Everywhere we look we see a great need for real leadership. But what is real leadership? What is its foundation? Can someone be a good leader without displaying real leadership?
by Jerold Aust
The U.S. presidential election transcends American politics, because the reality is that the U.S. president wields enormous power. The United States and its policies have a profound affect on many nations' economies and their quality of life.
American voters will soon determine who will occupy the most powerful position in the world, but only after carefully scripted campaigns designed to present the candidates in the most favorable light—as the epitome of leadership, compassion, strength and wisdom—run their course.
Both men have tried to be all things to all people, so inevitably the country will be disappointed when the winning candidate fails to live up to the high expectations.
Leaders and leadership aren't always the same
If we ever needed real leadership, now is the time. This campaign should cause us to consider several crucial questions: What is real leadership? Does God view leadership differently than most people do? How does He define leadership? And how can we apply it?
Some leaders assume that since they occupy positions as leaders, they automatically exhibit leadership. But this is not accurate. While a leader is generally defined as someone who is over a country, organization or group of people, the quality of leadership concerns how a leader acts toward others.
If a leader views himself as elevated above others and them beneath him, he is unlikely to be a good leader. His perspective erodes the respect others have of him. While he may think everything is fine, others secretly lament his approach toward them. As Proverbs 29:2 tells us, "When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice; but when a wicked man rules, the people groan."
Too many people in authority falsely equate their positions as leaders with being automatically smarter and better than those they lead. Conversely, a good leader is inclusive, honorable and fair, compassionate and merciful, and honors others. His leadership is clearly with humility (see Micah 6:8).
Good leadership is serving those who are led
Ideally, the terms leader and leadership should go hand in hand. Sadly, in many cases these terms are contradictory. Yet leaders can develop good leadership over time, like that of the first U.S. president, George Washington.
The greatest leaders are characterized not by wielding great power, but by their humility and service to those they lead. George Washington was such a leader—a true public servant.
Many presidential observers cite various characteristics that made George Washington an effective leader. The quality least cited is intellect, possibly because he was surrounded by such luminaries as Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.
Pulitzer Prize–winning author Joseph Ellis wrote admiringly of Washington's leadership even in the midst of such brilliant men: "It seemed to me that Benjamin Franklin was wiser than Washington ; Alexander Hamilton was more brilliant; John Adams was better read; Thomas Jefferson was more intellectually sophisticated; James Madison was more politically astute. Yet each and all of these prominent figures acknowledged that Washington was their unquestioned superior.
"Within the gallery of greats so often mythologized and capitalized as Founding Fathers, Washington was recognized as primus inter pares, the Foundingest Father of them all. Why was that? . . . I have looked for an answer, which lies buried within the folds of the most ambitious, determined, and potent personality of an age not lacking for worthy rivals" (His Excellency: George Washington, 2004, p. xiv).
Early in Washington 's military career (1755), while serving as a colonel with the Virginia troops under the direction of the British army's Gen. Edward Braddock, he and his fellow soldiers engaged, quite accidentally, a large detachment of French and Indians. The French and Indians spread out in a semicircle and started firing.
The Virginia troops rushed to fight the enemy at close quarters. Ironically, they were caught in the crossfire between the Indians and the British, which nearly wiped them out. The seasoned Braddock, fearless and stubborn, rode into the fracas to rally the men but was cut down with wounds to his chest and shoulder.
"With Braddock down and the other aides-de-camp casualties, it fell to Washington to rally the remnants. Riding back and forth amidst the chaos, two horses were shot out beneath him and four musket balls pierced his coat, but he escaped without a scratch, while, as he put it, 'death was levelling my companions on every side of me'" (p. 22).
Washington became a hero by rallying the survivors to retreat in an orderly manner, saving many lives by risking his own.
"His specialty seemed to be exhibiting courage in lost causes, or, as one newspaper account put it, he had earned 'a high Reputation for Military Skill, Integrity, and Valor; tho' Success has not always attended his Undertakings.' There was even talk—it was the first occasion—that his remarkable capacity to endure marked him as a man of destiny" (p. 23).
A servant to his country
A contemporary, Samuel Davies, wrote of the future president as "that heroic youth Col. Washington, who I cannot but hope Providence has hitherto preserved in so signal a Manner for some important Service to his Country" (ibid.).
