Niceties and Knife-Hands

Have you ever been knife-handed by a leader? It probably seems like a strange question, especially if you’ve never heard of a knife-hand before. This image above I think sums it up pretty well. Especially in the military, a knife-hand is when you point your hand in somebody’s face, particularly when you’re getting stuck into them and want to add to the seriousness of it all. It’s actually a very useful tool for reprimanding a person that has messed up.


So again the question is: have you ever been knife-handed? Maybe not exactly, but have you ever had a leader (either in church or elsewhere) that has just really laid into you in front of everybody else. Was it effective? Is it an appropriate way of dealing with issues?


The truth is, as leaders we do sometimes need to have a stern word with those we lead. A real part of leading people is rebuking and correcting them, for their own benefit and growth. There is certainly biblical precedent for this: Jesus rebukes his followers (Mark 8:33; Luke 22:25-26), and Paul even rebukes Peter (Galatians 2:11). Some leaders thrive on this rebuking—they love throwing around a knife-hand and looking for every opportunity to exercise their authority by telling others off. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing per se, people need to be made aware of their mistakes to prevent them happening again or to prevent people from being hurt.


Others hate this side of leadership—they love encouraging, comforting and helping those they lead, but shrink away from any sign of conflict and refuse to address issues for fear of ruining a relationship. These are the leaders that always cultivate and foster the good in their people. This soft, compassionate approach is also a necessary part of leadership. We are called to guide and shepherd the flock that is under our care (1 Peter 5:2), while Christ’s patient conversation with the Samaritan woman (John 4:1-26) constitutes an example of this approach.


I’m sure you can identify leaders from your life (teachers, pastors, and bosses, maybe even yourself) that fit into either one of these categories. As I’ve alluded to, both approaches have merit and are necessary at times. So the question now becomes, what should I do? As a Christian leader, am I to be on the lookout for mistakes and rebuke those who make them? Or am I to softly love people no matter what, and be a gentle, friendly guide?


I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle. When somebody is doing the wrong thing, especially if it’s a repeated, unrepentant mistake, or one which endangers people, then the knife-hand needs to come out. We need to take control and firmly rebuke those entrusted to our care in order to protect them and others. It may be uncomfortable, but it’s part of leadership. Yet if this is all we do, then we will lead a bunch of scared, broken people who will eventually walk away (or mutiny). We also need to be encouraging our people when they do well, feeding them, guiding them and shepherding them on this journey, showing them unparalleled compassion and love. As a leader you need to hold both of these approaches in balance, and learn to recognise which one is appropriate and when.


As a final thought, there was an axiom we used to use in military leadership: praise publically; criticise privately. When it’s time to praise somebody for a job well done, do this in front of others. Yet when somebody needs rebuking, do it away from everybody else. This will help foster a positive environment, where people are encouraged, appreciated and valued.