Can we find the fundamentals of leadership in areas of human knowledge, such as behavioral science? Or do we learn how to be good leaders by studying great military men—the Pattons and the MacArthurs? Do we learn it from great statesmen—the Lincolns and the Churchills? Or from those who built empires in business and finance—the Fords and the Rockefellers? Or from the great coaches—the Vince Lombardis and the John Woodens?
No—we must go deeper.
I’m concerned about a trend today in which leaders of Christian organizations and missions adopt secular management principles in learning how to lead. One Christian leader told me that Christian leadership is management. You study the skills of management so you can become a good Christian leader—just as you would learn the skills of carpentry to be a good Christian carpenter. It’s as if leading a Christian organization were no different that leading IBM. But this kind of thinking can be dangerous.
We find the fundamentals of good leadership in the word of God. The Scriptures don’t specifically define leadership, but they do describe it. We find this most of all in Christ himself. Christ is the only perfect leader. We also find leadership fundamentals in the biblical examples of family leaders, national leaders, military leaders, priests, prophets, church leaders, and missionaries.
The very roots of good leadership are found in the Scriptures. When we have this foundation we can later learn from secular management. But laying the biblical foundation must come first.
In the Scriptures we learn that a leader must be a servant, a steward, and a shepherd. The first two of these—servant and steward—apply to all Christians. To be a good leader is to be a good Christian.
Christian leadership, therefore, is not exclusive but inclusive. Its fundamental nature is not elitist, but exemplary. Christian leaders primarily are not a special group, exclusive and elite; they are an integral part of the whole, and they serve as examples to the whole.
A leader is a servant and a servant simply enough, is one who serves others, and who must work for and obey others.
The most common Hebrew word in the Old Testament for servant is ebed. It occurs more than eight hundred times, and it means one who belongs to another and who is at another’s disposal—just as in the kingdom of God we must belong to Jesus Christ and be at his disposal. We are under his rule. We work for him and obey him.
In the New Testament two Greek words are often used for servant. The most common is doulos, which means a slave. It implies a permanent relationship of servitude. We are slaves to Jesus Christ—always. We are to do whatever he asks us to do.
We see this in Romans 1. Paul, a servant [doulos—a slave] of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God.” Leadership begins with the relationship of being a slave of Christ.
So doulos emphasizes a relationship. The other Greek word, diakonos, primarily emphasizes not relationship but activity. It means one who actively helps and ministers, as in Paul’s words in Ephesians 3:7—”I became a servant [diakonos] of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace.”
One example in the Bible of a servant-leader is Joshua. After Moses died, God told Joshua to cross the Jordan River with all the Israelites—who probably numbered a few million—and to possess the entire land of Canaan, a land of giants and walled cities. Joshua’s first responsibility therefore was faith in a supernatural God to do the impossible. Spiritual leadership demands this kind of trust in God’s call and God’s promise.
Faith in God’s presence also is needed. God told Joshua, “As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you or forsake you—the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:7-9).
Three times in Joshua 1, God also commanded Joshua to “be strong and courageous.” To be strong is to take charge. It’s the same quality conveyed in this phrase from Romans 12:8 in the New English Bible. “If you are a leader, exert yourself to lead.”
There is, of course, a right way and a wrong way to take charge. When I went to Taiwan as a missionary, I tried to take charge as the leader and got the Chinese upset with me. I was close to being sent home. But Paul told Timothy in 2 Timothy 1:7 the right way to take charge: “God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.” We lead properly by applying the spiritual power, love, and self-discipline God gives us.
God also told Joshua to meditate on his word “day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it.” The key to dynamic spiritual leadership is continual meditation in God’s word—and then doing it.
The biggest problem—pride
Jesus was a “situational” teacher. He waited until an opportune situation came into focus and then from it he taught eternal truth.
One such situation is recorded in Mark 10:35-45. His disciples James and John said to him, “We want you to do for us whatever we ask,” and then made this request: “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.” Jesus used this situation as a platform to teach a universal truth about leadership.
