What Makes a True Leader?

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What Makes a True Leader?

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This is a year for electing the president of the United States. So it’s a fitting time to explore the qualities of true leadership.

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and presidential biographer Dr. James MacGregor Burns, who received his Ph.D. in political science from Harvard, wrote a highly influential book in 2010 titled Leadership, which is thorough, incisive and instructive on many levels. He precedes his prologue with a few notable quotes, including one from Franklin Roosevelt, U.S. president from 1933 to 1945:

“The Presidency is … preeminently a place of moral leadership. All our great Presidents were leaders of thought at times when certain historic ideas in the life of the nation had to be clarified … That is what the office is—a superb opportunity for reapplying, applying in new conditions, the simple rules of human conduct to which we always go back. Without leadership alert and sensitive to change, we are all bogged up or lose our way.”

What a contrast to the mudslinging we typically see in election campaigns. Attempts are made to malign opposing candidates in a variety of ways. Denigrating stories regarding a candidate may be researched and exploited or even invented by the opposition’s supporters. While the not-so-subtle attacks don’t necessarily emanate from the candidates themselves, they might affirm their approval.

Some of the supporters engaged in such tactics constitute the political brain-trust strategizing a hopeful candidate’s bid for the highest office in the world. Other supporters supply the essential finances to catapult their candidate to victory, making it possible for the candidate to hire persuasive specialists extraordinaire. Is this what true leadership is all about?

The stakes in any U.S. presidential election are high since the winning candidate will occupy the most powerful position on earth—able to palpably affect the lives of hundreds of millions of Americans as well as the people of other nations of the world and their standards of living. Is such power and influence the key to leadership?

More to the point, does seeking and obtaining a position of leadership—along with the authority, responsibilities and decision-making that accompany that position—make someone a leader? Or is there more to it than that? Just what constitutes a true leader?

George Washington’s commendable leadership

Burns addresses transformational leadership, the back cover of his book summarizing his assessment “that the best leaders are those who inspire others to come together toward the achievement of higher aims.” A few U.S. presidents have come close to this definition of good leadership.

George Washington was perhaps the most effective leader of all U.S. presidents. Among America’s founding fathers, Joseph Ellis, another Pulitzer Prize-winning author, reckons him “the Foundingest Founder of them all” ( His Excellency: George Washington, 2004, p. xiv).

Ellis extolls Washington in an unusual way. He lists the areas of the human condition that placed Washington in a secondary role to other brilliant contemporaries of his time—then easy to find—yet concludes that all his contemporaries agreed that he was the superior leader.

Ellis’ research shows that Benjamin Franklin was wiser than Washington, Alexander Hamilton more brilliant, John Adams better read, Thomas Jefferson more intellectually sophisticated, and James Madison more politically astute. Yet all of these stellar figures acknowledged that George Washington was their unquestioned superior.

As Ellis relates, one defining event revealing Washington’s superior leadership qualities was his fearless role in rallying troops in 1755 during the French and Indian War.

The story goes that British forces accidentally confronted a large detachment of French and Indians, who spread themselves out in a semicircle and fired on the British, including Washington. His Virginia troops were trapped in a relentless crossfire and were nearly wiped out. The commander in chief for the 13 British colonies, General Edward Braddock, bold and stubborn, attempted to rally his men but was cut down with wounds to his chest and shoulder.

Washington came forward to rally the troops, riding back and forth among their remnants, and had two horses shot out beneath him—and his coat pierced by four musket balls. He escaped without a scratch and saved many lives by risking his own. This occasion showed him to be a man of courage in the face of a lost cause and earned him the moniker “man of destiny”—well before his later great endeavors.

Not all leaders display good leadership

Washington’s leadership qualities compared to more recent political antics in the city that bears his name highlight the fact that the terms leader and leadership aren’t always synonymous.

Of course, the whole span of human history makes it clear that not all leaders practice selfless leadership.

You don’t have to be a Harvard graduate to list at least some of the most tyrannical and infamous leaders of the past century, including Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse-tung and, more recently, Saddam Hussein. Many millions of innocent people lost their lives under the manipulation, control and resulting satanic carnage such tyrannical figures perpetrated against humanity.

These were all extreme cases of a problem Jesus Christ described: “In this world the kings and great men lord it over their people, yet they are called ‘friends of the people’ ” (Luke 22:25 Luke 22:25And he said to them, The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and they that exercise authority on them are called benefactors.
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, New Living Translation).

Indeed, they went even further in self-exaltation, addictively morphing themselves into the insane and corrupted attitude of the Roman emperor Vespasian—who, perhaps motivated by his flair for theatrics, exclaimed on his deathbed in A.D. 79 that he felt himself becoming a god.

