Stanford University lecturer and best-selling author Jim Collins illustrated the difference between a leader and leadership in these terms:
“If I put a gun to your head, I can get you to do things you might not otherwise do, but I’ve not practiced leadership; I’ve exercised power. True leadership only exists if people follow when they have the freedom not to . If people follow you because they have no choice, then you are not leading” ( Good to Great and the Social Sectors , 2005, p. 13, emphasis added throughout).
People often assume that if someone presents himself as a leader, he is. The stock market and broader history suggest otherwise.
Fluctuation in the value of a company’s stock may reflect the company leader’s perceived leadership qualities. Often, a stock goes up or down depending on whether the company leader’s competence is perceived as credible.
The panorama of human history displays a severe shortage of credible leaders—yet there have been a few. In the 20th century, British Prime Ministers Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher come to mind. U.S. Presidents Ronald Reagan, John Kennedy, Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt, or even much earlier Presidents Abraham Lincoln and George Washington are considered good to great leaders by many.
From the beginning of time, people have cried out for good leadership! We don’t just want it, we need it. Let’s learn from past leaders, both good and bad, and consider the world’s great need for the right kind of leadership.
Abuse of power and tyranny
History is chock full of bad leaders—many infamous. The more narcissistic, incompetent and tyrannical leaders are, the more they play on the gullibility of the human condition. Naiveté has two sides—sweet and bitter. People want to believe the best in others, whether they’re good or secretly evil.
In 2014, economist Jonathan Gruber, architect of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), blatantly characterized the American voter as stupid. He was immediately censured by the same people he insulted, many appalled that a so-called public servant viewed the public with such contempt.
In both secular and biblical histories, entire societies have acquiesced to such leaders throughout time for a number of reasons. These leaders eventually reveal themselves as either tyrants or simply incompetent and lazy. In the worse cases, they may be all three at once.
Adolf Hitler was a hypnotic leader who duped a great many in the German nation into thinking they were the super race. Many millions died.
Joseph Stalin controlled the entire Soviet Union through brutal intimidation and spreading fear. Many more millions died.
King Herod of Judea in the first century B.C. had Jewish baby boys murdered in an attempt to kill the Christ child, who he thought might replace him as king (Matthew 2:16 Matthew 2:16Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.
American King James Version×). He was consumed by ambition and jealousy.
Such wicked and oppressive rule, in flagrant violation of God’s laws, brings terrible consequences to those who must suffer under it—in stark contrast to rule by those following godly principles. As Proverbs 29:2 Proverbs 29:2When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice: but when the wicked bears rule, the people mourn.
American King James Version×states, “When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice; but when a wicked man rules, the people groan.”
Great need for good leaders
All the above serves as prologue to a hypothetical “wanted” poster—similar to the most-wanted criminal posters in U.S. post offices, but this one crying for and demanding, “Wanted: Leaders to lead well!”
Many leaders take advantage of their power because they can. They sell the people the “sizzle” without the steak. They rely on form rather than substance, and smoke and mirrors instead of transparency. Motivated by selfishness, their legacy is disgraceful.
With Christians, the only legacy God permits is that we follow Jesus Christ in everything (Philippians 2:10-11 Philippians 2:10-11 10 That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth;
11 And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
American King James Version×). Good leadership follows in the footsteps of Christ’s perfect legacy.
This involves a sense of duty and, in the face of this important responsibility, humility. It’s not about promoting oneself as a great leader.
As Collins writes: “
No matter how much you have achieved, you will always be merely good relative to what you can become. Greatness is an inherently dynamic process, not an end point. The moment you think of yourself as great, your slide toward mediocrity will have already begun ” (p. 9).
Honest Abe: a good leader
President Abraham Lincoln led the United States of America through the most difficult of times, the American Civil War. Lincoln didn’t want the nation to divide; he wanted to preserve the Union.
Many withstood him, and some tried to undermine him—even within his own government. History shows that he handled the diversities of opinions and emotional outbursts by employing good leadership principles.
For instance, he gave recognition and respect to those who earned it and took the responsibility for failures on himself. That’s transformational leadership. That’s a testament to Lincoln’s character.
The very first and most important attribute of good leadership is good character. Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld highlighted character in leadership:
“The strength that matters most is not the strength of arms, but the strength of character; character expressed in service to something larger than ourselves” (quoted by Jeffrey Krames, The Rumsfeld Way , 2002, p. 19).
