Leadership Lessons from Martin Luther: 5 meta-lessons from the man who changed the world through the pulpit and printer

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I have written a three part series that the highest form of leadership is being both Great and Good: achieving extraordinary results while embodying extraordinary character. Where do we go to find role models of these types of leaders?

Some of these leaders are in our midst, in our families, schools, sports programs and companies we work. But to broaden our exposure and accelerate our learning of this unique type of leader we should go beyond space and time: outside our immediate circle of influence and beyond our moment in time.

Before Martin Luther King championed civil rights reform for African-Americans and Steve Jobs helped to usher in the 21st digital revolution there was Martin Luther: the 16th century German monk and professor who transformed the world. Luther used both the pulpit – displaying his courage and conscience – and the printer – the revolutionary technology of the early 1500s – to change the world and leave a lasting, eternal legacy.

Last year, on 31 October 2017, the world celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. This momentous and seminal occasion in Western civilization was examined by both Protestants and Catholics. On the 501st anniversary, it’s a good time for all leaders – secular and religious – to review the life lessons of Martin Luther – for insight and inspiration.

Let’s look at 5 meta-lessons from this extraordinary historical figure to inspire us in our leadership growth journey.

  1. The Man – A humble and courageous man of character

“Luther was … a remarkable man, a person of courage and talent who met his moment of destiny with extraordinary skill and resourcefulness.” – Andrew Pettegree, Brand Luther: How an Unhearlded Monk Turned His Small Town in a Center of Publishing, Made Himself the Most Famous Man in Europe – and Started the Protestant Reformation

Reformer. Heretic. Prophet. Renegade. Revolutionary.  Luther’s name has been both exalted and given to pejorative epithets. Like all Great and Good leaders who make their mark on history Luther’s impact was a result of an extraordinary (and sometimes strange) alignment of his own virtues and actions combined with the events and circumstances of his day.

“And the man himself was an unlikely revolutionary,” writes Lyndal Roper author of Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet.  A 33-year-old monk in the Augustinian order, he was a professor of theology and an administrator.

But he was moved to critique the abuses of selling papal indulgences. He proposed a disputation – an academic debate – by posting his theses on the local church door. And he sent a letter to the Archbishop Albrecht, the most important church leader in Germany at the time. And while his single text – the Ninety-five Theses – literally sparked the Protestant Reformation – up until this moment he had published nearly nothing.

In 1521, four years after he posted his famous text, he was summoned to appear before the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms (diet meaning a formal deliberative assembly, not a food plan). Here he defiantly defended his ideas. For Luther, it was a matter of conscience: “Here I stand; I can do no other. God help me.”

Now, there is debate whether Luther actually said those famous words. But as Eric Metaxas, author of Martin Luther: The Man who Rediscovered God and Changed the World explains, there is no doubt that this young monk and theologian spoke with respect, humility, boldness and courage.

  1. The Moment – Martin Luther’s unique challenge and response to renewal and reform

“I suppose the role of character is for the individual to rise to a situation. If it were not for the situation, we would never have heard of him. So that you might say that character is the product of an exceptional demand by the situation upon human ability.” – Will Durant

Why did a theological quarrel in a small town in eastern German ignite a movement of renewal and reform?

The character of the man (or woman) is an important part of the story of any Great and Good leader. But just as important is the moment. The Renaissance was a period of renewed learning and rediscovery of the wisdom of the ancient Greeks and Romans. But it was also a period of excess, especially as displayed by the leaders of the Catholic Church.

In her book, The March of Folly, Barbara Tuchman explains that over a period of sixty years – 1470 to 1530 – six popes carried the secular spirit of the Renaissance to an extreme: “an excess of venality, amorality, avarice, and spectacularly calamitous power politics.”

Luther’s conviction and strategy was to challenge the Catholic understanding of penance. There was an ‘indulgence scandal’ at the time created by a corrupt practice of parishioners paying for their souls to avoid purgatory. One crude advertising jingle at the time sums up the practice well: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from Purgatory springs.” The money was supposed to go to fund the rebuilding of St. Peter’s church in Rome.

By attacking this corrupt practice, “Luther was implicitly striking at the heart of the papal Church, and its entire financial and social edifice,” Roper explains to us. “Attacking indulgences, therefore, would sooner or later lead to questioning of papal power.”

This was the context that gave rise to calls for renewal and reform. Martin Luther arose in this moment and led the movement that became known in history as the Reformation. His actions sparked the imagination of medieval Europe as a symbol of social transformation. It was the challenge of the moment, brought about by the excesses of the Catholic Church, which created Luther’s response and revealed his character and allowed him to rise to the situation.