All of these took after the unseen figure who was ultimately their spiritual leader—the one the Bible calls “the ruler of this world” and “the god of this age” (John 12:31 John 12:31Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out.
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; 14:30; 16:11; 2 Corinthians 4:4 2 Corinthians 4:4In whom the god of this world has blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine to them.
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). These various tyrants—and especially the chief tyrant Satan the devil—all aptly demonstrate the point that not all leaders display good leadership.

Power politics vs. godly perspective

Some still quote Machiavelli—the Italian Renaissance philosopher whose book The Prince is famous for its conception that in statecraft the ends justify the means—as the quintessential lexicon of wielding power, including through political persuasion and influence.

Burns, however, points out limitations in such a model: “Because power can take such multifarious, ubiquitous, and subtle forms, it is reflected in an infinite number of combinations and particularities in specific contexts. Even so, observers in those contexts may perceive their particular ‘power mix’ as the basic and universal type, and they will base elaborate descriptions and theories of power on one model—their own.

“Even Machiavelli’s celebrated portrait of the uses and abuses of power, while relevant to a few other cultures and eras, is essentially culture-bound and irrelevant to a host of other power situations and systems. Thus popular tracts on power—how to win power and influence people—typically are useful only for particular situations and may disable the student of power coping with quite different power constellations” (p. 16).

Nevertheless, among the notable quotes preceding his prologue, Burns shares a telling observation from Machiavelli that remains relevant to politics today:

“A prince will never lack for legitimate excuses to explain away his breaches of faith. Modern history will furnish innumerable examples of this behavior, showing how the man succeeded best who knew best how to play the fox. But it is a necessary part of this nature that you must conceal it carefully; you must be a great liar and hypocrite. Men are so simple of mind, and so much dominated by their immediate needs, that a deceitful man will always find plenty who are ready to be deceived.”

This advice is as applicable in our time as it was in Machiavelli’s—for the immoral pursuers of power who would take advantage of it. Television viewers filled daily with media banter, especially in an election year, are quite susceptible of being misled.

Of course, Almighty God, who has the most power in all the universe, in no way approves of the misuse of power and influence, especially through lies and hypocrisy. God the Father Himself exhibits perfect, righteous leadership—as does His Son Jesus Christ.

The Bible says that God created man in His own image (Genesis 1:26-27 Genesis 1:26-27 26 And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth. 27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.
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) and that we should be emulating His righteous approach. Yet history shows that man has followed the lead of Satan, with self-absorbed leaders taking themselves too seriously and going to all lengths to achieve fame and honor for themselves.

To degrees, this is true even of many who are generally decent people who want to help others. Part of the reason many leaders fail to display good leadership is that they have a myopic and distorted view of themselves—becoming all the worse as they gain more power.

In the words of a famous maxim, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” (Lord Acton, 1887). Scripture warns, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death” (Proverbs 14:12 Proverbs 14:12There is a way which seems right to a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.
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; 16:25). The problem lies in the human heart: “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9 Jeremiah 17:9The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?
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).

Clearly God knows that men can exercise great power over those they rule—to positive or negative effect depending in large part on their real motivation: “When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice; but when a wicked man rules, the people groan” (Proverbs 29:2 Proverbs 29:2When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice: but when the wicked bears rule, the people mourn.
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).

God warns against selfish leadership and instructs in true, unselfish leadership. Every person needs to honestly assess his or her actual motives.

Seven common missteps of selfish leadership

Here are some typical errant tactics of leaders who are too self-absorbed. These can overlap, and they do not represent all the wrong methods of selfish leaders.

1. Schmoozing. A schmoozer is one who chats up people to persuade them or gain favor, business or connections. He doesn’t follow Shakespeare’s dictum from Hamlet to its intended conclusion: “To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man” (Act 1, scene 3).

2. Politics. Years ago, I read a communication article in a law journal that focused on politics as violence. The idea wasn’t that politics does violence but that it is violence. Political chicanery takes advantage of others to promote oneself. Worldly politics hurts everyone. Human history could be chronicled from the perspective of violence through human politics.

3. Playing favorites. A true leader might well enjoy the company of some more than others, but he still intends and strives to treat everyone with fairness and equity. On a personal level Jesus gravitated to the apostle John naturally (John 13:23 John 13:23Now there was leaning on Jesus’ bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved.
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), but He also treated all with godly love (Matthew 22:39 Matthew 22:39And the second is like to it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
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).

