“What is your primary leadership role?” I ask this question at the beginning of every Leadership class I teach and generally receive a wide range of responses. Some students point to a supervisory role at work, but more often than not they choose a volunteer leadership role at church, a youth sports league, or community organization. Students who are desperate for an answer will often fall back on their identity as mom or dad. They are all great answers but, truth be told, I’m not interested in any of those.
What I am actually on the lookout for are students who reply with some variation of, “I don’t have a leadership role.” This exercise is essential because it is extremely difficult for students to grasp and apply the course material unless it is grounded in personal experience. So it is critical that every student adopts the role of leader in at least one relationship. Plus, I’d be a miserable excuse for a professor if I allowed my students to participate in, much less pass, a leadership class while claiming not to have a leadership role.
I am presenting the same question here because leadership is one of the most basic ways we live out the character and mission of Christ (see Matthew 28:19, 20) so it is essential that you, just like the students, embrace your leader identity. Remember that anyone who is blessed with breath, a value system, and the opportunity to interact with another person can lead. A single conversation can influence an emotion, a decision, and even a belief system. And every time you help a coworker, family member, friend, or even a total stranger experience one of these outcomes, you are leading.
Hopefully you now have your primary leadership role in mind, or at least a person you are in a position to influence, because I’m going to ask you to use that relationship as a lab context to apply the following four strategies that emerge from Jesus’ ministry.
Leaning Into Your Identity
Identity is important because it affects how you see the world, view yourself, interpret your circumstances, and ultimately how you act. It’s not surprising, then, that Jesus defined his leadership role based on his identity—on who he is and whose he is. The first part points to his divine nature (Matthew 8:20; Mark 9:31; John 10:30). The second part points to his relationship with God the Father (John 5:17; Matthew 11:27; John 10:37). If this doesn’t seem important or relevant to you, remember that Christians are also God’s children (1 John 3:1) and that God’s “incomparably great power for us who believe . . . is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead” (Ephesians 1:19, 20). Your leadership potential is not determined by your ability, but by God’s power. Don’t shy away from exerting influence in your leadership context. Instead, lean into your identity in Christ, lead confidently, and trust God to show up and do what he does best.
Understanding Your Mission
A mission is critical to the success of any change effort. As Steven Covey says, highly effective leaders “begin with the end in mind.” Jesus was particularly strong in this discipline, which is a good thing because he faced a constant barrage of attacks and attempts to derail him, beginning with the temptations in the wilderness (see Matthew 4:1-11). He had to escape a crowd that tried to kill him prematurely (Luke 4:28-30) and even Peter challenged the inevitability of Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion and earned, “Get behind me, Satan!” for his troubles (Matthew 16:21-23). Jesus knew exactly what he had come to earth to accomplish and he was steadfast in his commitment to those outcomes. This level of intentionality is intimidating but it is essential if you want the people you lead to achieve their full potential. What goals would you like to see them accomplish? How would you like to see them grow? How do you want their life and circumstances to change? Write the goals and stay laser focused on bringing them to fruition.
Honesty is the foundation of any relationship. It is particularly important when leading because people are very good at seeing through insincerity and because half-truths short circuit the desired transformation process. Jesus was a master truth teller. He was not afraid to tell people the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. When he was approached by a rich man, Jesus got straight to the point (Matthew 19:16-22). When he met a woman who was living in an immoral relationship, Jesus didn’t mince words (John 4:7-18). And Jesus was even willing to speak truth to the establishment of the day. He challenged religious leaders about Sabbath rules (Luke 14:1-6), rebuffed their challenge about washing hands (Matthew 15:1-9), and flatly condemned them for their pride and false teaching (Matthew 23). Speaking truth is easy when you are conveying good news but it can be terribly awkward when you are conveying a critique, chastisement, or condemnation. Your effectiveness as a leader is dependent upon your honesty, so pray consistently for the people you lead, evaluate their performance and progress objectively and fairly, and then speak truth.
Loving Those You Lead
Love is often misunderstood and misapplied today, so it is important to clarify how God views it (see 1 Corinthians 13:4-8). Love is recognizing the inherent value and potential of every person. It involves meeting people where they are, not imposing artificial standards. Love is setting aside personal agendas for the sake of God’s plan. It is improving someone else’s immediate and eternal conditions with no concern for personal gain. Love is Jesus’ star competency. Even when he needed rest, Jesus had compassion on the crowds and ministered to them (Mark 6:31-34). He maintained the dignity, honor, and respect of a woman caught in adultery (John 8:3-11). And even when he was on the cross, Jesus showed love by praying for those who crucified him (Luke 23:34). This is an incredibly high bar to reach but Jesus said, “Love each other as I have loved you” (John 15:12), so we are compelled to try. What does this look like in your primary leadership role? Learn the individual hopes, dreams, and fears of the people you lead and allow that information to help you interact with them in ways that reflect the love that God has shown you.
No matter who you are, God is calling you to be a positive influence on the people he puts in your path, no matter how casual or brief the interaction. Leadership can be scary, messy, and complex, but don’t fear. You are not left to your own devices. God provides the power, Jesus provides the pattern, and all you have to do is pray, plan, and perform. And when you see life change take place as a result of your influence, your life and leadership will never be the same again.
Dr. Jeffrey Derico serves as Content Specialist for the Center for Church Leadership (Cincinnati, Ohio), Adjunct Professor at Cincinnati Christian University, and Board Member for the Center for Global Impact (Indianapolis, Indiana).