  1. The Mindset – Personal growth through askesis, conviction and struggle

“Luther’s intensity seems to have unleashed his creativity, sparking him to rethink all his intellectual and spiritual positions” – Linda Roper

History teaches us that great people have experienced great growth but also great struggle. Their strength and creativity comes from great love and ambition but also great challenges and obstacles to overcome.

We are told by historians that Luther’s “energy and conviction rather than intellectual superiority” explained how he rose quickly at his university. How did Luther go from being an unknown monk to leading an international religious and social movement? Metaxas wrote Luther was “the man who created the future.” To understand how someone can make such a great impact we need to study how they grew and transformed themselves.

Luther’s own personal growth journey started in harsh conditions: the life of a monk in a monastery. He willingly subjected himself to the regimented schedule of monk’s day with set times for prayer, eating, fasting and broken sleep for middle of the night services.

“Why did his religiosity take such an ascetic form?” asks author Linda Roper. “It seems Luther, a naturally spontaneous, impulsive person throughout his life, deliberately chose a monastic environment to subordinate himself and control his wishes and desires.”

This lifestyle is not appealing to a large majority of us modern leaders. But we can learn from the original idea behind ascetism: the ancient Greek concept of askesis. Askesis means ‘training’ or ‘exercise’ in Greek.

Warriors and ancient Olympic athletes did askesis to prepare for their physical challenges. But so did the Greek philosophers. Jules Evans, in his great book Philosophy for Life, explains the Greek idea of philosophy as askesis. Philosophers practiced “techniques for spiritual training, such as training yourself to be mindful, tracking yourself in a journal, and improving your self-control and hardiness through physical training.”

So askesis is a great concept to train your body, mind and spirit. However, Evans explains how some of the early “Christian practitioners took this training to an extreme – they turned Greek askesis into fanatical ascetiscism.”

As growing leaders we want to embrace the insights of growth and struggles that Luther’s life exemplifies for us without the fanatical baggage.

And struggle Luther did. During his time as a monk Luther was subject to a German concept known as Anfechtungen which translates to temptations or spiritual attacks. “These Anfechtungen were physically overwhelming at times, concerned with what Luther called “the real knots” – his struggles with faith,” explains Roper.

Looking back at his life from 1532, Metaxas tell us that “Luther concluded that these [Anfechtungen] were necessary, for they set him on his path that would lead to the Reformation.” Just as these struggles where necessary for Luther’s growth, our challenges help to shape who we become and how we can best serve.

  1. The MessageBest-selling author, celebrity and creator of his own personal brand

“…within five years of penning the ninety-five theses, he was Europe’s most published author – ever. “ – Andrew Pettegree

Martin Luther had a powerful message that captured the public imagination of his age and resonated throughout history. In fact, most of us are less familiar with Martin Luther than his famous name sake – the famous 1960s Civil Rights activist and minister Martin Luther King. We may not know that MLK was actually born Michael King. His father, also a Protestant minister, visited Luther’s hometown in 1930s Germany (on a return trip from the Christian holy land in then Palestine). He was so moved by Martin Luther’s life and impact that he changed his 7 year old’s son name in honor of the Reformation’s greatest hero.

Luther came into the consciousness of medieval Germany with some remarkably bold comments rejecting the practice of indulgences. Here is his criticism of the most powerful man in Europe – the Pope – in his eighty-sixth thesis:

“Why does not the pope, whose wealth is today greater than the wealth of the right Crassus, build this one basilica of St. Peter with his own money, rather than with the money of poor believers.” – Andrew Pettegree

The dissemination of his ninety-five these took Luther into unchartered territory. He was clearly passionate about this issue and felt it was important for the spiritual health of the church. But it was controversial, challenging the most powerful people in his organization.

Regardless of the risk, Luther was doing all he could to make his theses known. Not only did write to his friends and local bishops in his own hierarchy, but his pamphlet was published in towns farther from his home: three times in three separate cities.  Something unusual was going on. This was unprecedented.  “With this pamphlet Luther’s theses entered the bloodstream of the European intellectual community,” writes Pettegree.

He purposely challenged critics with replies in print, not in scholarly Latin, which was the custom of that time, but in German vernacular. This ensured that a small theological issue among church leaders gained public attention. “This was a signal moment for Martin Luther, and indeed for the Reformation,” writes Pettegree.  He could have drawn back and kept the issues internally among the church leaders. But by making the issue public he abandoned any protection of his status as a professor in a formal dissertation process. “From this point on Luther would be a marked man.”

