Anger in leadership

Anger and leadership seem connected somehow. One football manager was famous for his dressing room ‘hairdryer’ outbursts and the wrath of the current US president can, according to a recent book, ‘break most hardened men and women into little pieces’. The Bible seems to notice the connection too. There may be some measure of uncertainty regarding Moses’ error when he struck the rock in Numbers 20, but most see anger at its core. There is no such debate concerning Jonah chapter 4 where first the saving of a city and then the withering of a plant both precipitate distinctly angry sulks on the part of the prophet.

What should we make of this apparent connection between leadership and anger? And, since many of us will have positions of leadership, what precautions might we take as a result? Whether we lead a small group of ten or a mega-church of thousands, these are questions worth asking.

Leaders need to have opinions and take decisions. To put it at its most obvious leaders have to lead. They have to get out in front and say, ‘this way, follow me’. But what if your people won’t come. It is frustrating. It’s not hard to see how a shepherd, fearing natural hazards and ravenous wolves, could allow themselves to get a little irked by sheep who won’t fall into line.

And there is a precedent for anger, isn’t there? Didn’t Jesus clear the temple with a whip (John 2:14-16) and lambast the Pharisees with a barrage of woes (Matthew 23)? Aren’t we told that he gazes at the Pharisees in anger (Mark 3:5)? So, doesn’t an imitation of Christ leave room for a little righteous indignation?

But before we get carried away with our new-found prophetic rage, we would do well to notice a strikingly important feature of the anger Jesus displays. For it is never precipitated by personal affront. One of the most remarkable things about the Passion narratives is the complete absence of anger. Neither a wrongful arrest nor an unjust trial nor even the crucifixion itself can drive Jesus to indignation or wrath. He simply prays for those who persecute him.

Where we do see the anger of Jesus aroused is in response to the unjust treatment of others. When children are denied access (Mark 10:13-16) or Pharisees inflict burdens or temple traders exploit pilgrims – that’s when Jesus is angry. He is angry on their behalf. Angry at the injustice they are suffering.

It’s a powerful lesson, but one that is very difficult to apply.

It means that in leadership we must try to separate what it is we want from what it is we want for God. It means distinguishing between a godly frustration that comes from seeing God’s purposes thwarted and an ungodly frustration when we’re not getting our own way.

It helps (as with most leadership) to remember who we are and who we’re not. We’re not Christ. We’re not the infallible Great Shepherd of the sheep. We make mistakes. We don’t have spiritual 20:20 vision and we possess a measure of self-centredness that means we are prone to feeling the kind of anger that James describes as coming from our desires that battle within us (James 4:2).

Leaders can’t afford to be passive and they certainly shouldn’t lack passion, but we will do well to remember just how tricky being appropriately cross and distinctively Christlike can be.

Steve Midgley gave a session on this topic at our 2018 residential conference on anger. You can download the audio of that session and the other main sessions free of charge from our conference resources page. This article first appeared in Evangelicals Now.