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Monday, February 21, 2011

A Word to the Leaders Among Us

In honor of President's Day (a modern holiday that combines George Washington's and Abraham Lincoln's birthdays), I thought I'd talk today about what characterizes godly leadership.  While there are literally thousands of different leadership models out there, focusing on politics, personality, workplace efficiency, and more, I prefer to talk about leadership the way the Bible models it.

If you read leadership training materials, or just browse that section at your local bookstore, you are going to see phrases like how to get ahead, the leader of the pack, separate yourself from the crowd, surviving the shark tank, and other such phrases.  The underlying principle is that we get ahead by muscling ourselves to the front or setting ourselves apart by putting down the competition.  This can lead to cutthroat tactics like lying and making false promises, attacking the competition to hedge it out, focusing on your own needs without considering those of others, and so on, eventually developing into an obsession with power and publicity.

Sometimes the competition can seem so fierce to a Christian that these tactics are tempting, especially when they seem to work, but God has called us to a higher standard of leadership--the model of Christ.  The leadership style Jesus modeled is the opposite of what the world calls good business tactics.  However, I firmly hold on to the truth that God's way is the way of life (Proverbs 12:28).  My personal experience has shown that while the world's tactics pay off faster than those of the Lord, they are much shorter-lived.  I'd rather succeed with God's blessing than get ahead as a flash in the pan.

Just what are these counter-intuitive tactics I'm talking about?  Here are a few key qualities of a leader that Christ demonstrated for us:
  1. Follow God before you lead others.  This is the most-overlooked characteristic of a good leader these days.  Society puts emphasis on education, experience, and physical attributes, but the most important quality to have is a redeemed heart.  God opposes a rebellious heart.  He requires obedience from us, and from all the people we lead; why would He bless someone who is leading others astray? See Hebrews 11: 6.
  2. Be humble.  "Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall, " (Proverbs 16:18 NIV 2010).  Pride blinds us to good advice and urges us to challenge God's laws to excuse ourselves.  Those who are "incapable of error" will be laughed out of the limelight in the end, and afterward they will have God's correction as well.  There is no reproach, no secret to catch up with us later, when we freely admit the truth about ourselves--we are full of error and weakness, and others may be better at what we do.  See especially Luke 14: 7-11.
  3. Put others ahead of yourself.  This is the lesson in humility taken to the next level.  It is not enough to say that others are better than us; we must model this by serving those people in the manner of a servant.  This means that we will never be at the head of the pack.  We might even be pushed to the very back!  No worries, though.  God praises those who obey Him, even if they are at the back of the pack, and He rewards those who hang in there with every good thing (see Psalm 37: 4-7).  The Lord of all washed His disciples' feet!
  4. Be a patient teacher.  Jesus taught all the time--it seems that He hardly had a moment when He was not teaching.  There's one thing we should note, however.  Jesus was often teaching the same thing, over and over again, to the same people!  A good leader knows that progress only comes when followers learn what they should, or complete what they have been working on.  Sometimes progress can only be gained by excessive repetition.  It does no good to try to run ahead before the foundation has been laid (see Proverbs 25: 15).
  5. Know the people who follow you.  This makes sense in terms of discipleship and good planning and delegation practices. Jesus knew the people who were with Him every day--their strengths and weaknesses, what they loved and what they hated, their family and their culture, their language and education levels, etc.  He addressed them individually, on their level, for maximum impact, and He never asked them to do something beyond their capacity.  Jesus called them to individually follow Him, not en masse. See John 21: 15-22.
  6. Be steady in your purpose.  People respect those who hold steady to their integrity and their mission and carry it through, despite obstacles that frighten or dishearten their followers.  Though Jesus experienced persecution from the leaders in His day, He never flinched from doing what was right or what was needed.  By this, He emphasized the importance and value of His mission, without fine words or public scenes.  Can we be this determined? See Matthew 13: 13.
  7. Model the behavior you want.  I've heard it said, never ask someone to do something you wouldn't do yourself.  Jesus did just that.  He modeled many virtues, like honesty, humility, and patience.  Greater than all of these things was His demonstration of love to the people around Him.  Though they all abandoned Him, He did not stop demonstrating the love He wanted from them, even on the cross--even after He rose from the dead!  See John 15: 12-14.
If you take these principles to heart, you may not be the most-praised leader of modern times, but wherever you are, you will be celebrated in Heaven--not just for your obedience, but also for the lives you affected in a positive way.  Do you think you can't do this in a secular world?  Of course you can.  Jesus did!  Do you think your efforts will go unnoticed?  Of course not!  God sees all that happens, and though people may scorn you, they notice as well.  Never think that the right thing does not draw attention to itself.

A few years ago I took a course on leadership, and for one assignment I got permission to read Jesus on Leadership by C. Gene Wilkes.  If you are interested in following Jesus' model for leadership, specifically servant leadership, I thoroughly recommend this book--and I'm getting nothing for this recommendation.

Until next time, this is my reminder to you to stay savvy, and lead in Jesus' footsteps!