Lessons Learned from the Leadership of Dietrich Bonhoeffer


Between World War I and World War II, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born and lived.  His family was no stranger to war and its tragedy.  In 1918, Dietrich’s second oldest brother died from wounds suffered during battle in World War I (Schlingensiepen, 2010).  Dietrich grew up in Berlin and his father was a professor of psychology, and his mother, coming from a long line of pastors and was a trained teacher.  Dietrich had seven siblings which included his twin sister.  The Bonhoeffer children all excelled in school and were expected to obtain the highest of degrees at the university in law, medicine, or the like.  So it was a surprise when Dietrich announced he was pursuing a doctorate degree in Theology since it didn’t fit the family image (Schlingensiepen, 2010).  But coming from a family of pastors, it surely pleased his mother.  Dietrich attended the same university as his father and brothers and while there studied theology and philosophy.  It was there he became acquainted with Kant’s philosophical works.

Dietrich’s favorite city was Rome and while there, he began to sense the dynamics between Catholicism and Protestantism.  This developed in Dietrich to question the nature of the church and its role, thus becoming the topic of his doctoral thesis (Schlingensiepen, 2010).  During his studies, Dietrich was known for his passion for learning.  He excelled in theological debate and kept questioning the role of the church.  With this success, Dietrich wanted to keep open the possibility of working in a ministry setting as his career, thus necessitating his taking three theological examinations.

While working in the ministry, Dietrich demonstrated his gift for working with children.  Once while working with a group of children, his group grew so rapidly that he asked his sister to form a girls group.  When the church workers did not want the large group divided, Dietrich’s group of boys began bringing their sisters and friend until both groups had thirty children each (Schlingensiepen, 2010).  Kouzes and Posner (2007) identified five common practices best leadership practices: model the way, inspire a shared vision, challenge the process, enable other to act, and encourage the heart (p. 14).  Below is a discussion as these practices are applied to the leadership of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Model the Way

            During his last days, Dietrich Bonhoeffer penned a poem of his last thoughts to pass on:

Daring to do what is right, not what fancy may tell you,

valiantly grasping occasions, not cravenly doubting –

freedom comes only through deeds, not through

thoughts taking wing.

Faint not nor fear, but go out to the storm and the action,

trusting in God whose commandment you faithfully follow:

freedom, exultant, will welcome your joy.

                                                                                                (Rankin, 2006, p. 111)


If one it to model the way, it needs to be the right way.  A great leader will model doing the right thing.  It’s not what the corporate world might tell you it is at this moment, but how you live out your values moment by moment.  Words that are lived out will not seem hollow to those watching.  Dietrich lived out his faith and his values uncompromisingly.  When Hitler demanded all church leadership sign a loyalty oath, Dietrich lead the way by refusing.  It was not the right thing to do, knowing of all the atrocities Hitler was doing to the Jews and to those who dared sympathize with the Jews.  Dietrich believed that intellect and debate would reveal the oppression of Hitler’s regime.  To remain silent was to condone it.

But if one is to declare freedom it must come through action, and this same freedom is significant for today’s leadership.  True freedom from within only comes from doing what is right.  In the end, those who acted righteous will triumph, be able to live with themselves, and be imitated.  A church leader once spoke of Dietrich, declaring:

                        He was one of the first as well as one of the bravest witnesses against

                        idolatry.  He understood what he chose, when he chose resistance . . . He

                        was crystal clear in his convictions; and young as he was, . . . he saw the

                        truth and spoke it with a complete absence of fear.

                                                                                                (Rankin, 2006, p. 115)

            Dietrich demanded the German church have a response to the persecution of the Jews which mostly fell on deaf ears.  There were several churches that followed Dietrich’s sentiments and soon organized into what would become known as the Confessing Church.  He inspired and led by example for those churches who choose to do what was right.  During this time, Dietrich became an important link in the worlds’ ecumenical chain in resisting Hitler’s regime.  In doing so, he chose living out his conscience rather than compromising to Hitler.  For Dietrich, it was better to live with yourself than accept all the privilege and security he would have had if he had compromised and given in to Hitler demands.  It was more important for Dietrich to choose what was right than to choose what would promote his own professional career.  Dietrich chose integrity over ambition and an honest life even to death.