Time, opportunity, charisma and experience elevated George Washington to prominence. His exploits in the French and Indian War made him a seasoned hero.
As hostilities spread following the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress unanimously elected and designated Washington as the general and commander in chief of the Continental Army on June 15, 1775, for several reasons. They knew they could trust him. He was a man of wealth, less tempted to corruption. He was a fearless, determined and competent leader who shared a common vision with the Colonial leaders.
The impression Washington made upon those he led and many members of Congress was significant. "The feeling was that if he, George Washington, who had so much, was willing to risk 'his all,' however daunting the odds, then who were they to equivocate. That he was also serving without pay was widely taken as further evidence of the genuineness of his commitment" (David McCullough, 1776, 2005, p. 48).
He served in that capacity through the end of the war, but rather than pursue additional power, he resigned his commission and retired to his estate. Offered the kingship of the new country, he reportedly responded that he hadn't fought a war against Britain's King George the third to become America's King George the first.
In 1789 the electoral college unanimously elected him as the first president of the federal republic of the United States, then unanimously reelected him in 1792. After reluctantly serving his second term, he again surrendered great power and refused any further terms to retire to Mount Vernon.
When Washington died two years later, he was eulogized by one of his former generals as "first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen." So respected was he that his former adversaries in the British navy flew their flags at half-mast.
Washington was memorialized as the father of his country, his likeness later chiseled onto Mount Rushmore and printed on the omnipresent one-dollar bill. His timeless principles of leadership set a high and lasting standard for all aspiring political leaders.
Another president sets a lasting standard
Less than a century passed before another historical giant led the United States through a bloody civil war and ended, in part, the stain of slavery. Abraham Lincoln, 16th U.S. president, transformed the country and paid the ultimate price, killed by the bullet of an assassin.
Many books have been written about President Lincoln, but few about his leadership. One stands out: Donald Phillips' Lincoln on Leadership (1992).
"In order to comprehend modern leadership theory and be successful in the future, leaders must look to the past—to President Abraham Lincoln, for example—who routinely practiced nearly all of the 'revolutionary thinking' techniques that have been preached to American industry in the last ten to fifteen years," Phillips wrote.
"Lincoln can be looked to as the ideal model for desirable, effective leadership. He is the perfect example of . . . a 'transforming leader'—a person who aims for the evolution of a new level of awareness and understanding among all members of an organization. Such a leader rejects the use of naked power and instead attempts to motivate and mobilize followers by persuading them to take ownership of their roles in a more grand mission that is shared by all members of the organization" (p. 172).
President Lincoln's example instructs leaders to know the people they serve. For Lincoln during the Civil War, that meant "get out of the office and circulate among the troops" (p. 13).
Not all of his generals did this. When Lincoln relieved Gen. John C. Fremont of his command in 1861, he focused on this leadership requirement: "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" (p. 13). "Freemont . . . was completely out of touch with those he commanded and the situation at hand" (p. 14).
Remarkably, Lincoln was a century ahead of his time. "Lincoln revealed the cornerstone of his own personal leadership philosophy, an approach that would become part of a revolution in modern leadership thinking 100 years later when it was dubbed MBWA (Managing by Wandering Around) by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman in their 1982 book In Search of Excellence" (p. 14).
How "Honest Abe" earned his name
Presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln acquired the moniker "Honest Abe" during the campaign of 1860, but he'd earned it years earlier. During the early 1830s, Lincoln partnered with William Berry to run a general store. However, they ran up a debt he was left with after his partner died in 1835. Although it took him years, Lincoln repaid the $1,100 they owed—a huge sum in those times.
Lincoln led by being led. To bring peace to those he served, he would bring them together to work out their differences. Such was the case of a jealous secretary of the treasury, Salmon Chase, who rallied some senators to accuse Secretary of State William Seward before President Lincoln. The president got them together to talk out the situation. In the process, Chase suddenly realized that he had revealed his hidden agenda. He admitted Seward was not guilty and submitted his resignation.
"So what's the lesson to be learned from this episode? Many corporate leaders will recognize Lincoln's method because it is an often-used technique. They get all the members of feuding departments together, lock them in a conference room . . . and compel them to stay together until peace is made . . .
"Had he dictated [to them], they may have accepted his authority with great resentment. But the problem would not have gone away. It would have lingered and festered. By gathering the disputing parties, Lincoln let his subordinates lead themselves out of the mess" (p. 102).