This first pamphlet written after his ninety-five theses posting on the church ‘bulletin board’ didn’t make any significant contribution to the theological debate. But it was an instant publishing sensation. And since it was written in German vernacular, it quickly enabled Luther to enter the homes of the lay German population.

He created a revolution in theological writing and delivering religious sermons. This wasn’t an age that valued brevity. On a separate occasion, one of Luther’s colleagues created 406 theses. One of his pamphlets replaced the ninety-five propositions of the theses written in Latin with twenty short paragraphs, written in German. None were more than a few sentences long. “The whole work is a mere fifteen hundred words. It fits perfectly into an eight-page pamphlet.”

He brought the same innovation to the spoken word. In this middle ages era of strenuous devotion, most sermons were long and a “theatrical event, with repetition, exhortation, and rhetorical virtuosity, an endurance test for preacher and audience alike,” explained Pettegree. Luther’s sermons could be read in ten minutes, get to the heart of the matter but still engage his audience.

Luther continued to get wide attention through his sermons and pamphlets.  He was the first person to translate the bible into German, ensuring the uneducated laity did not need to rely on priests to interpret the bible.

He had become and author and speaker who created his own personal brand from the pulpit and the printing press.

  1. The MediumAn innovator of a new industry and products – printing and pamphlets

“The decision to address a wider public had been his own; but it was print that had made him a national figure…and alerted the German printing industry to Luther’s potential value.” – Andrew Pettegree

We have already seen that the corrupt practice of indulgences spurred Martin Luther to action and create his famous ninety-five theses. He felt “the trade in indulgences had by 1517 been reduced [to] a crude financial transaction making a mockery of the careful requirement of real repentance.”

What may be less known is the boom in the indulgence practice coincided with the invention of the printing press. “The sales of indulgences was big business for the church, and provided steady work for printers. This was one of the simplest and most lucrative assignments a printer could take on, writes Andrew Pettegree, “and the size of the order was often huge…The church had been an excellent client, until Luther became a better one.”

But Luther was no passive user of the new innovation called the printing press. He actively shaped, nurtured and helped build this new industry. Luther’s role in the fledgling printing industry can be likened to one of a modern day entrepreneur and innovator. Think Steve Jobs and his role of growing and innovating a relatively new industry of mobile phones.

The long term consequences of this new technology was quite uncertain when Luther came on to the scene. Printing industry 1.0, about 70 years before the reformation began, was mostly done in large cities in Germany, France and Switzerland with long books written in Latin for an academic audience.

Luther singe handedly help create Printing industry 2.0. “By the end of 1522, his German works had been published in 828 editions. The next eight years would see the publication of some 1,245 more, an estimated total of some two million copies,” writes Pettegree.  Luther led this transformation, helping to put reading material into the hands of hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens across Germany and beyond.

To capture all these new readers Luther created two innovations: he brought the printing industry to his small town in eastern Germany and he helped design a new type of book that was unique and recognizable.

By the time of the Reformation, all the major printing hubs were all established in Europe’s major commercial cities – quite far away from Luther’s small town of Wittenberg.  “Luther realized very early that this had to change. Wittenberg had to develop a book industry capable of sustaining the vast demand of his works…” In 1519 Luther took a “crucial initiative to bring Wittenberg an experienced printer who could keep up with the demand for his work, and from that point on he took a leading role in directing production within the city.” Over the course of the sixteenth century, his home town of Wittenberg became Germany’s largest printing center.

The 16th century innovator Martin Luther had a communication challenge 21st century business leaders would understand: how do you capture a new audience? For Luther it was reaching out directly to new readers. Not the traditional religious academic crowd that was the established audience of printers who published in Latin. But the audience of German laymen and peasants who could hear Luther’s message of reform directly.

“Capturing new readers required both ingenuity and innovation: a new movement required a new book,” explains Pettegree.  Rather than long, thick books created for a theological-academic audience, printers in Wittenberg created Flugschriften, smaller pamphlets. These would be short – usually eight or sixteen pages. These pamphlets had a title page actually naming the author Luther on the cover. And most importantly for Luther, his image was on the cover.

Luther benefited from working with the artistic entrepreneur Lucas Cranach who mastered the art of the woodcut – ‘where the image was carved into a block of wood, from which a printed impression could be taken.’ Now the striking image of a simple monk, ‘lean but not gaunt, staring calmly outward, resolute and monumental in the face of adversity,’ according to Pettegree, would be disseminated throughout Germany and Catholic Europe.

“This was Brand Luther, and it was one of the great unsung achievement of the Reformation.”

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