Discipleship: How Jesus Turned Followers into Leaders

Leadership means different things to different people. To some, it evokes the vision of a strong-willed, type “A” personality who always gets his or her way. To others, the term suggests a great communicator, who presents, explains and educates others so that everyone is rowing in the same direction. And to still others, it is viewed in its simplest form as the term used to denote a person who is given power or authority over others.

For Christians, both individually and in the world of business, leadership has a clearly defined scope and nature, thanks to the example of Jesus. In fact, discipleship is the term we use to define the process by which Christians become leaders — leaders as God intends them to be. Jesus practiced discipleship and used it as his sole method of leadership development. Here are five essential attributes of discipleship that established the cornerstone of Jesus’ approach to creating leaders.

1. Discipleship means leading by following.

Christians recognize that Jesus calls us to a higher vision and calling — that of serving God. As a result, we are never autonomous, unlike our secular counterparts. Whereas in the larger world, many assume that leaders are people who are only beholden to themselves, discipleship reminds Christians that we are always operating under the authority of another, and for the glory of another, while being in service to others. Therefore, we must be excellent followers in order to be outstanding leaders.

2. Discipleship means leading by serving.

Another distinctive element in Jesus’ vision of leadership is its purpose. During Jesus’ life, other leaders had purposes that he rejected as being insufficient or incorrect motivation to lead. The Pharisees were leaders only because of the power they held over others, and abused that power for their own self-interest.

The Romans had power that they had obtained through strength and military might, and used it to create powerful worldly governments and trade routes, but with little interest in meeting the needs of the poor and weak among the populations they conquered. In contrast, Jesus emphasized service as the sole purpose of leadership — though his own example and through his teachings to those around him.

3. Discipleship means leading by example.

The old adage that people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones is clearly built upon the foundation of Jesus’ example, because it encapsulates two bedrock concepts that were cornerstones of his leadership philosophy.

First, it reminds us that becoming judgmental of others is egotistical, selfish and damaging to leaders. And second, it emphasizes the fact that leaders should be — and will be — living in ‘glass houses’, whether they intend to or not. By becoming a leader, one automatically becomes subjected to the public scrutiny that naturally accompanies one’s actions. Jesus wanted his disciples to know that they would always need forgiveness and always need to try harder to do what is right, precisely because leadership by example *is* true leadership.

4. Discipleship means leading by always serving as a teacher.

Jesus recognized that leadership requires effective communication skills, and he emphasized two kinds of teaching that were essential to his disciples’ journey. In the Christian faith, keeping one’s light under a bushel is not acceptable. We have been given the greatest possible gift — the gift of forgiveness and salvation — and that amazing miracle alone should compel us to share the good news with others. This kind of education is evangelism — sharing the good news by teaching, speaking, writing and otherwise communicating the story and the truth of how it can transform lives.

In addition to evangelization as a teaching enterprise, Jesus also emphasized the role of a leader as a teacher, coach and guide to other leaders. Disciples are to pray with, teach to and guide one another through the leadership journey. In this sense, Jesus set the Christian leader radically apart from his secular counterparts, by emphasizing that the Christian leader is never alone — never a solo practitioner. Christian leaders always operate as part of a larger community of disciples and fellow followers on the path.

5. Discipleship means leading by always learning as a student.

Finally, Jesus recognized that, equally as important as always teaching is the imperative to a disciple that he must always be learning as well. No leader ever truly arrives at the ‘destination’ of ideal or perfect leadership, as it is impossible. Therefore, a true leader continues at all times to seek new ideas and new understandings that can be put to practice. This means that a true leader is also open to hearing from and learning from others — maintaining a balanced sense of humility and avoiding the dangers of exaggerated pride.

Whether in a Christian ministry or a secular business enterprise, we can clearly see that Jesus established a powerful foundation for the creation of effective leaders. Through committing to these five principles of integrated discipleship, you too can turn followers in your organization into well-rounded, compassionate and powerful leaders for the future.