Inspire a Shared Vision

In order for great leaders to model the way, they must have a vision.  As this vision is shared, it should inspire others to follow.  Dietrich inspired such a vision.  We know a lot about Dietrich Bonhoeffer because of his shared vision with a close friend, Eberhard Bethage.  Dietrich referred to him as his special friend and appointed him as executor over his literary estate (Gruchy, 2007).  The two had met several years before Dietrich’s imprisonment.  Bethage and Dietrich had met at the Finkenwalde seminary where Bethage was studying and Dietrich was teaching.  The Finkenwalde seminary had been started when Hitler closed all churches and seminaries that did not sign a loyalty oath to his regime.  During the seminary days their friendship grew and soon Bethage would become Dietrich’s sounding board on theological issues.  They soon were both involved in the conspiracy to overthrow Hitler, though Bethage played a marginal role.  Even though imprisoned, Dietrich continued to inspire Bethage, and in his last letter to Dietrich in prison, he wrote, “I find your thoughts about the future bold and perhaps even comforting” (Gruchy, 2007, p. 355).  The shared vision Dietrich inspired other to follow gave hope while considering there was a future even in the midst of Hitler’s atrocities and Nazis oppression.

After the war ended, those who Dietrich had inspired during their times at Finkenwalde seminary gathered together to discuss his theology.  By the second conference, the interest of Dietrich’s theology had grown beyond those who had personally known him.  As more and more people began to study the works of Dietrich, his popularity grew.  He soon was being referred to as the “radical theologian who advocated a ‘religionless Christianity’” (Gruchy, 2007, p. 359).  When discussing twentieth century theologians outside the theological world Dietrich is at the top of that list.  His works have continued to inspire others.  Even Bethage would be inspired to action afterwards as he travelled to South Africa during 1973 as he compared the plight of the black South Africans to those of the Jews under Hitler (Gruchy, 2007).  Bethage took Dietrich’s message and remind those in South Africa to stand up and live out the truth and what was right.  Because of this inspiration and largely due to the work of Bethage, Dietrich Bonhoeffer would become one of the most noted theologians of the twentieth century.

Challenge the Process

In Dietrich’s first sermon, he challenged the process.  Throughout his theology the keyword was “decision” (Schlingensiepen, 2010).  He challenged Christianity as entailing decisions and then acting upon those decisions.  He recognized to act would at times entail fear.  But the more prevalent the fear was, the more important is was to act.  To be real, Dietrich believed your confession of faith must be followed up with action no matter the cost.  Dietrich wrote in his doctoral dissertation of “. . .‘the boundless fear of making a decision’.  The more important the issue to be decided, the greater one’s fear, but the more necessary it is that the fear be overcome” (Schlingensiepen, 2010, p. 33).  Later as Dietrich challenged Hitler’s regime and its oppression of the German people and destruction of the Jews, he challenged his fears and moved to action, ultimately costing him his life.  But for Dietrich, Christ represents an all-or-nothing decision (Schlingensiepen, 2010).  This is what true leadership is.  A leader knowing and understanding him or herself.  Know what their true values are and then decisively acting while overcoming any fear that may hold them back.  It is the acting upon the true values that bring consistency to great leaders.  This consistency will lead those around you to call you reliable.

