Welcome back to the third lesson in our series on transformational leadership! In our last video we talked through the definitions of two kinds of leadership, transformational leadership and transactional leadership. Now in our third and fourth videos, I want us to look at an example of a leader who represents each type of leadership. In this lesson, we’re going to learn more about transactional leadership by looking at Herod Agrippa I in the book of Acts. In the next lesson, we’ll look at Jesus Christ as the ultimate and best example of a transformational leader.
Herod’s Twisted Motivations
Herod Agrippa I was the grandson of Herod the Great. You would be familiar with Herod the Great from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. He was the ruler of Judea when Jesus was born (see Matthew 2). Herod Agrippa I ruled over Jerusalem, Judea, and the surrounding area about four decades later, from AD 41 to 44. We meet him in Acts 12. You can tell that at this point he was at the very height of his power. Here is how the biblical text introduces Herod Agrippa to us:
“About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword, and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. This was during the days of Unleavened Bread. And when he had seized him, he put him in prison, delivering him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending after the Passover to bring him out to the people. So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church” (Acts 12:1–5).
We get some insight here into what drives Herod and what motivates him as a leader. He clearly lives for the praise of men. He’s willing to do anything to get it—even if that means committing injustices and opposing God. He violently persecuted the church by killing James, who had done nothing wrong. When Herod discovered how much his assassination boosted his popularity, he sought to kill again by going after Peter. Herod wanted to increase his power and win more praise. As we talked about when we were defining transactional leadership, one of its defining aspects is that the goal is often to build a monument to the leader, to glorify the self.
Later in the chapter, God saved Peter from Herod’s guards. Herod questioned the soldiers and killed them for allowing Peter to get away. Then Luke, the author of Acts, tells us about the final episode of Herod’s life. We learn more about his character and how God viewed it. The passage says:
“Now Herod was angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon, and they came to him with one accord, and having persuaded Blastus, the king’s chamberlain, they asked for peace, because their country depended on the king’s country for food. On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and delivered an oration to them. And the people were shouting, ‘The voice of a god, and not of a man!’” (Acts 12:20–22).
So a conflict had broken out between Herod and the people of Tyre and Sidon. The people didn’t like Herod and Herod didn’t like them. But Tyre and Sidon realized that if they didn’t somehow get back on Herod’s good side, they would starve to death. On the other hand, what Herod wanted was an audience. He wanted to be worshipped. He wanted the praise of the people. This is the definition of a transactional relationship. It’s not that the people and the king were together seeking after some common good. They each needed something from the other. They each needed to use the other party to get something they wanted. Tyre and Sidon needed to eat. Herod needed an adoring crowd.
So they struck a deal. Herod put on his fancy clothes, got on his fancy throne, and gave a speech. The people began to praise him and worship him. They called him a god! It’s clear that this is exactly what Herod wanted. He made the transaction. He used his power and his leverage over others to get what he wanted, to win glory and gain a great name for himself.
Herod’s Bitter End
But it was all short-lived. The thing about building a monument to the self is that the self expires quickly. Everything Herod built would cease as soon as his earthly life ended. And God sent an angel of the Lord to bring an end to his life quickly. The passage says, “he was eaten by worms and breathed his last” (Acts 12:23). All that Herod worked for vanished in a moment, when the judgment of God arrived.
What’s most revealing is the reason why Herod was judged by God. The Bible says it was, “because he did not give God the glory…” (Acts 12:23). Herod’s brand of leadership was ultimately rooted in pride, selfishness, and blasphemy. He refused to recognize God’s hand in his life or God’s role in placing him in his position. All authority comes from God. So Herod’s willingness to take all the credit was in effect a theft. He was trying to steal God’s glory and make it his own, taking credit for God’s works as if they were his. Just as God gave Herod his throne, he also took it back!
When you really think of Herod’s life, I think it shows us why transactional leadership is such a dead end. Herod used his resources, the gifts and the position God had given him, to try to control others and get things out of them. He exalted himself. He relished his own power and prestige. He cared about perception instead of reality. And ultimately his achievements were not lasting. His path did not lead to joy. It led to a painful end and an untimely death.
Transactional Leadership is a Recurring Temptation
We can learn from Herod about the kind of leader we shouldn’t be. I want you to take his example to heart. Anyone who looks at the results and the end of Herod’s life would say, “Whew, no thanks! I don’t want that to happen to me.” No one wants to get struck down by an angel or to be eaten by worms. If that was the prize waiting for you behind door number one, you don’t even need to know what’s behind door number two. You’re not picking this one.
But here’s the thing—what seems so clear in retrospect was not so clear at the time. Transactional leadership appeals to people because it seems to work. It seems to provide satisfaction for the lower desires we all feel. It seems more fun. It seems more comfortable. It makes us feel good. Frankly, it’s much easier—at least for a season.
You can often advance faster, get more money, and be more successful by the world’s standards if you rely on transactional methods. Herod liked being king. He liked being powerful. He liked dressing up in royal robes and sitting on his royal throne. He liked giving speeches to crowds and being adored by his fans. In that moment, all seemed right in his world. If you had evaluated his life at that moment just by material results, you’d have to say that he was a success, far more successful than anyone else in that entire region.
But it was all an illusion. As Scripture says, “There is a way that seems right to man, but its end is the way to death” (Proverbs 14:12). Transactional leadership’s success is always temporary. It seeks satisfaction in the things of this world. But as Jesus once said, the thing about “treasures on earth” is that “moth and rust” can destroy them and “thieves” can “break in and steal” them (Matthew 6:19). They can be taken away so easily and so quickly. And there’s always a tradeoff. We may gain small pleasures and small victories from our transactional ways, but in the end what we give up is far greater.
As Jesus says in another place, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul?” (Mark 8:36–37). Herod gave up the eternal riches of God’s kingdom for the empty riches of his own kingdom. We’re all tempted at times to make the same trade; we get tricked by Satan’s lies. But let this biblical story be the warning God intends for it to be for us. Don’t make that same choice in your life.
In our next video, we’ll look to Jesus to find another way, a better way to lead. His way leads to joy and life! I’ll see you next time.