Lincoln was certainly an example of that. A good friend of his once pressed him to remove General-in-Chief Henry Halleck. The president focused on the responsibility of his office, responding:
“I am compelled to take a more impartial and unprejudiced view of things. Without claiming to be your superior, which I do not, my position enables me to understand my duty in all these matters better than you possibly can, and I hope you do not doubt my integrity” (quoted by Donald Phillips, Lincoln on Leadership , p. 51). Lincoln knew the importance of integrity in a leader’s character.
Although Abraham Lincoln was a great U.S. president, he was a mediocre businessman. His honesty exceeded his business acumen. Long before he became president, Lincoln and William Berry opened a general store in New Salem, Illinois. What Lincoln didn’t know was that his partner was a heavy drinker. When Berry died in 1835, Lincoln was left with a very large debt—of which he paid back every penny.
Later his presidential supporters remembered his honesty and labeled him with the moniker “Honest Abe,” which helped promote him in his bid for the presidency. Lincoln believed in doing the right thing. He counseled, “Never add the weight of your character to a charge against a person without knowing it to be true” (p. 54).
Lincoln also believed in sharing with others. When he reached the top of his profession, he turned and reached down for the person behind him.
Good leadership demands good character.
Involvement and respect
Leaders should always show genuine respect for those they lead and connect and interact with them . When President Lincoln realized he must replace General Fremont with General Hunter, he was open with both men.
He wrote to General Hunter on the topic of respecting and being involved with his troops: “
General Fremont is losing the confidence of men near him, whose support any man in his position must have to be successful. His cardinal mistake is that he isolates himself, and allows nobody to see him; and by which he does not know what is going on in the very matter he is dealing with ” (quoted by Phillips, p. 14).
More than 120 years later, Tom Peters and Robert Waterman wrote a best-selling book titled In Search of Excellence. Lincoln, in 1860, already practiced what these authors “discovered” in 1982. Peters and Waterman introduced a revolutionary approach to modern leadership called MBWA or Managing By Wandering Around, which included “roving leadership,” “being in touch,” or “getting out of the tower” (Phillips, p. 14).
Abraham Lincoln was a master of involvement with and showing respect for his troops. He realized that they were the ones who would complete the job.
Leading by following
Lincoln’s leadership even included following the lead of others in various matters, a seemingly counterintuitive action that inferior leaders ignore or dismiss.
It might seem superficially contradictory, but it’s a simple truth that good leaders follow others’ lead. Abraham Lincoln was quick to accept responsibility when major battles were lost but quick to publicly commend his generals who won their battles—acknowledging that he had gone along with their decisions.
In a note to General Sherman after he captured Savannah, Lincoln wrote: “
Now, the undertaking being a success, the honor is all yours; for I believe none of us went farther than to acquiesce … But what next? I suppose it will be safer if I leave General Grant and yourself to decide ” (quoted by Phillips, p. 99).
The type of leadership exemplified by President Lincoln is both transactional and transformational.
James MacGregor Burns (1918-2014) was a distinguished figure in the study of leadership, considered by communication scholars as the best in the business. He believed in leaders interacting with those they lead. Through the relationship formed, followers can be transformed into good leaders.
Burns discovered that good leadership is lacking in modern societies because it is generally misunderstood. As he wrote:
“Many acts heralded or bemoaned as instances of leadership—acts of oratory, manipulation, sheer self-advancement, brute coercion—are not such. Much of what commonly passes as leadership—conspicuous position-taking without followers or follow-through, posturing on various public stages, manipulation without general purpose, authoritarianism—is no more leadership than the behavior of small boys marching in front of a parade, who continue to strut along Main Street after the procession has turned down a side street toward the fairgrounds” ( Leadership , 1978, p. 427).
Burns defines good leadership in these terms:
“Leadership is leaders inducing followers to act for certain goals that represent the values and the motivations—the wants and needs, the aspirations and expectations —of both leaders and followers. And the genius of leadership lies in the manner in which leaders see and act on their own and their followers’ values and motivations” (ibid, p. 19).
This pretty well sums up Burns’ transactional and transformational leadership model. The transactional model of good leadership is exhibited by leaders who focus on the beliefs, needs and values of their followers. The world has witnessed a few good leaders who’ve exemplified this model.
Burns’ research into great leadership describes what Abraham Lincoln practiced. Lincoln’s character came from his devotion to the Bible. Yet there’s another example of good leadership that far surpasses Lincoln’s.