Dietrich also challenged the religiousness of the church and argued for a religion-less church.  For Dietrich, religion was mankind’s way of going to God rather than God coming to man (through Christ) and was therefore useless.  One may put on airs and label themselves, claiming to be going somewhere, but this does not make it true.  It is what is in the heart of man and how that is perceived by those around you that should label us.  It is no different in leadership.  We will be known for what truly drives us and how we are perceived by those around us.  Their perception will dictate whether they follow you or not.  And what truly drives you cannot be hidden for long.  Dietrich was driven by his faith in action and desire to see an inclusive ecclesiastical-ecumenical peace movement against these atrocities that were occurring (Todt, 2005).  This would be in contrast to Hitler’s extermination of the Jews and desire to conquer the world.  So Dietrich expected and led the way for the Christian church to clearly and unanimously declare the war wrong (Todt, 2005).  But even though Dietrich found himself in the minority, in light of the truth he did not waiver in refusing to follow Hitler’s regime.

Enable others to Act

During Dietrich’s Sunday school youth work, he formed a boys’ group that met at his home one day a week.  It was here the boys did more in depth studies with Dietrich.  The boys would present introductory papers and be critiqued and encouraged in their studies.  Years later, Dietrich’s friend would write about the classes “would have done credit to a college” (Schlingensiepen, 2010, p. 32).  Once Dietrich was introduced to an unruly and rowdy group of boys, and almost immediately received their attention.  His action astonished and amazed the minister.  Dietrich had met them where they were so to speak.  He simply began to talk in a soft voice to the boys, knowing their curiosity would get the best of them, soon they began to move forward in order to hear and quitted down further.  The boys wanted to know what he was saying.  Soon the room was totally silent as he spoke to the boys.  This was more effective than if he had yelled at them and attempted to exert his authority as the adult.  He allowed them to choose to keep up the noise or quite down and listen to what he might have to say.  It is always more effective if those around you choose to act rather than be told to act.  This takes courage and Dietrich taught courage came from the heart (Padelford, 2011).  Having the courage to respectfully relate to those around you will empower them to improve their own actions.

We all usually act in accordance to our own best interest which does not mean a detriment to others.  But when respectfully relating to those around you, it is possible that everyone’s best interest can be mutually beneficial.  One cannot sustain any type of relationship acting out of self interest.  We lose self interest when we begin looking at the interest of others because self interest can only be self-satisfied (Padelford, 2011).  This comes from the dichotomy Dietrich saw being the struggle between loving self rather than God and thy neighbor.  These struggles do not stay at home.  They follow us every where including our work environments.  Dietrich enabled others by challenging their thinking and encouraging them to figure out what should happen.  The right questions can lead to enlightenment through honest reflection, and as Dietrich taught at the seminary, he prepared the students to stand up for their beliefs and values, in the face of oppression.  But this would require people of resolve and resolve comes from understanding and is only as strong as the tenets it is built upon.

Encourage the Heart

What mattered most to Dietrich were the choices people made from the heart.  His intellectual side asked the question “why” to what you believed and were doing (or not doing).  Certain choices are difficult to make either due to a lack of knowledge or lack of courage.  Dietrich asked, what do you really believe?  He watched as tough choices were made as a young man in Hitler’s Germany.  He witnessed the courage of his ninety-one year old grandmother walk past SS guards and into a Jewish store in 1933 regardless of the opinion of those in power (Frick, 2012).  Witnessing bravery from his own family members gave him the courage to speak up against the Nazis.  Ultimately he would join forces to conspire to end Hitler’s life.

Dietrich witnessed another form of oppression while studying at Union Theological Seminary in New York in the form of America’s own racism against African Americans.  Here he began to understand that “racism and poverty stem from injustice and inevitably lead to social inequity and evil” (Frick, 2012, p. 311).  While in New York, he was asked to frequently attend the African American churches and homes.  He understood that what was at risk was not his academic theology but the actual lives of individuals.  It was during this time Dietrich claims he went from being a theologian to a Christian (Frick, 2012).  Word and thoughts are pretty much meaningless until they are accompanied by actions.  Dietrich believed all reality is comprised, centered, and concluded in Jesus Christ (Frick, 2012).  It is our highest values that create and become relative to how we interpret our reality.  And in order to have a common reality we must create more common values.  So to create a sense of community, we must adhere to the same values and in turn, similar realities.

