Real Life Leading #5: Studies in Leadership, Martin Luther

Real Life Leading #5

Profiles in Leadership: Martin Luther

     Welcome to the latest update in the Real Life Leading series, and this week we’re going to be studying the leadership of a specific person. In this case, we’ll be looking at the leadership style and results of Martin Luther, the German monk who unintentionally started the Protestant Reformation. There are a few reasons we’ll be studying Luther today: first, whether you are religious or not, your life has been impacted by Luther and the Reformation, both positively and negatively. Second, Luther’s life exhibits many traits of leadership worthy of our attention. And third, this Tuesday (October 31st, 2017) marks the 500th anniversary of Luther’s nailing of his 95 Theses to the church door at Wittenberg, which really touched off the Protestant Reformation.

Regarding Luther, if you’re not terribly familiar with his life and work, I’ll spare summarizing it here, both because this isn’t a history blog (though how great would that be?! I love history!), and also because I can simply give you a link to a Crash Course World History video that will teach you some of the highlights of Luther’s life. So, if you want to, go check that out and then come back. Here’s the link: Watch it. I’ll wait….


Welcome back and I hope you all enjoyed the video! I don’t necessarily agree with everything John Green (the host and the author of works such as The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns, among others) says about history, but I think he does a great job in this video of giving an accurate and impartial summation of Luther’s impact on history. So, what does that have to do with leadership? A LOT!

Luther is an amazing example of Real Life Leading for a number of reasons that we’ll examine here, beginning with this phrase: “Lead where you are.”

1) Lead Where You Are

You see, Luther was a Catholic monk, and in studying the Bible he realized that there were many things the church was saying and doing that did not line up with what the Bible says. So, despite the danger to himself (the Church didn’t like being corrected or chastised), he set about trying to address those issues, and he did so in a way that was respectful of the hierarchy under which he operated. He didn’t immediately challenge the Pope to a debate, nor did he try to undercut the entire institution of the Roman Catholic Church; instead, he adhered to a principle that is one of the main ones I teach here at Real Life Leading: lead where you are. Luther posted his 95 Theses on the church door (the internet or local bulletin board of the 1500s) of Wittenberg, the town in which he was a university professor, and he sent a copy of them to his immediate superior in the Church. He started to change things by beginning where he already was, not seeking out a bigger audience, platform, or group of followers. Luther did not set out to destroy the Church (he didn’t do that anyway, as some historians claim), nor did he set out to start a new denomination. He was a loyal, believing, Catholic monk who saw problems in the Church, and he set about trying to solve those problems, beginning in his little pocket of the world.

2) Be the First…

Most people who had opposed the Church have become relatively obscure figures in history. Luther, however, was different in part because he was one of the first men to translate the Bible into the local language of his area. Until this time in history, Bibles were only allowed by the Church to be printed into Latin, and all church services were conducted in Latin. However, only about 5% of Europe (the wealthy, educated part) could speak or read Latin. Unsurprisingly, most of that 5% was made up of priests and other church officials.

Other people also had the idea to translate the Bible into their own languages (William Tyndale comes to mind), but their impact was not as large as Luther’s. Luther knew that some of the Church teachings were inconsistent with Scripture, but the only way to really help others see this was to get them to read it for themselves. And so he became the first person to translate the Bible into the German language at a time when it could be printed and distributed all over Europe. Soon, German-speaking people were reading for themselves that some of the Church’s teachings were inconsistent with Scripture, both by reading the Bible for themselves and by reading Luther’s growing body of books that he continued to write. The effect of this was that many people in and around the German states (Germany wasn’t yet its own ‘country’ the way we think of it today) were reading Luther and changing the way they thought about the Church.

3) Lead Through Learning

A few years before he posted his 95 Theses, Luther had been sent away from his monastery to the small city of Wittenberg to take up the chair of Biblical Studies at the university. It was there that Luther began his in-depth study of the Bible, and it was this study that changed his life and eventually European and world history. Luther was not content to simply digest the Church's teachings; instead, he set out to read, study, and understand the Bible for himself, and that was how he discovered the inconsistencies between the Bible and the Catholic Church. This is an excellent lesson for us all: never stop studying, never stop learning.

Luther was not a perfect man, nor was he without fault. Later in his life, after the loss of a daughter, he became increasingly antagonistic toward the Catholic Church, and he also later published various anti-Semitic writings (all too common for that time period, in every country of Europe). So Luther's life is also a great reminder that no leader, no matter how large his or her impact, is perfect. Nor will you or I be perfect in our leadership. What is important is to continue to try to improve, and one of the ways we do that is through learning and studying. It has been said in many places that one thing all good leaders have in common is that they are constantly reading and learning, and I believe this to be true. Today, this is both easier and harder than ever before: easier, because of the many ways in which reading can be done (books, phones, e-readers, etc.); more difficult because of the many distractions that catch our attention when we let them.

4) Be willing to stand up for your principles

A few years after he began publishing his works, Luther was called to the city of Worms to be put on trial by the Church (in history, this is known as the Diet of wasn't as gross as that sounds). He was offered the chance to recant his writings, to say that he was mistaken, and thus to avoid suffering the wrath of the Church. It was at the end of this trial, after much prayer and consideration, that he uttered his famous phrase: “Here I stand. I can do no other.” Despite the dangers, Luther was willing to risk prison, torture, and death because of what he believed.

Fortunately for you and me, we don’t normally face decisions where the stakes are quite that high. But we DO need to be prepared to stand for what we believe, in the small moments and the big ones. That’s the point of the small moments: to prepare us for the large moments in which our principles are tested and in which we have the chance to stand or fall.

In both small things and large ones, let us stand for what we believe in, for what is right, and for what needs to be done. Let us begin by positively influencing our small corner of the world rather than seeking a larger audience. Let us focus on proper relationships and let the results of our work take care of themselves. Let us lead where we are, be the first, and lead through learning, all while standing for the principles we believe in: truth, and love.

I know this isn’t a history blog, but in case you’re still not convinced of the impact of Martin Luther’s life and work, I want to give you a quick run-down of longterm effects of the Protestant Reformation:

Mid-to-late 1500’s: England, after much back and forth, becomes a Protestant country, just in time to begin attempting to start colonies in North America (first attempt was in 1587; first permanent English colony in America was founded in 1607)

1588: the Spanish Armada, led by the Most Catholic King, Phillip II of Spain, was defeated by England, thus ensuring England (and its soon-to-be colonies in North America) would remain Protestant

1600s: religious wars throughout Europe reflect the seriousness with which Protestants and Catholics hold their beliefs, resulting in new countries being founded or organized and also causing more colonies in and immigration to America

1700s: The First Great Awakening, a revival of religious (mostly Protestant) fervor, occurs in America, further spreading the influence of Christianity in what would become the United States. Also during this time, the first people in America to really speak out against the evils of slavery were mostly various types of Protestants. (The very earliest in America had been the Quakers in the late 1600s)

1800s: Many of the leaders of the growing abolitionist movement in America were Protestant church leaders.

1900s: Many of the leaders of the American civil rights movement were also Protestant church leaders.

During all these periods, Europe’s borders, politics, and philosophy all were affected by the Reformation as well.

Most events that are said to be “world changing,” aren’t, but the Reformation truly was, even for people who are not Christians.

Practical Take-away: What can you do today, this afternoon, to positively influence your corner of the world, while remaining true to your principles? Go do it, and then email me and let me know how it went.

If you want to read more about Luther, check out the biography Here I Stand