4. Playing to personalities. When Jesus returns to the earth, He will make decisions regarding issues on the basis of God’s laws, bringing justice and fairness: “He shall not judge by the sight of His eyes, nor decide by the hearing of His ears; but with righteousness He shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth” (Isaiah 11:3-4 Isaiah 11:3-4 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.
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). In today’s world, judgments are based on outward appearances, on clever arguments and on who has power (compare James 2:1-7 James 2:1-7 1 My brothers, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons. 2 For if there come to your assembly a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel, and there come in also a poor man in vile raiment; 3 And you have respect to him that wears the gay clothing, and say to him, Sit you here in a good place; and say to the poor, Stand you there, or sit here under my footstool: 4 Are you not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my beloved brothers, Has not God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to them that love him? 6 But you have despised the poor. Do not rich men oppress you, and draw you before the judgment seats? 7 Do not they blaspheme that worthy name by the which you are called?
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).

5. Deception. Human beings are given to deception, shading the truth, spinning and coloring the facts. The apostle Peter said that Jesus was without guile or deception (1 Peter 2:22 1 Peter 2:22Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth:
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).

6. Hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is feigning to be what one is not—or to believe what one does not. He leads others astray in order to gain advantage over them or to elevate himself.

7. Hiding true feelings. Many years ago, I got into an elevator with an instructor of the Christian college where my children attended. He told me that they were very transparent—that they were what they appeared to be. Jesus highly complimented one of His disciples, Nathanael, for his transparency at their first meeting, declaring, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no deceit!” (John 1:47 John 1:47Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and said of him, Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!
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, emphasis added).

Seven characteristics of a true leader

How, then, is a true leader identified? The following characteristics—again, not comprehensive—are taken from scriptural teachings and biblical examples.

1. True leaders begin with humility. Humility is the singular key to divine knowledge, spiritual understanding and godly wisdom. Without humility, one cannot be taught. If one is not teachable, he or she cannot learn and grow. Godly wisdom, riches and honor begin with humility toward our Creator, Sustainer and Savior (Proverbs 15:33 Proverbs 15:33The fear of the LORD is the instruction of wisdom; and before honor is humility.
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; 22:4). Only a humble person can be taught God’s words of eternal life to then be able share them with others.

2. True leaders love people. God has placed human beings on the earth to learn to love Him and each other, unconditionally. If we can learn the great lesson of loving our neighbor, encapsulated in the last six of the Ten Commandments, then we are indeed true leaders of and for God.

3. True leaders are inclusive. This is in accordance with God’s creation of all people in His image and His intent to save everyone who does not ultimately reject Him. If the inclusive leader sees some who are shy or passive, he tries to bring them into the group and encourages them to share themselves with others.

4. True leaders serve others. God intends all true leaders to serve others, not to seek to be served by them. Jesus said He came to serve, not to be served—and we are to follow His example (Luke 22:26-27 Luke 22:26-27 26 But you shall not be so: but he that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that does serve. 27 For whether is greater, he that sits at meat, or he that serves? is not he that sits at meat? but I am among you as he that serves.
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; 1 Peter 2:21-23 1 Peter 2:21-23 21 For even hereunto were you called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow his steps: 22 Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: 23 Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judges righteously:
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). Anyone who understands God’s purpose for humankind knows that serving others is the sure road to spiritual and everlasting success. God will ultimately raise human beings who unconditionally and faithfully serve others to His level of existence forever.

5. True leaders aren’t envious of others. Envy can and will consume a person who aspires to lead others for the wrong reasons. Often people go through their entire lives not realizing that they are envious of others’ successes, though others may see it. Envy is defined as resentment against another believed to enjoy an advantage with a
desire to have that same advantage. Envy doesn’t come from God but the god of this world, who is consumed by his envy of humankind’s ultimate destiny (Job 1:8-11 Job 1:8-11 8 And the LORD said to Satan, Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that fears God, and eschews evil? 9 Then Satan answered the LORD, and said, Does Job fear God for nothing? 10 Have not you made an hedge about him, and about his house, and about all that he has on every side? you have blessed the work of his hands, and his substance is increased in the land. 11 But put forth your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.
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; 1 Corinthians 6:3 1 Corinthians 6:3Know you not that we shall judge angels? how much more things that pertain to this life?
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; Hebrews 1:13-14 Hebrews 1:13-14 13 But to which of the angels said he at any time, Sit on my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool? 14 Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation?
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).

6. True leaders value and strive for good character. Good character is difficult to come by because it does not come naturally. It comes through self-denying sacrifice in serving God and others (Matthew 16:24-25 Matthew 16:24-25 24 Then said Jesus to his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. 25 For whoever will save his life shall lose it: and whoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.
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)—persevering even through hardship (Romans 5:4 Romans 5:4And patience, experience; and experience, hope:
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). True character comes from God (James 1:17 James 1:17Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom is no ficklenss, neither shadow of turning.
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). It’s learned (Hebrews 5:14 Hebrews 5:14But strong meat belongs to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.
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) on a daily basis (2 Corinthians 4:16 2 Corinthians 4:16For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day.
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) by striving to overcome the evil downward pulls of one’s human nature with God’s help through Christ (Galatians 2:20 Galatians 2:20I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.
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).

