Leadership: It has become such a commonplace concept that we all generally agree about its importance. Having problems with your business? Perhaps it’s due to an absence of leadership. Struggling in your marriage or family life? Maybe you need to rethink your commitment to leadership at home. Serving in a charity or on a community board that seems hopelessly lost or dysfunctional? The problem is often traced to a vacuum in leadership.
So, we know that leadership is important and, today, we often jump to the assumption that the solution to nearly every human problem is to improve our leadership. But, what exactly is leadership?
For something we so commonly refer to, it’s astounding how hard it is to define. For some people, the definition of leadership tends to get lost amidst a list of attributes or a series of statements. For others, leadership falls into that category of “I know it when I see it, even if I can’t define it.”
The good news is that we have a compelling historical example of perfect leadership in the person of Jesus. And we can start by looking at how Jesus approached leadership as soon as he began his ministry. Here are some of the key traits that Jesus applied to demonstrate his leadership:
1. True leadership begins with submission.
In our post-modern society, this is perhaps the most easily ignored aspect of true leadership. And yet, for Jesus, submission was the beginning and the end of his leadership approach. Jesus willingly submitted himself to God the Father from the time of his birth until the time of his death and resurrection. For Christians, submission is to Christ himself. For non-Christians, submission is to the higher good – the values and beliefs about humanity that go far beyond mere expediency or self-guided achievement. In fact, without submitting yourself to a higher vision or power, you simply aren’t in a position to lead.
2. True leadership continues with servanthood.
So, after submitting himself to his Father’s will, did Jesus go and start proclaiming his message from the hilltops? No. He demonstrated humble confidence through servanthood. From the seemingly inconsequential (turning water into wine) to the utterly miraculous (multiplying loaves and fishes to feed thousands), Jesus focused in every moment not on himself, but on others. Servanthood, of course, is the other side of the coin of submission. People naturally sense when a person is giving of themselves, rather than giving what is easy and taking credit for their own aggrandizement. No matter what you say – or do – true leadership is rooted in serving others before yourself. It’s not enough to be considerate of others. Rather, you need to put others first, before yourself.
3. True leadership is made noble in sacrifice.
One reason true servanthood is a rare sight to behold is that it always leads to sacrifice. Sacrifice comes in many forms, but it is easiest to understand as the point where submission and servanthood lead to personal discomfort on the part of the leader. If you’re not giving until it hurts, you’re not really leading. This is why even today, we look upon so many kinds of ‘official’ leaders with an eye of scorn and skepticism.
When we see a politician using the words of leadership but showing the actions of a person taking advantage of the rewards of his office, we know that this is not real leadership. On the other hand, when we see a person taking real risks – the person who jumps between attackers and a victim to protect another person’s life; the person who takes an unpopular position in public knowing full-well that his or her beliefs will be ridiculed; these are indications of true leadership in the path modeled by Jesus.
In order to achieve submission that leads to servanthood that results in sacrifice, it is essential to practice – day in and day out. That is why Jesus approached leadership as a discipline. He prayed, he retreated, he took time to commune with the Father and to call upon the Holy Spirit. Jesus brought order to chaos, peace to the confused and calm to the fearful. He was able to do this because he practiced leadership as a discipline, by subordinating the purpose of each and every day to his leadership vision and purpose.
If it sounds like the path of authentic leadership is a demanding one that requires a deep, almost overwhelming commitment – and the willingness to risk everything to achieve true leadership – that’s because it is. Jesus knew this, and demonstrated that leadership requires the ultimate sacrifice (a horrible and painful death for no logical reason) in order to achieve the ultimate objective (the salvation of the world and the healing of souls).
The impact we can have as leaders, though much smaller in scale than that of Jesus, is equally as important. By understanding the key attributes of true leadership, we can prayerfully move down the path that will ultimately allow God to work with our hands and minds in mysterious and miraculous ways.