“Where there is no guidance, a people falls…” -Proverbs 11:14 (ESV)
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ve probably noticed that we return often to the topic of leadership. It’s intentional. We talk about leadership so much because good leadership is valuable.
What’s at stake
Look at the quotation at the head of this post. Leaderless groups of people generally don’t fare so well, and despite the allure of anarcho-syndicalist communes, wise leadership — as accountable and free from self-interest as possible — is useful for restraining the most destructive impulses of humanity. Good leaders help save their followers from folly and protect them from harm.
I love my authority problem
Why is leadership necessary? In a word, sin. We live in a world that is marred by rebellion, where most of us will take every bit of leeway we think we can get away with. If you think this is unkind or unfair, consider that no parent has to teach a toddler to throw a tantrum. It seems to come naturally to every kid. This is because each one of us comes into the world with the desire to seek our own desires — our own way — over any other authority.
The West in the twenty-first century has nearly perfected the realization of what Chuck Colson called the “cult of the autonomous self.” It is a spot-on reflection of the period of the Judges in the Old Testament — a time where “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” The imperfect remedy for this time was a series of authorities referred to as judges who provided leadership to God’s chosen ones. Leadership is every bit as necessary now.
The elements of leadership
If you know you’re a leader, or if you think leadership is in your future, here are some of the principal attributes of a principled leader:
- Self-mastery – You don’t have to be perfect, but you do have to have the ability to take the long view and delay gratification in the pursuit of higher objectives.
- Knowledge – The best leaders know their field and know their people. You can’t get to know the ones you’re to lead by reading about them. Go spend time with them. Engage them. Find out what their goals are and how you can help them realize them.
- Wisdom – This is bigger than most of us, but there is good news. You can get wisdom from books. I recommend the Bible above every other leadership book, because you’ll read stories about good and bad leaders, as well as entire books intended to teach a man to be wise.
- Service – A good leader puts the well-being of his team ahead of his own in big and small ways. In the Marine Corps, enlisted Marines and non-commissioned officers eat first; officers eat last. This idea informed the title of Simon Sinek’s recent book Leaders Eat Last.
- Consistency – The best leaders don’t run hot and cold, and they don’t get distracted by fads or shiny objects. Instead, they navigate a principled course with well-understood ethical principles and clear guidance. The people in your care should never wonder where you stand.
Leading from the front
I broke this out from consistency because this idea inspired this whole post. Leading from the front means you eat your own cooking. It means you never ask a subordinate to do something you yourself wouldn’t do. It means you don’t put another’s well-being at risk if you’re not willing to take their place or join them. You set the tone and the pace for those you lead. It doesn’t matter if it’s at work, at church, in social situations, or in your family.
Even followers have to lead at times
Sometimes leaders have to be followers, but sometimes followers have to be leaders. When it’s your turn to lead, by all means lead. Put what you know into practice and don’t shirk the responsibility. You’ll live — and you’ll grow — and you won’t be alone.
Look at the example of Jesus
He doesn’t simply tell his disciples to take up their cross — first he took up his. This is so unlike the armchair expert with his theoretical knowledge. Jesus showed where radical obedience to the will of God leads, and what it produces. This is our model for leadership. For the record, even if you don’t follow Jesus, you can’t deny the strength of his example.