A Hope-Shaped Leadership

By Kevin Zhang

The Inadequacy of Altruism 

I had been sermonised to equate leadership with servanthood ever since my very first interactions with Christianity as a teenager.  And it made a lot of sense.  Jesus served the disciples by washing their feet (John 13:1-17) and taught us to imitate. All the examples Jesus gave when exhorting us to treat the least of our brothers as himself were acts of service (Matthew 25:40-45).  Then, he did the ultimate service by dying on the cross as an atoning sacrifice.  And so, those of us wishing to become disciples of Christ are called also to deny ourselves, take up the cross and follow him (Matthew 16:24).

After all, John 15:13 says, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” Laying down our lives then, for others, is the supreme act of love.

And so I tried.

All of my professional career I’ve worked in the legal profession.  I tried denying myself in terms of working harder, writing off (or simply not recording) what I thought was excess time on client matters due to my own perceived inefficiency, then working later to make up for time lost in order to meet billable targets.  I quoted clients with limited means lesser fees, then worked harder to make up ground for the extra hours spent on a low fixed fee.

Nowadays, as a freelance consultant, even more hours go in effect into working pro-bono, so much so that I chuckle when each year in our professional surveys we are asked to estimate the number of pro-bono hours we provide to the public. Many in my profession and other similar service industries will understand this.

Do we do it because of the applause and honour of our colleagues and grateful clients?  Again, not likely.  In fact, on the contrary, my offering of services to an underpaying client can be seen as devaluing the entire profession, and I admit, my willingness to put my own profitability and time on the line leaves me open to exploitation.  And trust me, I have been exploited.

Whilst I’m not saying that I do not have grateful clients, anyone in professional services or even church ministry would acknowledge that our best efforts can go unappreciated and spurned. I cannot count the number of instances where I spared no effort to be thorough in my work for a client with a complex problem, only to be rejected as obstructive and over-thinking.

The problem then, with such an emphasis on servanthood, denial and self-sacrifice, is that inevitably, we begin to ask, what for?  Very few of us live in an epic where the story eventually calls for heroic sacrifice and the hero/ine gives their life to save the
world for all posterity. This side of eternity, we risk our sacrifices being made meaninglessly and in vain as the tragic song from Les Misérables, “Empty Chairs At Empty Tables”, reminds:

“Oh my friends, my friends don’t ask me, what your sacrifice was for?
Empty chairs at empty tables, where my friends will sing no more.” 


If leadership is simply about self-denial, the cross, and self-sacrifice, then it leaves us open to the critique of thinkers such as Ayn Rand, who mocks an ethic of Christian altruism in this way: “For centuries, the battle of morality was fought between those who claimed that your life belongs to God and those who claimed that it belongs to your neighbours – between those who preached that the good is self-sacrifice for the sake of ghosts in heaven and those who preached that the good is self-sacrifice for the sake of incompetents on earth. And no one came to say that your life belongs to you and that the good is to live it.” [1]

Rand is right.  In my relentless emptying of myself on a professional level, I lost my life in one sense, but gained nothing.  I lost joy along the way and became sceptical and resentful of peers and clients.  I found myself often thinking of others as selfish.  In essence, I became a Pharisee.

Servant leadership did not work for me.


The Need for Hope

Kelly Kapic described my experiences (as well as what it is to be a modern-day Pharisee) accurately:

“Hope void of love [or love void of hope] can devolve into insensitive forms of activism and arrogance, replacing empathetic grace with cheap platitudes or an impersonal vision of what must be done.” [2]

What I was missing was Hope.  And it had to be a particular type of Hope – with a capital H – the bodily resurrection of Christ.

Upon examination, I realised that I was conditioned by my (Chinese) culture towards gnostic understanding of death, shaped by Platonic notions of heaven as a spiritual escape and moulded by virtue of my university education to doubt the miraculous.

Easter was for a long time in my life more to do with Friday than Monday, and if I was to remain devoted to a cross-shaped love in my practice of the law (and hope to influence others to do likewise), then I needed also a resurrection-shaped hope to energise that love, self-denial and sacrifice.

Oliver O’Donovan puts it this way:

“Where love attends to the “today” that has come to be out of the past, the “today” of the world around us, hope attends to the “today” that has not yet come to be, but opens out in front of us, the “today” of opportunity.  Hope presides over the venture of action and focuses deliberation on its possibility”[3]

Knowing that the resurrection of Jesus points to our eventual bodily resurrection in the new heavens and new earth, liberates me from counting the cost and benefits of my loss, self-denial and sacrifice.  It allows me to think less of results and consequences now, instead focussing on the glorified, enhanced, beautified possibilities in the new creation that God has promised to bring!

I can imagine (with joy!) at the sight of my toil and labour, not advices unappreciated, efforts unnoticed, projects unfinished, mistakes un-remedied, but in the future kingdom of God, all things remembered and found, fulfilled, made whole, made meaningful, made more tangible than ever before.

Perhaps my favourite illustration of the difference of practising a vocation in hopeless love versus a hopeful love, comes from NT Wright:

“It isn’t that, like suicide bombers, people who believe in the resurrection are more cheerful about dying for the cause because they are happy to leave this present world and escape into a glorious future. It is, rather, that people who believe in the resurrection, in God making a whole new world in which everything will be set right at last, are unstoppably motivated to work for that new world in the present.” [4]

More than ever, Christian leaders in the workplace need this reminder, in the context of the reality of a bodily resurrection: to “…Stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58).”

In the lead up to Easter, may you lead in your respective ministries, vocations and roles, not only in the shape of the self-giving love that is the cross, but consciously and intentionally charging and energising it with the Hope that is found in the reality of the resurrection, in the certainty that God does not let his faithful one see decay (Psalm 16:10b), and our labour in the Lord shall not be in vain.


[1] Ayn Rand (1963). “For the New Intellectual: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (50th Anniversary Edition)”, p.96, Penguin
[2] Faith Hope and Love in Sanctification: Explorations in Theology and Practice, IVP, 226-227
[3] Sanctification and Ethics in Sanctification: Explorations in Theology and Practice, IVP, 159
[4] 2007, Surprised by Hope, SPCK, 226