Leaders are influential not only through instruction of others, but by the example they set. One of the challenges of being in a position of authority is that every word and action is more carefully observed. As a result, many leaders feel they have to live up the expectations set, playing a role of authority and confidence, even if it means “Fake it till you make it.” But where do we see the Bible telling us to elevate ourselves to be a good leader?
Jesus: The Perfect Model
When Jesus showed up, he did not follow those expectations. He set the ultimate example of humility. Jesus gave up the glory and honor He possessed to be human: the simplistic state limited by time and space, contained by the human body, and functioning within a faulty society, in a world tainted by sin. He had every capacity to show power that would quickly gain Him acknowledgement and to assert authority in knowledge and wisdom. But instead of rising to a place of high recognition, He associated with the lowest and least respected members of society. When His disciples started constructing their own hierarchy of status, He was blunt. “Greatness” was not the goal.
“You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them. But it is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant; and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave to all. For even the Son of Man did not comes to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45).
Power is not the kingdom way. Sacrificial servitude is the calling. Of course, Jesus didn’t just tell His disciples to be servants. He illustrated it, putting himself in the lowliest role of washing their feet. There was no room for misinterpretation when carrying that bowl of water and wiping those sweaty, dusty feet. It wasn’t just modesty, turning down an initial offer for honor; it was humility. Jesus made it clear that His disciples were to follow His example. “If I then, the Lord and Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you” (John 13:14-15).
Jesus also set an example of vulnerability. Instead of creating a persona of being unflappable, always exuding peace and joy, or authoritatively setting rules and regulations, He developed intimate relationships with His disciples and those close to Him. They saw Him laugh, sigh, weep, and get angry. He told stories, hugged children, touched the unclean, slept from exhaustion, walked dusty roads, ate with the rejected, and welcomed the outsiders. As a rabbi, His followers learned not only by listening to His teaching, but following His example.
Building relationships centered on Jesus allows us to create a context for trust and vulnerability. Many leaders find it very difficult to expose any piece outside their perfect persona, for fear it would diminish people’s respect for them, undermine their influence, or even be used against them. But the reality is that we need each other to be real if we want to grow. We all have our “blind spots,” those biggest flaws that are the hardest for us to see. We need honest feedback, in a context where love is the motivating factor.
Creating intimate relationships of accountability provides a safe place for us to share the struggles we face. We all are in the sanctification process, and have those sinful areas in our lives. Holding each other accountable means asking the hard questions and confessing to one another, all under the canopy of grace. It may not be easy to find those relationships, especially for leaders who feel pressured to meet expectations. But it is even more critical for those of high influence to have accountability. Too often we hear of a pastor of a mega church being caught in adultery or a well-known author falling away from the faith. Each story doesn’t take place overnight; it is a gradual slide away from truth. The first slip in the wrong direction is the failure to recognize the need for support and accountability.
Authentic, loving relationships are also a context for promoting progress. Rather than just preventing backsliding or maintaining an equilibrium, in optimal conditions we should be maturing and growing. We need those people who are ready to challenge us to step outside our comfort zone, to set realistic goals with concrete steps, to celebrate progress made, and to offer encouragement when facing inevitable mistakes and mishaps.
It’s often difficult to find those peers and mentors who are ready invest in such relationships. It requires someone to take initiative, to identify that individual who can be trusted and reach out to him or her. There are many mature Christians out there who would readily accept such an invitation; we just have to be bold enough ask. In the modern world, digital technology makes it feasible to connect face-to-face even when not physically in the same location. These resources are helpful for many leaders who feel detached and isolated. It is in that context that such relationships are most needed.
Discipleship: The Model for Growth
Jesus set an example of mentorship by calling twelve men to be His disciples, investing in them, being vulnerable and humble, and showing unconditional love. His final mandate in Matthew 28 was to “Go and make disciples of all nations.” It wasn’t “Go and convince people to come to church,” or “Go and pressure people to join this religion.” Instead, it was about following the same pattern of building relationships, sharing lives, investing in people, and inviting them to do the same. Living truth is more powerful than just instructing truth. Jesus lived humble leadership and called His disciples to do the same. Like Him, they served as leaders not for power, but instead laying down their lives as martyrs.
We are called to be disciples and make disciples. Following Jesus isn’t just reading the Bible, going to church, and once in a while telling someone the Good News. It is investing in relationships, which requires depth more than breadth. It is about growing closer to Jesus and helping one another do the same.
Living Humble Leadership
One does not have to have authority over a large group to be a leader; most of us have influence over someone in our lives, putting us in a position of leadership, whether or not we acknowledge it. In such a role of influence, we have the opportunity to set an example by following Jesus in choosing humility. We can do this when combining the acknowledgement of our own limitations and needs with the willingness to share our struggles. Embracing mentorship and accountability creates a context for growth; welcoming others with transparency invites them to also step into that same context of vulnerability that leads to maturity.
Each day, we have the opportunity to enter into humble communion with Christ when inviting Him to use our weaknesses for His glory, welcoming His loving grace and compassion, and asking Him to make us vessels of that love by serving others. Our selfish tendencies easily make these requests uncomfortable, but engaging in loving intimacy with our Lord and embracing humility is what distinguishes us from all other religions. When living in a mindset of abiding in Jesus, and thus handing control back to Him, He can use us in powerful ways, beyond our own agendas or expectations.
I invite you to enter that communion now, asking for help overcoming the pride and insecurities that keep you from embracing His lifestyle of humility. Ask Him to show you the relationships where you can be transparent, for your own growth and as a model for others. Abide in His love.