James and John were demonstrating the most common problem in leadership—pride. They were saying, in essence, “We want you to do whatever our selfish ambition desires. We want to be leaders. We want to be your number one and your number two.” This pride is not only a problem of selfish ambition, but also of comparison and rivalry. We’re not proud because we’re so strong or wise or rich, but simply because we’re stronger than someone else, or wiser or richer.
This was a common problem with the disciples as they followed Jesus. We see it in Mark 9:33-34—”When he was in the house, he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the road?’ But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.” So, Jesus called them all together, and said, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.”
When our children were small, we would pray with them before putting them to bed, and there were nightly arguments about who was going to pray first. So one night my wife told them what Jesus had said: “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last.”
The next night at prayer time, however, they began arguing again—but this time about who was going to be last, since if you’re last you get to be first. This competition and rivalry is inbred within us, isn’t it? I know it is in me.
We see this rivalry again in Mark 10, in the reaction of the other disciples to James and John’s request: “When the ten heard about this, they became indignant.” Why indignant? Because they also wanted to be number one. As C. S. Lewis said, the more pride we have the more other people’s pride irritates us.
Jesus called the twelve together again, and said,
You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.
Jesus reminded them that worldly leaders lord it over others. They maintain an air of superiority as someone special, someone who demands respect. But this was not to be the pattern for those who follow Christ.
Jesus had said,
But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ. (Matthew 23:8-10).
Jesus emphasized that we are brothers, and none of us is superior. Some are leaders, but not because they are better. They have no right to lord it over someone else. As Paul taught in Titus 1:7, an overseer in Christ’s church must not be overbearing.
I’ve known some men over the years who have used authoritarianism as their system of leadership. But they have lost that leadership. “Whoever exalts himself,” Jesus said, “will be humbled” (Matthew 23:12). Sometimes we must assert authority in situations involving discipline for sin, but this is not the basis for leadership.
The right basis for leadership is serving, and one reason this is true is that serving is the best cure for the problem of pride in leadership.
Just an attitude?
Some say that what is required in Christian leadership is simply the attitude of a servant. When Jesus said, “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant,” he used the word diakonos for “servant”—one who actively serves and helps others. This is not an attitude, but action. True greatness in Christian leadership is not reducing others to your service but reducing yourself to actively serving them.
How do we train others to be servants? Do we say to them, “Come live in my home and serve me, and be at my call when I need you, and cut my grass and polish my car”? No, Jesus says leaders must model servanthood. This is how we train others to serve. We serve. “Whoever wants to be first must be slave of all” (Mark 10:44), and here the word used is doulos, a permanent slave.
Christ was a servant to his disciples. At his last supper with them before he was crucified, when they had been arguing among themselves about who was the greatest, Jesus said, “Who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:27). Jesus washed their feet, and said, “I have set you an example” (John 13:15). They were his apostles, the future leaders and pillars of the church—and he was among them as one who serves, setting an example for them.
In the mountains of Taiwan years ago, two other Navigator missionaries and I met another missionary who said he had met Navigator s founder Dawson Trotman. “I will never forget Dawson Trotman,” he said. “He was one of the most outstanding men I ever met.” Since Daws was our hero, we asked him to tell us what Daws had said to him that impressed him so much.
“Oh, I don’t remember anything he said,” he replied.
“Well, what was so outstanding about him?” “Oh, I’ll never forget it,” he said. “He shined my shoes.”
Dawson Trotman was that kind of person. He loved doing things for people. He found enjoyment in discovering little needs they had and then making it his objective to meet those needs.
We do not serve people only to please them, however. We are their servants “for Jesus’ sake,” as Paul said in 2 Corinthians 4:5. We are his models as leaders, as slaves, as servants. We help others become slaves of Christ by being his slaves ourselves.
When Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?” and then also said to him, “Feed my sheep,” he was showing that the basic requirement for being a servant-leader is to love Jesus Christ. All around the world I have seen that the most effective leaders in the cause of Christ are those who have this love for him that overflows in service to people.