A lot of what Christianity has to say about leadership can be summed up pretty well in one story about Jesus with his followers:
A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.” (Luke 22:24-27)
This might not sound as revolutionary as it really is. After all, there are 20 pages of books on Amazon on the topic of “servant leadership.” It’s become a buzzword in management training.
How many leaders do you know who really serve others? I’m not talking about the folks who do photo ops at a soup kitchen or use a golden shovel to turn the first scoop of earth at a groundbreaking ceremony. Real servant leadership is costly. It means getting involved in the unpleasant side of other people’s lives. And really, who wants to do that? It’s not like people are exactly lining up to pick up other people’s trash or wipe incontinent people’s bottoms.
And yet, when leaders actually do serve, amazing things can happen. I (the author of this article) remember a small immigrant church that had a real problem with getting people to work together. Everybody was so concerned about his or her own prestige that nobody would lift a finger to do the necessary but lowly tasks that make a community run smoothly. Everyone wanted to be a leader; nobody wanted to be a servant.
Things went on this way until the pastor of the church and another leader got a great idea. Between the two of them, they were the highest-status people in the church, and everyone looked up to them. At the next Christmas party, as everyone was finishing up eating, they each grabbed a rolling trash can and took it around the tables, picking up people’s dirty paper plates and throwing them away. You should have seen the looks on people’s faces as their leaders cleared away trash with their own hands.
But that had a great result. In the next few weeks, people began to pitch in on all sorts of tasks. Some started cooking and cleaning; some offered rides to other people without cars; some helped direct parking in a cold, muddy field. People stopped worrying about their own status and started caring for others. That’s the power of real servant leadership. And it’s a tiny example of the sort of leadership Jesus calls all who follow him to exercise.
But Christianity has more to say to anyone who wants to be a good leader. If a good leader is there to serve, then questions come up that demand answers:
Where exactly am I leading these people to?
…Is it a good place? Is it the place we ought to be going? And how will we know when we get there?
This seems like a pretty obvious set of questions, but you’d be amazed by the number of people who set out to lead without having any clear idea where they’re leading people. I was once part of an inter-ethnic coalition that spent the first year or more arguing about their reason for existing—they all believed the coalition ought to exist, but they all had totally different ideas for what it ought to do. And of course, if you don’t know what you’re supposed to be doing or where you’re heading, you’re not going to be happy with where you eventually end up.
The biblical leader Moses knew exactly where he was going with his people—an entire nation of ex-slaves who had just become free. They needed a new land, a renewed faith, and a new cultural pattern by which to live. Though the Israelites drove him crazy on a regular basis, he kept on toward the goal: the promised land of Canaan.
Why exactly am I leading, anyway?
…Is it because I really care about these people and what we’re trying to get done? Or is it an ego trip?
Unfortunately, Western cultures in particular give leadership jobs a lot of status—so much so that people who don’t know how to lead, and don’t particularly want to lead, still try to get into leadership positions just so they can enjoy the status. But that ends in a mess for everybody involved. We need to work on getting the right people into leadership—those who are gifted with wisdom, patience, thoughtfulness, and a talent for working with people.
David was another biblical leader, a king who spent most of his life at war. He was known for taking care of his soldiers. He saw to it that they had what they needed: food, rest, and a place for their families to be safe. He himself went out with his forces to lead them. His soldiers knew they mattered to him. In fact, the one time he didn’t go out with his forces, David wound up in a major leadership mess involving adultery, murder, and the betrayal of a fellow soldier. He proved this principle of good leadership both by the times he kept it, and by the one time he spectacularly broke it and everyone suffered the consequences.
What do I do when the people I’m leading drive me crazy?
…Do I give up? Or is there a way I can redeem the situation and turn it into good for everybody involved? And if so, where am I going to find the wisdom and the strength to make that happen?
Every leader must face moments of resistance from those being led, times when the people drive him or her nuts. Moses certainly did. His reaction was not to quit, however. Instead, he did a lot of yelling and metaphorical hair pulling, and then he went to talk with God about the problem. He found wisdom as he prayed and listened to what God had to say. This gave him the strength to carry on as leader for 40 years, even though the people were making just about every mistake they could think of over that time.
What about you, in your leadership? Where do you find strength, wisdom, and the patience to carry on? Could you possibly find it in the same place? Something to consider, maybe.