My road to leadership

Before ever thinking of myself as a leader, I had the opportunity to study the works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and as a young Religious Studies major, I was inspired by his insight and wisdom at such an early age.  Little did I know this inspiration would dictate how I would develop as a leader.  First of all, Dietrich was honest with himself as he reflected on how life and beliefs interact.  He contemplated what he believed, why he believed it, and how it affected how you interact with others.  As a leader, we have an obligation to our employees, our employees have an obligation to the organization.  If my employee is the same last year as he/she is this year, I need to ask myself why.  The why will lead to either how to improve him/her, or why they should get off the bus.  The obligation from leader to an employee is based upon the relationship between the two.  I have more power to act and therefore I have been entrusted by circumstances to bring them along.  To bring someone along implies moving forward.  Moving someone forward requires several things; knowing where you want to go, how you plan on getting there, and having the resources to get there.  All this is done within the relationship of leader and employee.  This is why it is important for the leader to model the way.  Dietrich modeled his deepest value to the point of being put to death.  In business, we won’t be put to death.  But the lesson is our core values are not for sale.  They are who we are and if we are called upon to compromise them, then it may be time to work elsewhere.  If my boss asks me to cover on the books the short inventory in order to mislead others, I’m as guilty morally by doing it or not saying anything.  The question then becomes, do I sell myself by not living up to my values, or act.

Inspiring a shared vision is more than establishing a company goal.  Everyone has a vision, a vision for their career, home, kids, etc.  All these visions intermingle and build upon each other.  For example, the vision for my home will include me having the resources to obtaining this vision which will require me having a job.  If I don’t have a vision for my job, then I’m probably one of those people who have faithfully had the same job for years.  This will affect my vision for home in requiring more time to obtain that vision.  As a leader, I need to understand as best as possible what my employee’s visions are.  This will enlighten me to what motivates them and how I might encourage them as well.

Anyone who wants to be better must challenge the process.  I can’t spell status quo, auto correct had to.

Enabling others requires knowing how to motivate them.  This comes from being genuinely concerned for them and being totally open and honest.  Dietrich spent this life serving others, this is something that has greatly influenced me in my professional career.  It is also why I take what happens to children seriously and take quick action as much as possible.  I tell parents who come before me about a story I heard where a really important man was walking around dealing with adults.  Suddenly several children ran up to the man and his co-workers (friends) attempted to turn the children away and said, “no he is too busy and too important to take the time for you right now”.  This very important man stopped and knelt down and took the time out of his busy schedule to minister to the children.  Then he looked up and said something to the affect of, “if you were to harm one of these children, it would be better for you to tie a really big rock around your neck and jump into the lake”.  This is how I tell the story so can keep separation of church and state.  But in Oklahoma the law says I serve the children first and parents second.  It’s because I have been given great power over the lives of others and with it I must responsibly use it.  This means it is used to help others and rehabilitate those who have lost control of their own lives.  The power is to be used to help them get back on track.



Frick, P. (2012). Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Engaging intellect – legendary life. Religion Compass, 6(6), 309-322.

Gruchy, J. W. (2007, July). Eberhard Bethage: Interpreter extraordinaire of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Modern Theology, 23(3). 349-368.

Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2007). The Leadership Challenge (4th ed.). San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Padelford, W. (2011). Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Business Ethics. Memphis, TN: BorderStone Press, LLC.

Rankin, A. (2006). Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a modern martyr: Taking a stand against the state gone mad. The History Teacher, 40(1), 111-122.

Schlingensiepen, F. (2010). Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance. New York: T&T Clark International.

Todt, H. E. (2005). Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s decisions in the crisis years 1929-33. Studies in Christian Ethics, 18, 107-123.