The greatest leader ever
Effective leaders follow rules of effective leadership; truly great leaders follow the holy leadership laws of Almighty God. God is the Author of great leadership, and He set His Son, Jesus Christ, as the ultimate standard for superior leadership on the earth.
Before Jesus lived His life as a human being, the world had no fleshly example of perfect and divine leadership. Men such as Noah, Abraham and Moses, and women such as Sarah, Ruth and Deborah showed good leadership based on living God’s laws. Still they could not perfectly keep the laws of God. That was accomplished by Christ. His is the ultimate model for those who would pursue great leadership.
In their book The Leadership Lessons of Jesus , authors Bob Briner and Ray Pritchard point out characteristics of Jesus’ superior leadership that we should strive to attain. Let’s note a few.
“ Leaders take care of their people . A leader takes care of his followers and those important to his followers. Those you are leading can only be effective when their needs are met. An effective leader understands this and is sensitive to it. Serve your followers and their families” (1997, p. 14).
“In the gospel of Mark we see where Jesus went personally to a woman who was ill, took her by the hand, and raised her up (Mark 1:31 Mark 1:31And he came and took her by the hand, and lifted her up; and immediately the fever left her, and she ministered to them. (p. 14).
American King James Version×). He didn’t pass this need [to help her] on to others nor did he require that others bring the woman to him. Jesus’ model of superior leadership teaches that people need and deserve personal attention. He never shirked this responsibility and He never will”
“ Leadership requires discipline . A leader is disciplined. If you expect discipline among your followers and lack it in your own life, your followers will first lose respect for you and then grow to resent you” (p. 16). Jesus disciplined Himself every minute of His life on earth. He set aside time for solitude and private and personal prayer. Self-discipline is more difficult in an affluent world with its many distractions. No matter the age, great leaders discipline themselves and sacrifice their personal desires for the benefit of humankind.
“ The Servant Leader is one who dedicates his life to serve others first. ‘If anyone wants to be first, he must be last of all and servant of all (Mark 9:35 Mark 9:35And he sat down, and called the twelve, and said to them, If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all. (p. 182).
American King James Version×)’”
“The concept of the servant/leader is difficult for many to grasp today … Literature extolling Atilla the Hun, telling us ‘you don’t get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate,’ and generally teaching a me-first, in-your-face, slash-and-burn leadership style is the norm” (p. 183).
This is not the type of service-driven leadership Jesus modeled and taught His disciples to emulate. A Christlike leader must put the needs of others ahead of his own needs or desires. This is the essence of great leadership, and it’s only possible by following the example of Jesus Christ.
Called to service and leadership
Are you willing to make the sacrifices necessary to become a great leader? Jesus did. Will you? God provides to human beings who submit to Him the spiritual qualities to progress from being good followers to good leaders (see Proverbs 15:33 Proverbs 15:33The fear of the LORD is the instruction of wisdom; and before honor is humility.
American King James Version×). Good leaders are always good followers.
God expects Christians to become great leaders who can lead others to everlasting success in the context of free choice. Recall the assessment of true leadership given by Jim Collins at the outset:
“True leadership only exists if people follow when they have the freedom not to” (p. 13). God Almighty allows people free choice whether to follow His lead (Deuteronomy 30:15 Deuteronomy 30:15See, I have set before you this day life and good, and death and evil;
American King James Version×).
Followers of Christ learn to lead as He leads: “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28 Matthew 20:25-28 25 But Jesus called them to him, and said, You know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority on them.
26 But it shall not be so among you: but whoever will be great among you, let him be your minister;
27 And whoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant:
28 Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered to, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.
American King James Version×, New Living Translation).
Today, in an increasingly leaderless world, the cry goes out for the right kind of leaders! Thankfully, God promises that superior leadership will come to the whole world through a returning Jesus Christ, who will rule in honesty and justice, with fairness and equity for all (Isaiah 9:6-7 Isaiah 9:6-7 6 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given: and the government shall be on his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.
7 Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, on the throne of David, and on his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from now on even for ever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this.
American King James Version×; Isaiah 11:1-5 Isaiah 11:1-5 1 And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots: 2 And the spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD; 3 And shall make him of quick understanding in the fear of the LORD: and he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, neither reprove after the hearing of his ears: 4 But with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth: and he shall smite the earth: with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked. 5 And righteousness shall be the girdle of his loins, and faithfulness the girdle of his reins.
American King James Version×). He wants us to then reign in righteousness with Him. That requires preparing now— to be leaders who will lead well!