Lincoln was known for never acting out of vengeance or spite and for being able to handle criticism, even if unjust. Author Bruce Barton, in his book The Man Nobody Knows, describes a revealing incident from Lincoln's life that took place during the dark days of the Civil War:
"An important man left the White House in Washington for the War Office, with a letter from the President to the Secretary of War [Edwin Stanton]. In a very few minutes he was back in the White House again, bursting with indignation.
"The President looked up in mild surprise. 'Did you give the message to Stanton?' he asked.
"The other man nodded, too angry for words.
"'What did he do?'
"'He tore it up,' exclaimed the outraged citizen, 'and what's more, sir, he said you are a fool.'
"The President rose slowly from the desk, stretching his long frame to its full height, and regarding the wrath of the other with a quizzical glance.
"'Did Stanton call me that?' he asked.
"'He did, sir, and repeated it.'
"'Well,' said the President with a dry laugh, 'I reckon it must be true then, because Stanton is generally right.'
"The angry gentleman waited for the storm to break, but nothing happened. Abraham Lincoln turned quietly to his desk and went on with his work" (1987, p. 3).
Lincoln not only kept his hardheaded secretary of war in office throughout his administration, but he eventually won him over. At Lincoln's death, the man who had once derided him as a fool lamented, "There lies the most perfect ruler of men the world has ever seen."
Another leader arises to save his country
Neither Abraham Lincoln nor George Washington sought to build empires, amass great personal wealth or gain power for themselves. Their leadership qualities helped save their country in times of great crisis, as did the leadership of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
The free world owes Sir Winston Churchill a sizable debt. Had it not been for his bold stand against Hitler's insatiable lust for power, post–World War II Europe (or much of it) might well have ended up under Nazi control.
Churchill's remarkable leadership is highlighted in a memorable speech he gave before the House of Commons on June 4, 1940, just after the British withdrawal from France. In one of his nation's darkest hours, he rallied his countrymen to stand firm in their time of peril:
"We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender."
Churchill became a symbol to the world of his country's determination to resist the Nazi domination of the continent. Through his dogged leadership, his countrymen stood against a bullying tyrant who threatened the free world—and they survived.
Tyrants left a deadly legacy
Regrettably, leaders like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill stand out because they were the exceptions, not the rule. History is filled with abusive leaders who mistreated and sacrificed others in their hunger for control. Often it was their own subjects, over whom they wielded life-or-death power.
The ancient Roman emperors often declared themselves gods. (One reportedly said on his deathbed, "I feel myself becoming a god!") With this mind-set, other people were useful only to the extent that they could satisfy the leaders' lust for power.
Three tyrannical leaders in the 20th century—Mao Tse-tung, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin—were responsible for more violent deaths than any before, in each case numbering tens of millions.
These dictators maintained their power by instilling fear in the masses on many levels. They eliminated rival institutions that might compete for loyalty, seized control of their educational systems for long-term influence, controlled the military structures and insisted on obedience to their personal opinions and whims.
It's mind-boggling that such leaders could have wielded such monstrous power in the 20th century. Yet these tyrants were followed by equally evil megalomaniacs such as Cambodia's Pol Pot, North Korea's Kim Il Sung and Iraq's Saddam Hussein, all of whom were responsible for the deaths of thousands to millions of their own countrymen in their quest to gain and maintain power.
Real leadership is rare
Sadly, real leadership—the kind of leadership the Bible says God wants to see—is rare and precious indeed. Jesus Christ defined for His disciples the perfect and principled leadership that really counts.
Before their conversion, the disciples naturally jockeyed for the most coveted positions. In response Jesus revealed to them the essence of true leadership:
"You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave —just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:25-28, emphasis added throughout).
If aspiring leaders were required to practice these leadership qualities today, we would go begging for candidates!
Christ's lesson on humility
God's perspective on leadership is very different from ours. In fact it's the polar opposite. "'For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,' says the Lord. 'For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts'" (Isaiah 55:8-9).
True leadership goes beyond shallow thinking, personal tastes and comfort zones. An effective leader understands and appreciates the need for sacrifice and service toward others. He is focused on helping others more than on helping himself.