7. True leaders emulate great leaders. True leaders are made, not born. Indeed, truly great leaders follow the greatest of all leaders ever born, Jesus the Christ, the very Son of God the Father. He led the way in loving others and laying down His life for them—as He also expects of us (John 15:12-14 John 15:12-14 12 This is my commandment, That you love one another, as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. 14 You are my friends, if you do whatever I command you.
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). This is where daily Bible study and prayer come into play. True leadership is available only in and through God’s Word.

The perfect true leader

Every four years, God allows people in the United States to learn the hard lessons of presidential partisan politics. Each party extols its candidate and promotes deleterious, harmful stories about its rival, chauvinistically. We need to recognize that the way of the world is highly corrosive and destructive—while God’s way of serving and sacrificing for others is constructive and healing (Hebrews 8:1-12 Hebrews 8:1-12 1 Now of the things which we have spoken this is the sum: We have such an high priest, who is set on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens; 2 A minister of the sanctuary, and of the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, and not man. 3 For every high priest is ordained to offer gifts and sacrifices: why it is of necessity that this man have somewhat also to offer. 4 For if he were on earth, he should not be a priest, seeing that there are priests that offer gifts according to the law: 5 Who serve to the example and shadow of heavenly things, as Moses was admonished of God when he was about to make the tabernacle: for, See, said he, that you make all things according to the pattern showed to you in the mount. 6 But now has he obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also he is the mediator of a better covenant, which was established on better promises. 7 For if that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second. 8 For finding fault with them, he said, Behold, the days come, said the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah: 9 Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they continued not in my covenant, and I regarded them not, said the Lord. 10 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, said the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people: 11 And they shall not teach every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest. 12 For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more.
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).

In an illuminating book titled The Leadership Lessons of Jesus: A Timeless Model for Today’s Leaders, authors Bob Briner and Ray Pritchard write:

“In the Jewish society of that day—as in most societies of every generation—there was a huge emphasis on power, position, prestige, and titles. ‘Who’s number one?’ is still the operative question. At that point [when His disciples disputed among themselves about this], he could have rebuked them again, but instead he chose this moment for an unforgettable teaching experience. ‘To be first, you must be last!’ [See Mark 9:33-35 Mark 9:33-35 33 And he came to Capernaum: and being in the house he asked them, What was it that you disputed among yourselves by the way? 34 But they held their peace: for by the way they had disputed among themselves, who should be the greatest. 35 And 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.
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.]

“None of Jesus’ leadership lessons may seem more paradoxical than the servant/leader concept, which is, in fact, the very essence of both his leadership example and his leadership teaching. The concept of the servant/leader is difficult for many to grasp today, in part because our leadership literature espouses just the opposite, glorifying a different kind of leader altogether. 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.

“Think about it. If you’re leading a company and you put your employees, colleagues, and customers first, you are on the road to success. On the other hand, if the bottom line comes first no matter what, you are likely headed for abuses and disaster. Actually, the lessons of Jesus only seem to be paradoxical. They are, in fact, clear-eyed, ultimately workable, and eminently practical. Best of all, they work in time and for eternity” (2008, pp. 182-183).

God calls the weak of the world to become spiritually strong so as to lead and teach the rest of humanity God’s true way of living, which leads to life everlasting! “God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1:27-29 1 Corinthians 1:27-29 27 But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God has chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; 28 And base things of the world, and things which are despised, has God chosen, yes, and things which are not, to bring to nothing things that are: 29 That no flesh should glory in his presence.
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, NLT).

At Christ’s second coming, when He sets up His glorious Kingdom on earth at Jerusalem, He will also establish His then-immortal saints, true leaders all, as ruling judges under Him of human beings and angels (1 Corinthians 6:2-3 1 Corinthians 6:2-3 2 Do you not know that the saints shall judge the world? and if the world shall be judged by you, are you unworthy to judge the smallest matters? 3 Know you not that we shall judge angels? how much more things that pertain to this life?
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) and as His priests (Revelation 5:10 Revelation 5:10And have made us to our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth.
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) who will teach all humankind in the right way to live (Isaiah 30:20-21 Isaiah 30:20-21 20 And though the Lord give you the bread of adversity, and the water of affliction, yet shall not your teachers be removed into a corner any more, but your eyes shall see your teachers: 21 And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, This is the way, walk you in it, when you turn to the right hand, and when you turn to the left.
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; Daniel 12:3 Daniel 12:3And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever.
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).

Jesus Christ possesses the thoughts and actions of a true leader, the loving ingredients of what makes a true leader. By following Him, you too can become a true leader in a world that cries out for good, true leadership!