Photo of Krister Stendahl standing by the windows in his office


An Interview with Krister Stendahl

“Accountability” is a better leadership quality and value than “servanthood.”

Krister Stendahl, 1980. HDS Photo

By Yehezkel Landau

In early April 2006 I interviewed Krister Stendahl in his Cambridge home. I asked him to reflect on the qualities that make for effective leadership and on the pitfalls or obstacles that leaders, especially religious leaders, need to be mindful of. Stendahl, now 85, was Dean of Harvard Divinity School when I pursued a master of theological studies degree there in the mid-1970s, and he was my New Testament professor. I still consider him my “Christian rebbe.” We have stayed in touch, as friends and colleagues, over three decades. After I moved to Israel in 1978, I saw him whenever he and his wife, Brita, came to Jerusalem, often to take part in a seminar at the Shalom Hartman Institute. He savored those opportunities to study sacred texts with Jewish colleagues and discuss their implications. He told me: “We Christians, when we meet Jews, are inclined to say, ‘Let us pray together.’ Jews, when they meet Christians for fruitful encounter, are inclined to extend a different kind of invitation: ‘Let’s study together.’ ”

In addition to his academic career as New Testament professor (achieving distinction in Pauline studies especially) and as HDS Dean, Stendahl later served as bishop of Stockholm in his native Church of Sweden for four years. He was also a pioneer in advancing Jewish-Christian relations through his role as head of the World Council of Churches Commission on Relations with the Jewish People. I am now Faculty Associate in Interfaith Relations at Hartford Seminary, and we remain in close touch.

What follows are Stendahl’s remarks on leadership. My own comments are in bold.

Leaders, including church officials, often underestimate their own authority. Religious people, in particular, are often shy and uneasy when it comes to wielding power. They can too easily hide behind a board’s collective wisdom. As a result, they deceive themselves about their real power. I have told people, “Own up to the power you have.” Subordinates certainly know the power held by leaders—not only in regard to salaries and other employment benefits, but also in terms of rewarding creativity and other nonutilitarian qualities.

The paradigm of “servant leadership” sounds good and aims at fostering humility rather than arrogance. Imagine: the pope is called “the servant of servants.” But this ideal can become an excuse for not taking firm and necessary decisions. It can also distort perception of the true power dynamics within an organization and hence deceive leaders and subordinates. This is why I prefer “accountability” as a leadership quality and value rather than “servanthood.”

Much of the challenge of institutional leadership has to do with budgets, the allocation of money, including salaries. A leader has to own up to his or her own role in making decisions and not hide behind a board or some other institutional cover—especially in cases of hiring and firing. And, in that case, you had better not lie. It is devastating if a person’s self is hidden behind some leadership role. Others want to know where you stand. You can’t be just the executor of others’ decisions. You have to take the perceptions of those who are led into account, but it is misplaced humility to claim “I am not an authority figure” when, in fact, you are—both objectively and in their eyes.

How authority is exercised is the key factor in developing trustworthiness. Trust is earned, and trustworthiness is determined by those who depend on your actions and decisions. Never say, “Trust me.” Trust is a by-product.

When I was bishop of Stockholm, I was one of only 2 bishops out of 13 on the Bishops’ Council who supported Gay Pride Day and let it include a worship service in the cathedral, for the gay community in Stockholm. Some 1,000 people attended. Protestors stood outside with placards, and one inside the cathedral cried out, “Satan’s synagogue!”

Doing something for the Lord is a safe way to humility, for others will cut you down. There is no absolute clarity—except for fundamentalists. You are never sure in the ultimate sense whether your decisions are right or wrong. God is the ultimate judge. I think of the last two verses of Kohelet/Ecclesiastes (12:13-14)—”The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Revere God and observe His commandments, for this applies to everyone. God shall call every action to account, including everything secret, be it good or bad.” Imagine: the Day of Total Clarity! For an intellectual like me, that is truly satisfying.

I would apply the same rules for good leadership that I often do for effective interfaith dialogue: let the other define herself (“Don’t think you know the other without listening”); compare equal to equal (not my positive qualities to the negative ones of the other); and find beauty in the other so as to develop “holy envy.”

Regarding leadership in decision making, with its gray areas of uncertainty, moral sensibilities should be well shaped. For me, Jesus of Nazareth serves as a good shaper of values and ways of treating others.

Regarding leadership in the realm of ideas—offering proposals or defining options—it is good to make one’s own ideas clearly known, as open questions or preferences that are stated, along with a rationale, without imposing them on others. This should be done in a prestige-free way, open to others’ viewpoints.

Finally, it is important to be truthful. Cover-ups are disastrous, and there is no recovering from an initial lie. Tell the truth, and you don’t need to remember what you said.

Reflecting on his own weaknesses or difficulties, Stendahl said:

I wanted to control details more than I should have, despite my own prayer for discernment so as to distinguish the important from what only seems so.

I love to talk to people; some of my time could have been better spent sitting alone and writing something that would last.

As Dean, fund-raising burdens took up time that should have gone toward administering the School. Being a Dean was actually more intellectually challenging than being a professor—in your own field, the agenda is pretty much self-engendered, whereas a Dean must ask all the time: why are we doing what we are doing, and what else should we rather do? That is hard thinking.

I was not a very disciplined administrator—but I did enjoy it. Don’t be in a leadership position if you don’t enjoy it.

Toward the end of our conversation, Stendahl became more personal:

I always felt in my bones that I was meant to be a priest, that I was a preacher at heart. So it is quite ironic that most of my career was spent in a nonecclesiastical setting like Harvard. Gaining tenure at a young age, 35, helped me pursue my academic work with an inner freedom, without career worries. But my later role as a bishop was “the real thing,” the priestly task I was most suited to. In this position I found myself serving as pastor to a “parish” of one million people. The mass media were essential in carrying out this very public ministry, so I devoted time and intentionality in cultivating relationships with the media.

In assessing acts of leadership, the ultimate goal is the Kingdom of God. Compared to that ideal, everything is a failure.

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