What makes a great leader?

There's a question that I started asking when I was a young man, that I continue to ask today. I wanted to know, "What makes a great leader?" When I was a child, my aunt had an almanac that contained a lot of interesting information, including profiles of every U.S. President. Every time I visited, I used to sit down and read that thing. Eventually, after years of pouring through it, she gave it to me and I still have it. I was fascinated by reading the stories of the leaders it spoke about.

Growing up, I worked in our family grocery store. As a child, I observed the leadership of my grandfather, father, and uncle as they ran the business. I watched them hire, fire, and interact with employees. I observed and participated in the strict and sometimes severe ways they treated shoplifters. It was a very helpful context in which to learn leadership principles.

In the years that followed, I worked in various contexts alongside different bosses. Some were excellent leaders and some were terrible. Some I admired and copied and others I appreciated in a different way because they helped me learn what it felt like to serve under a bad, unethical, or ineffective leader.

You may or may not consider yourself a leader, but if you have any form of influence in the life of someone else, you are, at least to them, a leader. And if the Lord has given you the privilege to influence others at home, in society, at work, online, or in the church, it's worth asking the question, "What makes a great leader?" Thankfully, we find some answers to that question in God's word.


1. They keep Christ front and center in their thinking

So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: 
— 1 Peter 5:1, ESV

After Christ's resurrection and ascension, the Apostle Peter became one of the most recognizable leaders in the early church. He had been called and equipped by the Lord to serve in the capacity he served in, and he was highly invested in the spiritual health of the church as a whole. As someone who had been transformed in every way by Jesus Christ, he wanted the church to experience a deep relationship with Jesus that would grow continually more mature.

Peter speaks of himself as an elder in the church. That term is often used synonymously with the term pastor or shepherd. An elder is someone with spiritual oversight in the church body. And even though Peter was the most visible leader in that era of church history, he considered himself a fellow elder with those who shared the task of looking after the spiritual well-being of the early church.

Peter challenged those who served in this role as someone who also wanted to live up to the challenge he was giving. He wanted them to lead while keeping Jesus Christ on the forefront of their minds. Peter reminded them of both the suffering of Christ and the soon to be revealed glory of Christ. He didn't want these leaders to approach their leadership as if Jesus was an afterthought.

Great leaders keep Jesus front and center in their thinking because He is the ultimate example of leadership and He is the one through whom Christian leaders receive their strength to lovingly lead. Let's be honest, dangerous things take place when leaders take their eyes off Jesus. They run the risk of elevating their own preferences above His will. They run the risk of minimizing the presence of sin in their life. They run the risk of overemphasizing human comparisons, and they run the risk of burning themselves out by relying on their own strength. But great leaders, the kind of leaders Christ is seeking to raise up, keep Him front and center in their thinking.


2. They say "yes" to God with the right motives

shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; 
— 1 Peter 5:2, ESV

My wife and I noticed something interesting about our son, Jay, when he was about three-years-old. We noticed that he exhibited a protective instinct toward his siblings and toward younger children in general. We lived in a house that had a tall, uncarpeted, wooden staircase. It was easy to slip on if you were only wearing socks. It was also something we wanted to make sure our son Daniel, who had just learned to crawl, wouldn't go near because we didn't want him to fall down it. Jay watched him like a hawk. I'll never forget seeing him block access to those stairs with his body whenever Daniel got close to them. And if we weren't right there when it happened, Jay would call out to one of us for help. He wasn't doing this because anyone forced him. He did this out of genuine concern for his younger brother's well-being.

I think this is a good picture of the concept of shepherding that Peter speaks about in this passage. Christ loves His family. He cares for our well-being. He desires that we hold fast to beliefs that are in line with the Gospel, and reject false beliefs that conflict with sound doctrine. He wants us to live in joyful obedience toward Him, and to aid us in that process, He has appointed people to shepherd His flock.

When the Lord calls someone to serve as pastor or shepherd, it can be challenging to say yes to that call. It's a call to care about the well-being of others enough that you're willing to maintain a healthy level of spiritual oversight over their lives. It's also a calling that comes with sacrifice and pain because of the nature of some of the kinds of demands that this task will make on you. But if God calls you to lead in this kind of way, say "yes."

