself, rather, what he can do that will bring them into the fullness of the stature of Christ. The politician who is meek does not ask himself what the people can do to carve his niche in history. He seeks some way to bless the least member of his constituency.

Leadership without meekness deeply engraved in its character always corrupts itself in one way or another. Leaders lacking meekness fall into three categories:

The Distant Emperor: King Ahasuerus was unapproachable, infallible and unable to make a mistake. In the Book of Esther, anyone approaching this ancient king without being summoned, including his wife, would die if the king did not extend his scepter.

The meek leader lays down the scepter of authority and makes himself approachable. The meek leader is able to admit others into his real presence, not sentencing them to the death of separation and seclusion.

The Macho Man: This type is threatened by his own inadequacies, fearful that he is not altogether male. He repeatedly celebrates his own maleness, constantly seeking to tighten his fragile hold on masculinity, thus reminding himself: "I'm a male. I'm a male. I'm a male." Ironically enough, there is often a paper-thin membrane separating the macho man and the effeminate homosexual.

The Suffering Martyr: This leader, tired and nearly beaten, has paid the price for his family. When his authority is questioned or his will is challenged, he responds by showing how taken advantage of and wounded he is. Not domineering but manipulative, his character has, nonetheless, lost meekness.

Many actually mistake the suffering martyr for a man of meekness. In reality, he is bankrupt. He has retreated behind a wall of grieved condescension. The suffering martyr is so right, and so far above others that he cannot even attempt to explain his pain and sorrow. His is cowardly and unjust leadership. Furthermore, the suffering martyr has lost a key element of balanced, mature living and leadership. He has lost his sense of humor.

A sense of humor is not the ability to detect what is funny. A sense of humor is the ability to laugh at oneself. If someone else slips on a banana peel and you laugh, that has little to do with your sense of humor. If you slip on a banana peel and laugh, you have a sense of humor.

A meek leader will laugh about his pratfalls. The suffering martyr sees nothing funny about his plight. The meek leader receives both criticism and compliments with humor, and, therefore, with balance.

Chafing under the leadership of their brother Moses, Miriam and Aaron began to reason in the flesh and not in the Spirit. Surely, Moses did not have a corner on the God market. They were as mature as he was. In fact, when Moses fled to Midian, they remained in Egypt. They out-suffered Moses if nothing else. Then there was this matter of the foreign woman. Moses' Gentile wife infuriated them.

Aaron was a prophet. As for Miriam, was she excluded because she was a woman? God could not be so unjust. Moses, not God, was their complaint. They were as good as Moses, and they wanted their fair share of the power. Finally, in Numbers 12, their inner rebellion burst into the open. Comparing their ministry and spirituality with his, Aaron and Miriam laid at least partial claim on leadership.

"Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth" (Num. 12:3, KJV). Because of his meekness, Moses never once struggled to retain power. He left that to God. Moses did not speak for Moses; God spoke for Moses, striking Miriam with leprosy. When Moses finally spoke, it was to intercede for Miriam's healing (see Num. 12:4-13).

Moses did not spring to the defense of his own ministry, nor did he struggle to hold on to the reins of authority. He simply said: "God gave me this. If God wants me to have it, it is God's business. If God no longer wants me to have it, that is God's business, too." That is the spirit of meekness.

The Hebrew word for meekness has an intriguing translation. It is "disinterested." Moses essentially said: "I have no vested interest in this matter. This is the Lord's business, and these are God's people. It is God's tabernacle, God's power and God's glory. It is God's nation and God's business. I am personally disinterested. God can do whatever He wants."

Aaron and Miriam, in their murmuring, lusted for authority and power. Moses was quite willing for God to lift the mantle from him and choose another.

To the arrogant, self-centered husband claiming to be the "head of the household," God says, "Learn the meekness of Moses." As the God-appointed leader of a nation, Moses wanted the last baby safely across the Red Sea. He was infinitely concerned that each of his people live in the holiness of God. Concerning who was to be boss, Moses was flatly disinterested.

The pastor who stands in the pulpit constantly crying, "I am the boss; I am the boss" has missed the meaning of pastor as servant. The servant-pastor says to his people: "What I want for you is what God wants for you. My only purpose in being in this ministry is for you to know all that God has for you."

It is in great part a lack of meekness in leadership that causes strikes that bankrupt industries. The CEO who says to the rank and file, "Make my dreams come true! Work harder. Make me rich" is asking for union trouble.

Characterlessness, a lack of meekness in leadership, can bring an industry to its knees. The servant-leader, the meek leader, has the character to lead successfully.

First, his achievements may be great, but they appear not to be his alone.

Second, his transforming influence may touch many, but those touched do not learn to depend on him.

Third, his subordinates admire his virtues greatly but are free to explore their own strengths without fear of his domination.

Fourth, the meek leader is not afraid of the responsibility of leadership, but his authority does not dictate to him who he is. Rather, his meekness demonstrates his authority for the good of those whom he serves.

In Matthew 18:1 the disciples asked, "Lord, who will be the greatest in Your kingdom?" For an answer Jesus took a basin of water, wrapped a towel around His waist and began to wash their feet.

Later, when the might of pagan Rome unleashed a holocaust against Christ's followers, that abiding memory of a God-man willing to wash their feet gave them the power to topple an empire without drawing a sword.

A Character Crisis?

Mark Rutland believes that 21st century leaders are ready for a change.

In a recent interview with Ministries Today, he discussed the impetus behind his most recent book: "I tried to find those traits that had historically in other societies been the most ennobling. Some of them were biblical. Others were matters of fundamental national character, such as courage. Virtues like frugality and meekness seemed quaint to the modern heavy spender. I went for classical virtues that needed fresh creative redefinition."

Character Matters will enjoy a wide readership, owing to its conversational style, replete with historical vignettes, quotes and biblical examples. "I try to emulate the best communicators--those who are able to communicate fundamental, narrative, propositional truth in a wide variety of ways," Rutland says. "I was looking for a style that sounded fatherly--the way that a dad would communicate these values to his children."

The president of Southeastern College in Lakeland, Florida, Rutland believes that--although they were reared in a relativistic context--young people today are hungry for the virtues discussed in the book.

"They are a different breed," he says. "Low in rebellion, high in optimism, not cynical about structures, and forms of life and government."

"There's never been a time like now for the church to stand up and declare the truth in a creative and applicable way," he says.

For your copy of Character Matters, call 1-800-599-5750 or visit

Mark Rutland, Ph.D., is president of Southeastern College in Lakeland, Florida, and the founder and president of Global Servants, an international missions ministry providing training and support to national pastors and leaders. What character traits are indispensable for 21st century church leadership? Courage and meekness, says Mark Rutland, author of Character Matters (CharismaHouse).

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