Leaders must disillusion

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhöffer

When I arrived at the University of Sheffield in 1993, I did so as a student of German. A long story short, I ended up switching my Major to Biblical Studies and the rest, as they say, is history. But the German was always useful. Quite a few theological tomes and key texts were to be found in university and college libraries in German and, amongst the students, I pretty much had those books all to myself!

My German these days is very, very rusty, but I continue to turn to those wise old saints for inspiration and guidance when tough questions loom.

Lately, I have been thinking upon Dietrich Bonhöffer a great deal and what he might have said if he hadn’t been executed by the Nazi regime in 1945 and had lived to see more of our modern world.

In 1933, when he was just 26 years old, Dietrich gave a radio address called “The Führer Principle”. It was just two days after Adolf Hitler had been democratically elected as Germany’s new Chancellor.

The word “Führer” simply meant “Leader”. It hadn’t yet acquired the connotations we associate with the word today. 

Bonhöffer began by talking about why Germany wanted a Führer. The financial collapse of the economy had brought crises and a great deal of anger and powerlessness. The people wanted to be rescued from their troubles. But Dietrich warned that the fickle voice of the people was not necessarily the same as the voice of God, and that a real Leader always had to be aware, humbly, of the limitations to their power.

He said “If [the leader] understands his function in any other way than as it is rooted in fact, if he does not continually tell his followers quite clearly of the limited nature of his lack and of their own responsibility, if he allows himself to surrender to the wishes of his followers, who would always make him their idol – then the image of the leader (Führer) will transform into the image of the misleader (Verführer), and he will be acting in a criminal way not only towards those he leads, but also towards himself. The true leader must always be able to disillusion. It is just this that is his responsibility and his real object. He must lead his following away from the authority of his person to the recognitions of the real authority of orders and offices. He must radically refuse to become the appeal, the idol, i.e. the ultimate authority of those whom he leads”.

The distinction between an Office of Power and the qualities of the person that holds that Office is still a dilemma with which we wrestle. But Bonhöffer is adamant that the exercise of power works both ways. The people need to take care that we don’t make a Leader into an idol, and we must resist turning elections into simple popularity contests, instead of discussing ideas and policies. But we also need leaders who will hold their power lightly and humbly. They must be ready to show their “lack” and be ready to “disillusion” those they lead. To fail in what we might describe as the “duty of failure”, for leaders to fail to assert that they are human and will make mistakes, is to claim ultimate authority. Dietrich would say that’s dangerous ground. That ground is for God alone.

Rev David Green

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