Imperfect Leaders

Every leader I know, past and present, comes with flaws and failures (myself included, of course).

Leaders from past generations have blindspots that make us blush now. Leaders from our day have their own peculiar shortcomings, too.

So, how should we think of imperfect leaders? Should we follow them?

Do certain imperfections require us to dismiss them altogether? Or, can we retain some leaders as heroes worthy of emulation? If so, who and by what standard?

And what about those of us who have leadership roles now? Knowing that we will only ever be imperfect leaders, what would a realistic ideal look like for us?

The Book of Kings suggests an answer to these questions by giving us a helpful category for evaluating leaders and leadership: good-hearted but imperfect.

In 1 Kings 15, we meet King Asa of Judah. We are told this about Asa:

"[11] And Asa did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, as David his father had done. [12] He put away the male cult prostitutes out of the land and removed all the idols that his fathers had made. [13] He also removed Maacah his mother from being queen mother because she had made an abominable image for Asherah. And Asa cut down her image and burned it at the brook Kidron. [14] But the high places were not taken away." (1 Kings 15:11-14a)

Asa was a good King. Verses 11-13 speak summarily of his good deeds. He brought much positive reform to Judah. But verse 14 brings that list of accomplishments to a stop. Asa was an imperfect leader. He did not remove the "high places" where so often worship was misdirected from the Lord to false gods (e.g., 1 Kings 11:7). The reformation Asa brought was thorough but not perfect (see also 1 Kings 22:46). So how should we assess his leadership? How should we consider his final legacy?

We are told in 1 Kings 15:14b how we should remember King Asa: "Nevertheless, the heart of Asa was wholly true to the LORD all his days." What an instructive obituary!

Asa was not perfect, but it could be said of him that his heart was wholly true to the Lord. Therefore, it is possible to be imperfect and yet faithful. It is possible, at some anchor point in our soul, to be true to the Lord while at times erring and failing in the winds and the waves of daily life.

With this observation I do not mean to commend or excuse flaws and failures, but it is encouraging to me to remember that falling short of detailed perfection, in this life, is not total failure.

Asa's epitaph also provides us with a rubric by which we can evaluate imperfect leaders of church history. They may have left intact "high places" in their generation, and yet, we can consider the direction and horizon of their hearts. Some will pass the test, and we will see hearts wholly true to the Lord, while others may not. Regardless, Asa reminds us imperfect leaders can still be commendable.

So where does this reflection leave us? I believe it leaves us adjusting our sights a bit. We will not accomplish as much as we would like. We will not execute our charge perfectly...not by a long shot. But we can determine to tend our souls well and have hearts wholly true to the Lord. And one day may others say of us, "Sure, they had their issues, but boy, did they love the Lord!"