3 Leadership Lessons from The Hobbit

Have you noticed that the world is not what it used to be?

Yes, I know the world has always been changing, and it always will.  I get that.  But it seems that we have experienced some pretty big social shifts in recent years.  Shifts that require us to think and lead in ways that we have not done before.

What has shifted?  I’ve done some recent reflecting on the Canadian cultural environment in which we find ourselves, and it seems to me that our current context is now shaped by three primary social realities:

  • Tolerance is the greatest virtue.  While tolerance used to be understood as respect, it has now been replaced with an expectation of celebration.
  • Stories are the highest truth.  The pursuit of objective truth has now been replaced by the priority of subjective experience.
  • Isolation is the greatest pain.  A commitment to community has been replaced by a retreat into individualism.

This is not the world I grew up in.  But since I grew up in the era of big hair, tight stone-washed jeans, and the word “awesome” in every other sentence, it might be a good thing that the world has changed!  🙂

If you are in a leadership position (especially a church or ministry leadership position), how should you think about and engage with this new world?  How do you and I lead, train, and/or mentor others when our social values have changed so drastically?  In other words …

What does it mean to be a leader of Jesus-followers today?

First, let me mention some timeless words from Jesus, and then second, let me give three practical suggestions.

When responding to a disciple who was confused about the future, Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6).  I think that speaks directly to our new world:

  • Way refers to the path we walk.  We can walk only one path at a time; which path will we walk down and how will we interact with those on other paths?
  • Truth refers to reality.  Is truth self-determined and ever-shifting depending on who currently wields social, political, or military power?  Or is truth consistent and determined outside of ourselves, needing to be carefully discerned and discovered?
  • Life refers to relationship.  Humans are meant to be in relationship.  With others, and with God.

What might this mean to those of us in leadership today?  Some practical ideas, using three characters from The Hobbit as examples:

1. Know and listen.  Not only do we need to know and understand the path that we are on (and why we are on it), but we also need to know and understand what other paths there are.  We need to stay true to our own beliefs (even when it is difficult) while at the same time having thoughtful relationships with those on other paths.

Kind of like Gandalf the Grey.  Gandalf was a wizard who stayed true to his calling and beliefs (which was often difficult), but at the same time, built significant relationships of trust with Elves, Dwarves, Great Eagles, and more.  Not with Orcs, though.  As Christian leaders in a pluralistic world, I think we can learn from Gandalf.

2. Personal stories of life-change.  Sometimes we Jesus-followers are great at talking about what we believe, but lousy at talking about our own lives.  Although on the other hand, there are some among us who talk about themselves way too much!  That being said, stories of life-change (ie, our own life-change) speak powerfully.

Kind of like Thorin Oakenshield.  In the movies, have you noticed how often Thorin strategically told stories of the Dwarves’ past?  And how often he used them to motivate, correct, or inspire others?  Even his own sense of calling was bound up in the story of his encounter with Azog.  As Christian leaders in a pluralistic world, I think we can learn from Thorin.

3. Vulnerability and risk.  Knowledge, understanding, and personal stories are great, but at the end of the day, we need to engage with other people’s lives.  In meaningful ways.  While it is tempting to play it safe and remain comfortable and in control, transformation happens best when we open up our relational doors and authentically engage others.

Kind of like Bilbo Baggins.  After escaping the Goblins under the mountain and then appearing out of nowhere to the Dwarves and Gandalf (thanks to the power of a new-found ring!), Bilbo was both vulnerable (yes, I want to go back to my safe and comfortable home) and sacrificial (but, I want to risk everything to be with you on your journey).  As Christian leaders in a pluralistic world, I think we can learn from Bilbo.

So … back to the shifting social and political contexts in which we find ourselves.  The good news is that in a world that redefines tolerance, over-values stories, and retreats in isolation, the words of Jesus still ring true!  Even better than the characters from The Hobbit, the life and ministry of Jesus offer deep transformational hope that cannot be found anywhere else!


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