Authentic Leadership: An Honest Reflection on God’s Intentional Design

Published in INSIGHT - Fall 2016
By Tony Morgan

There are many places you can go to find out about leadership. You can interview leaders. You can be mentored by leaders. You can listen to keynote speeches and sermons given by leaders. You can read or listen to books written by leaders, and in today’s socially connected world, you can even follow leaders both on and off the platform. 

Leadership remains elusive even among other leaders. With everything out there on the subject, I thought this would have been settled by now, but there remains a gap in our understanding of the source and discipline of leadership. There is not a gap the leadership offered by a position of authority, but rather, leadership that captivates, motivates, and moves people to work together on a common mission to achieve a collective goal.

It is important to wrestle through what it means to be a leader based on how God defines it. Without a biblical perspective, my leadership style can start to look a lot more like the world’s standard or even other pastor’s instead of God’s—and I want to make sure everything I am doing is about the mission, not me.

It is true that we church leaders can learn from business leaders, but the corporate world should not set the foundation from which we lead. We can also learn from fellow church leaders, but they are also human and do not provide a perfect model for biblical leadership. 

When we look to other leaders, we are essentially holding on to our traditions rather than embracing the truth about leadership found in God’s Word. The Bible needs to become our filter for truth in every area of our life and ministry. Just because we see other leaders doing it does not mean that is how God designed it.

Not only has He defined leadership roles in the church, but He has also expressly defined how leaders are supposed to act. Frankly, sometimes I see a gap between God’s design for leadership and how we live out our leadership roles.

Leadership is a gift. It is among the list of spiritual gifts listed in Scripture: If God has given you leadership ability, take the responsibility seriously. (Romans 12:8 NLT) Preceding that thought, the Bible says, God has given us different gifts for doing certain things well. (Romans 12:6 NLT) This suggests that some people have leadership abilities, but others do not. We are all followers, but not all of us are leaders. Although everyone can learn leadership skills, not everyone is gifted to be a leader. 

One of the first questions you need to answer is this: “Am I really a leader?”

It is interesting that of all the roles outside the church, God chose the shepherd to be the model of leadership within the church. When you think business titan or political leader, you probably do not think of someone herding sheep. God’s way is different, though. He wants leaders who are ready to serve. He wants people who will not lord their leadership powers over those entrusted to their care.

Jesus, of course, was the perfect example of embracing and championing this servant leader approach. You would not typically think leaders are first servants, but that is how Jesus designed it. Most of what makes us a servant leader is our attitude toward ourselves and others.

The key to servant leadership is having an attitude of humility. Rather than focusing on ambitions and personal interests, Paul suggests we first consider the interests of others. Here is what I know about the interests of others: They are sometimes different from mine. It takes a confident, yet humble, leader to follow God’s calling in his or her life, while also considering the interests of others. We have to live in that tension to experience God’s design for the church. That is how we accomplish his purposes.

I am still a big proponent of clear vision in churches. A clear vision leads to a unified effort, which results in ministry impact. A clear vision also provides great freedom and empowerment for people to be who God created them to be. I have heard it described as freedom within a framework. That is essentially a picture of the Christian faith. There is more freedom for us if we stay within God’s designed framework. Leaders who empower the people around them believe:
    ● It is less about the leader and more about the God-ordained vision.
    ● It is less about the leader and more about those being led.
    ● It is less about the leader and more about the synergy of the body.

That is what I mean about leadership being less about the leader and more about those being led. Our role as leaders is to “equip God’s people to do His work.” The leader does not do the work—God’s people do His work. God’s people do not do the leaders’ work—they do God’s work.

We as church leaders do not tell people what to do to accomplish the vision. Instead, we help people discover their spiritual giftedness and free them to use these gifts to fulfill the vision. It is not delegation because with delegation I am still responsible. It is empowerment. Someone else is responsible, but as a leader, I still hold them accountable.

Leadership is not leadership if it is not released to others.

Leadership is less about the words or actions of the leader and more about the character of the leader. That is the conclusion I have reached.

I may be gifted to lead, but my character will determine the ongoing impact of my leadership. That is something that cannot be measured in an interview or through a personality profile or on a resume. Character is proven over a lifetime.

Leadership outside the church often looks different from what God intended it to be inside the church. That may explain some of the differences between how the Bible talks about leadership and what we routinely see in the marketplace.

Ironically, though, in the business bestseller Good to Great, Jim Collins said his research seemed to imply that business leaders would do well to model a more biblical approach to leadership.

We all need to wrestle with our theology of leadership because God has gifted some—not all—to be leaders. I do not subscribe to the idea that everyone is a leader. Everyone can lead, but that does not necessarily make them a leader. Some will lead, and others would follow. That is not popular, but we need both types of people to live in God’s intentional design.

Leadership is not easy, but hopefully, you now realize how often we make it harder than it should be. With the right focus on Jesus as the greatest leader of all time and a firm foundation in Scripture, you will gain significant clarity and experience leadership success that will impact your life and everyone with whom you come in contact.

Teaching and reading can shift thinking, but I am a big proponent of establishing new systems and strategies to shift behaviors. It is not enough simply to talk or think about leadership. Reflection should always result in new actions.

If we are going to live in the fullness of what it means to be a leader, then we must find a way to identify other leaders, build into them, challenge them, and create environments for them to grow in their thinking and doing.

Let me offer you a few suggestions:
    1. Identify growing leaders. Find people who are already influencing others.
    2. Gather the group. Learning is always better when it is interactive and in community with others.
    3. Establish an end date. Meet once a month for a pre-established time period, identifying when mentoring ends and putting knowledge into action begins.
    4. Start with the Bible. Use this as an opportunity to talk about healthy spiritual disciplines.
    5. Read through one leadership book each month. Stay focused. This mentoring group is about leadership development.
    6. Talk about current leadership challenges. Use “pressure points” at the workplace, at home, and in ministry to shape the conversation each month.
    7. Multiply the group. Challenge every person to repeat the previous six steps with another group of growing leaders.