Bonhoeffer spent much of his life opposing leadership. When Adolf Hitler was elected Chancellor in 1933, Bonhoeffer was one of the first voices in Germany to urge for caution. Just two days after Hitler’s installation, 26-year-old Bonhoeffer gave a radio broadcast on “The Younger Generation’s Altered View of the Concept of Leader [Führer].” Bonhoeffer acknowledged that leadership is a normal and necessary part of life. “Naturally, there have always been leaders. Where there is community there is leadership.” But he argued that the concept of political leadership had been transformed in modern Germany; the German Youth Movement had dangerously projected all its longings and aspirations on to the concept of the Leader. Thus, Bonhoeffer said, “the originally prosaic idea of political authority is transformed into the political-messianic idea of leader that we see today.” Authentic leadership, in Bonhoeffer’s view, is the administration of an objective office. “The leader points to the office.” Where political leadership fuses with quasi-religious functions – giving people hope, investing their lives with meaning, awakening their spiritual yearnings – it becomes a dangerous and potentially unlimited power. Leadership becomes “personal and not objective.” In such circumstances, the leader (Führer) can very easily become the misleader (Verführer) – not so much because of anything innately bad in the leader, but because of the powerful illusory longings projected on to the leader. As a sort of definition of authentic leadership, Bonhoeffer remarks: “The true leader must always be able to disappoint.” Though the radio address was cut off before it finished, Bonhoeffer’s text concluded with the somber warning that all leaders are only “penultimate authorities” under the authority of God; the “leader and office that turn themselves into gods mock God.”
In the years that followed, Bonhoeffer applied his critique of political leadership to the question of leadership in Christian communities. In the 1933 Bethel Confession, drafted by Bonhoeffer and Hermann Sasse, the nature of Christian ministry is defined in explicit contrast to leadership. “The power of the ministry,” the confession states, does not depend “on the powers with which a human soul may be gifted.” Hence “we … protest against the attempt to apply the modern leadership principle to the preaching ministry.” Christian ministry, as “service to the Word,” is indeed “the opposite of any magical powers of leadership.” Here the point seems to be that Christian ministry consists in responsibility to an objective office and an objective word that God has given; it does not depend on influence, charisma, or what Bonhoeffer elsewhere called the “melting together” of souls.