And if you say "yes" to this calling, do so, not as someone who feels like their arm was being twisted, and not as someone who is looking to gain something worldly (money, notoriety, control) but as someone who is willing to use your life however God wants you to use it. The blood of Christ was shed to purchased your freedom. You don't belong to yourself anymore, and you never really did. Say "yes" to God with the right motives as one who belongs to Him.


3. They build others up instead of tearing them down

not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.
— 1 Peter 5:3, ESV

For quite a while, a friend of mine served as a youth pastor at a medium-sized church. The Lord blessed his ministry and quite a few students came to know Jesus. In time, however, his ability to serve there was severely limited because the senior pastor became jealous of the growth of the youth group. He responded by becoming unfairly critical of my friend and his leadership style, and he used his role to try to assert an unhealthy level of control over him.

Unfortunately, with human nature being what it is, this happens sometimes. On occasion, people rise to positions of leadership that they aren't spiritually or emotionally prepared to handle. For this reason, Peter cautioned leaders not to be domineering in their style of leadership. Rather, they were called to be examples of godliness to those they led.

Domineering leadership, as Peter uses that word, is arrogant leadership. Domineering leadership is unfair and overbearing. Domineering leaders are fearful and insecure. They tear others down in an attempt to secure their role or make themselves look better. But Christ-like leaders do the opposite. They humbly and sacrificially lead, with the goal of building others up by serving as an example of the grace and mercy of Christ to those they oversee. Great leaders reflect the heart of Christ in their leadership.


4. They are content with what Jesus has in store for them

And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. 
— 1 Peter 5:4, ESV

One of the things the Lord has convinced me of is that if He calls you to any form of leadership, He is simultaneously calling you to be sacrificial. Realistically, He doesn't call us to do anything He wasn't willing to do first. In most forms of vocational Christian leadership, you will be able to calculate the hours you put in, the kind of things you're expected to excel at, and the education you'll be required to get as a prerequisite, and realize that you'd be able to make a better living doing something else. But don't let that worry you.

No matter what your vocation, if you have Jesus, you have everything you need. And if He calls you to sacrifice things that could have been yours in this world for the purpose of serving in a role He's led you to, don't forget the promise found in this passage. When Jesus, our chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. Your faithfulness to the task the Lord has entrusted to you does not go unnoticed by Him. In the short term, it's possible you might have a few less toys, but in the long term, you'll be quite pleased with what He has waiting for you.


5. They are willing to be led by others

Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
— 1 Peter 5:5, ESV

One final thing that this passage brings to light regarding leadership is the importance of being willing to be led by others. There are some people in this world who prefer to lead, but hate to follow. Yet, as members of the body of Christ, we're clearly told in Scripture that we're interdependent. We all need one another. We all need the counsel and influence of the different people, personalities, and gifts that make up our Christian family. 

For the body does not consist of one member but of many..... The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”
— 1 Corinthians 12:14, 21, ESV

If you're younger by age or younger in the faith, as an act of humility, subject yourself to your elders or those who are further along in the faith. Seek their counsel. Follower their example. Don't rush to take offense if they express an idea that's challenging to you. Likewise, those who are older, make a point to communicate that you value and respect those who are younger than you. Within the church there should always be a steady, mutual expression of humility toward each other. Pride and arrogance have no place in the house of God. In fact, this Scripture reminds us that God opposes the proud, but grants unmerited favor toward those who walk in humility.

Walter Cronkite recalls the following incident: Sailing back down the Mystic River in Connecticut and following the channel’s tricky turns through an expanse of shallow water, I am reminded of the time a boatlaod of young people sped past us here, its occupants shouting and waving their arms. I waved back a cheery greeting and my wife said, “Do you know what they were shouting?” “Why, it was ‘Hello, Walter,’“ I replied. “No,” she said. “They were shouting, “Low water, Low water.’“ Such are the pitfalls of fame’s egotism.
— Ray Ellis and Walter Cronkite, North by Northeast

For Christ's glory, leaders and followers who bear the name of Christ are called to keep Him first in their thinking, say "yes" to Him with the right motives, build others up instead of tearing them down, be content with what Jesus has in store for them, and remain willing to be led by others. These are traits that were first exemplified in Christ, and as we press on toward a deeper appreciation of Him, He calls us to rely on Him to produce this kind of fruit in our living and our leadership.