Jesus Christ emphasized sacrificing for and serving others. When His disciples asked Him, "Who then is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" He directed their attention to a little child and said that unless they became like children, humble and receptive, they could not enter His Kingdom (Matthew 18:1-4).
The book of Proverbs confirms the relationship between leader and leadership: "Before honor is humility" (Proverbs 15:33).
To a good leader, everyone is valuable
Another great leadership principle Jesus taught is that every individual is important to a good leader, just as that individual is important to God.
"If a man has a hundred sheep," said Jesus, "and one of them goes astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine and go to the mountains to seek the one that is straying? And if he should find it, assuredly, I say to you, he rejoices more over that sheep than over the ninety-nine that did not go astray. Even so it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish" (Matthew 18:12-14).
A leader displays good leadership when he is willing to go back and restore a person who went astray rather than write him off.
Perhaps the greatest example of real leadership took place even as Jesus was dying. Experiencing great pain and aware of His imminent death, Jesus mercifully looked down on those responsible for His crucifixion and prayed for them, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do" (Luke 23:34). Vengeance and getting even simply weren't part of His thinking.
A good leader will reach beyond his physical needs to help others even if they hate him (Matthew 5:44). This is why God the Father extols Jesus Christ's supreme example of leadership:
"Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!
"Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Philippians 2:5-11, New International Version).
This is the attitude of a true servant leader, one who is willing to surrender all so that others might reach their ultimate God-given potential. One day, the entire world will experience this kind of humble, serving leadership when Christ establishes His Kingdom here on earth!
Christ's leadership in His coming Kingdom
You may have recited the Lord's Prayer and the part that requests and acknowledges "Your kingdom come" and "Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven" (Matthew 6:10). But do you know that this verse also foretells the thousand-year rest that Christ will bring to the earth mentioned in Revelation 20:4?
God the Father has promised that Jesus will return to set up His Kingdom of peace and prosperity. That is God's will to be done on this earth.
Another prophecy that talks about this coming Kingdom and God's will being carried out on earth is found in Isaiah 9:6-7:
"For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this" (NIV).
Jesus Christ will establish His peace on earth in justice and righteousness. Godly justice comes only from God's commandments (Psalm 119:172). Christ's leadership will be based on God's commandments, which bring about permanent peace (Matthew 5:17-19; 19:17; John 14:27; 1 John 5:3; James 3:17-18). Without God's law, there can be no real or true leadership and certainly no peace.
When Christ returns, He will first dispatch all human tyrants who will gather to fight against Him at Jerusalem (Revelation 16:14, 16; 19:11-21; Zechariah 14:1-12). He will then remove Satan and the demons by binding them for 1,000 years (Revelation 20:1-3).
The prophet Isaiah describes Jesus Christ's leadership for us at that time: "The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord—and he will delight in the fear of the Lord .
"He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash round his waist.
"The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them . . . They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea" (Isaiah 11:2-9, NIV).
This is God's wonderful promise of a world finally at peace under right leadership!
God's exciting plan for you as a leader
So how does Jesus' leadership apply to you today?
There is no better time to compare current political campaigns and presidential promises to real leadership principles. Although we cannot change modern political leadership and its guaranteed disappointment, we can change ourselves to become better leaders.
God invites us to surrender our lives now (Luke 14:26-27), along with our way of doing things (Matthew 20:25-28), so we can be part of a very different kind of leadership promised to the world (Revelation 3:21; 1:6).
At Christ's return, those who have truly surrendered their lives to Him and remained faithful will teach all nations a new way of thinking that begins with a service-oriented change of heart, based on God's spiritual laws (Hebrews 8:10-11).
Will you accept His invitation to become a true leader? The reward for doing so is beyond your wildest imagination! GN
Jesus Christ: The Real Story
What made Jesus Christ such an outstanding leader? How did the teachings of a man condemned to death as a criminal transform the world? What was His mission, His purpose, His teaching? Most important of all, what does it all mean for you?
Leadership: A Biblical Perspective
What does God look for in a leader? Does He expect certain standards and behavior in a person chosen for a role of leadership and service to others?
What Is True Leadership?
Which ingredients make an effective leader? And what makes some leaders take tragic courses for themselves and their fellowmen?
Where Have All the Leaders Gone?
In an ocean of six billion people, humanity is awash with a surplus of sinners and a shortage of saints. What the world needs now are leaders who rise above the tide to improve human conditions.