Cosmetic Leadership

A Guest Post by Phil Brooks

Out of pure curiosity, I researched the definitions of “cosmetic”, with the assistance of my two friends, Merriam and Webster. “Making for beauty” was among the first of definitions, followed by “made for the sake of appearance” and “not substantive: superficial”. Last, but not least was probably my favorite, “visually appealing.”

How, then, should I define “Cosmetic Leadership”? I think many, if not most, would agree the term “beautiful leadership” would hardly roll off our tongues. Nor would we equate the act of leadership (effective leadership, anyway) with appearances, being superficial, or visually appealing. Yet I would argue the concept of Cosmetic Leadership does indeed exist. It can be found in corporate America. It’s been spotted in non-profit organizations. It’s even alive and well in the church.

Cosmetic Leadership is not genuine, effective, servant leadership. It lacks humility. It lacks a servant heart. It’s selfish. The individual is valued more than the team. Cosmetic Leadership gives the appearance of being a leader of a group or organization. But a look below the surface reveals an individual who is enamored with title, power, or popularity, but lacking in the true ingredients of genuine, effective leadership.

My former manager recently shared a story with me. As part of a reorganization, his position in the Atlanta office was replaced by someone at corporate. His role was to transition the software development team to his replacement. During their first meeting, “Chris” (not my former manager’s real name) began by naming the individuals who make up the software development team. The new manager abruptly interrupted Chris. “I don’t need to know their names.” Are you kidding me?!? He didn’t need to know the names of the people who report to him? This, to me, is one classic example of cosmetic leadership.

King Saul was another example of cosmetic leadership. In 1Samuel 8 Israel demands a king to reign over them. The prophet Samuel entreats the Lord, and God yields to their demands, giving Samuel a play by play of what their new “leader” would do. “This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you: He will take... (1 Samuel 8:11), He will take... (verse 13), He will take... (verse 14), He will take... (verse 15), He will take... (verse 16), He will take... (verse 17). And that’s exactly what he did, and he still wasn’t satisfied. When the anointing shifted from Saul to David, he wanted to take David’s life! Saul, though he was King, was very cosmetic in his leadership. He thought only of himself, pushing his own agenda, and using his “followers” for his own benefit, caring for no one’s needs but his own.

Contrast that with David, who, while not yet king, is running for his life from King Saul, and he has people 26

willing to follow him! He’s living in caves and mountains with very little to sustain him, and yet when it was discovered that David escaped to the cave of Adullam, “every one that was in distress, and every one that was in debt, and every one that was discontented, gathered themselves unto him; and he became captain over them: and there were with him about four hundred men.” (1 Samuel 22:2-3). David cared for the people. He provided for them. He cherished them. As a result, they wanted him to lead them. His influence was so powerful and effective that merely one chapter later, his team has grown to six hundred men (1 Samuel 23:13).

Cosmetic leadership is not God’s plan for leaders in His kingdom. If you’re going to be great, you’re going to serve. If you want to be first, you have to be willing to come in last. Sacrifice is a foreign concept in the realm of cosmetic leadership, yet we are called by God to present ourselves as living sacrifices. “David went on, and grew great, and the Lord of hosts was with him.” (2 Samuel 5:10). God’s hand was upon the genuine leader, not the cosmetic one. King David left a legacy. King Saul did not.

I’ve heard it said, everything rises and falls on leadership. And I believe it to be true. Under cosmetic leadership, the safe money says things fall. Under genuine, servant, team focused, effective leadership, things have a tendency to rise. If you have any doubts about that, search the scriptures and see it for yourself.


Phil Brooks is a proven soul winner and innovative church leader with extensive ministry and leadership training. As a licensed minister with the United Pentecostal Church, Phil experienced a variety of notable ministry successes as an innovative youth pastor, ministering at high school and middle school Bible clubs, and launching community based urban outreach ministries including Talk4Teens and Summer of Service. Phil also brings a wealth of knowledge in the areas of training and leadership development. Phil lives in Charlotte, NC and is the proud father of two sons.