There is a falsehood about being a true leader that is one of the filthiest lies Satan whispers in the ear of our comfortable and entitled generation.
From before we can even remember, we have been indoctrinated, at nearly every turn, with the idea that being “a leader” means getting the gold star. Leadership is a form of recognition, a kind of accomplishment, the path to privilege. Being declared a leader is like winning an award or being identified among the gifted.
What Is a True Leader?
Leadership is a form of success. And since you can do whatever you dream, and can achieve whatever you set your mind to, you too can be a leader—at home, at work, in the community, in the church. Why would you settle for anything less? Leadership means privilege, and no generation has considered itself more entitled to privilege than ours.
The Lie About Being a True Leader
The world’s spin on leadership is in the air of our society, felt in the subtext of our adolescence, and reinforced in our public elections. We are swimming in it everywhere we turn. Why follow when you can lead? Why contribute to the glory of another when you can be the chief beneficiary instead?
As novel and inspiriting as it may seem, it’s a very old deception. From the garden, to the history of Israel, to the Middle Ages, to our innate notions about leadership today, the natural, human, sinful way to think about leadership is to be king of the hill. To view leadership as the ascent to honor and privilege, rather than the descent to attend to the needs of others.
One of the distinct marks of Satan’s influence in a society—evidence that the god of this world is blinding unbelievers en masse—is that leaders lord their leadership over those for whom they are supposed to care. The lie may be as prominent (and embraced) today as it’s ever been, but by no means is it new.
A True Leader Does Not Lord It Over
The voice that calls most clearly for the true path of leadership—leadership as sacrifice, not privilege—is Jesus himself. He warned sharply against both the pagan and religious leaders of his day who sought to use their people for their own benefit, rather than serve.
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matt 20.25–28; also Mark 10.42–45)
Jesus summons us to have a distinctly Christian perspective on leadership. And if these words from Jesus on the nature of true leadership weren’t enough, he made it unforgettable, on the night before his death, on his knees with a washbowl and towel in his hand.
“If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.” (John 13.14–15)
A True Leader Sacrifices for Their Joy
The apostle Peter, who led the apostles as first among equals, strikes the same clear note for a distinct vision in the church. Christian pastor-elders are to serve “not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:2–3).
For a follower of Jesus, greatness in leadership is not defined by how many you have beneath you, but how consistently and significantly you are led by the Holy Spirit to make personal sacrifices to serve the true needs of others. Christian leadership, as captured by John Piper, is “knowing where God wants people to be and taking the initiative to use God’s methods to get them there in reliance on God’s power.” And taking such initiative is typically another way of saying “sacrifice.” Initiative is personally costly.