In my 40+ years of experience following leaders in fields of business as well as churches and missions organizations, I’ve identified one factor that, for me, is the greatest single differentiator between a good leader and a poor one. Want to hear what that is? Hands down, it’s security.

Whether in the workplace or church, I love to follow a secure leader. By “secure”, I mean a man or a woman who understands their role, knows their responsibilities, and who is not intimidated, driven or directed by others’ opinions.  While they do listen to others and seek input, their vision and decision making are not dictated by fear of what others might think or the need to impress or appease others.

On the other hand, insecure leaders manifest a number of destructive traits: over-sized and frail egos, intimidated by talented people who might overshadow them, prone to flip-flops in direction, or paralysis when the situation requires making a tough call. You can probably make your own list or add to this one.

Jesus Set the Standard

Jesus set the standard for secure and servant leadership.

In 1 Peter 5:5b, we read, “All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, ‘God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.’”

The Greek word translated as “clothe yourselves” literally means to “put on the garment of a servant.”  Most Bible scholars believe that Peter is referring to the last supper of Christ. In John 13:3-5 it’s recorded that “Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet…”  When he finished, he told them in verse 15, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”

I see a couple of very important lessons for us in this scripture:

  • “Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God.” Jesus was completely secure in his relationship with the Father. He was totally unconcerned with what the disciples’ response might be or what the owner of the home in which they were meeting might think. Because he was secure, he was able to serve his disciples by washing their feet. As leaders, we, too, need to be secure and assured of our relationship with the Father and our acceptance by Him.
  • As Jesus set the example for his disciples, we, too, must set an example of servant leadership for those whom we are leading. In Bible times, when guests arrived in a wealthy home, washing their feet was literally the job of a servant.
  • Leadership is for service, not power. If you desire a leadership role in order to feed your own ego, please do yourselves and others a favor. Stop! Repent and reconsider. When Jesus taught his disciples in Matthew 20:25-27, He … “called them together and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave.’” (emphasis added)

We can be secure leaders and servant leaders when we know that we have assurance of our relationship with the Father and our acceptance by Him.

Three Positions of Leadership: In front

Having made the case for secure servant leadership built upon the foundation of a secure relationship with the Father, I want to now introduce three positions, or aspects, of leadership. These are: the in-front leader or visionary, the alongside leader or mentor, and the leader who comes behind the fallen one to lift him or her up. 

There are many times when leaders must take an “in front” role. I recall during my working career when my company embarked upon a massive project that required a great deal of organizational change management. One of the company vice presidents was our leader, and for probably a year or longer we had a monthly town hall meeting. During these meetings he spoke honestly and candidly with about 500 of us; if we’d had a good month of implementation, he complemented us for it. On the other hand, there were other times when the news wasn’t so good, and in a professional – yet direct – way he shared that message as well. I once told him how much I appreciated him treating us like adults and sharing the facts with us.

Nehemiah in the Old Testament was an in front, visionary leader. We read in Nehemiah 2:17-18, “You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace. I also told them about the gracious hand of God upon me and what the king had said to me. They replied, ‘Let us start rebuilding.’ So they began this good work.”

Here are three important lessons from this small portion of scripture:

  • Nehemiah was able to lead because “the gracious hand of God” was upon him. He realized his need to depend upon God and draw wisdom and strength from Him.
  • When Nehemiah communicated the vision, he shared not only the “what” of the vision but also the “why”. He said, “let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace.”
  • He also inspired others to action. Their reply was, ‘Let us start rebuilding.’ So, they began this good work.”

As leaders who are in front, it is very important that we both communicate the vision clearly and inspire others to action. One of my favorite Christian leaders, Chuck Colson, once said, “The job of the leader is to enable people to see something greater than themselves and call them to do it.”

Three Positions of Leadership: Beside

While the “in front” leader is perhaps the prototypical role, it is not a leader’s only responsibility.  Many times, we are called to mentor – to walk alongside – those who follow us. Mentoring is a key skill for leaders.

  • In the home, parents mentor their children
  • In our schools, teachers mentor students, and experienced teachers mentor beginning teachers
  • In the workplace, technical experts mentor younger peers, and managers and directors mentor those in their organizations
  • In the church, pastors mentor staff members and church leaders

As you walk alongside those whom you mentor, I encourage you to share your life experiences with them, both the good and pleasant experiences and also the difficult and challenging times. Share what you learned through both of those circumstances. Be authentic.

What does a mentor do? For our answer, let’s look at two examples in scripture:

  • Barnabas is a classic example. His name literally means “Son of Encouragement.” French speakers will recognize the root of the word “encouragement”; it’s “coeur” or heart. To encourage another person is to “give them heart.” In Acts 9, Acts 11:25-26 and again in chapter 13 we see that Barnabas served as a mentor to Paul. He supported Paul when the Jerusalem church leaders were cautious and concerned about Paul.
  • Paul, in turn, was a mentor to Silas, Timothy and Titus and many others. We read how he brought them as traveling – and also ministry – companions on his missionary trips. They shared ministry together. He gave them assignments to help them grow in their leadership in churches that Paul had planted. (For some examples, see Acts 15:30-32 and 1 Timothy 1:3)

In summary, a mentor leader:

  • Comes alongside others to encourage and instruct
  • Makes himself available to those he / she mentors
  • Shares his / her life and life experiences and learnings with others so they learn and grow
  • Provides guidance for life and ministry to those who follow

Three Positions of Leadership: Behind

But, as the infomercials say, there’s more. The final “position” of leadership is often the most overlooked in western culture and especially so in the business world. This is the leader who comes behind a follower to pick them up when they have fallen.

The Message paraphrase of the Bible states in Romans 15:1-2 “Those of us who are strong and able in the faith need to step in and lend a hand to those who falter, and not just do what is most convenient for us. Strength is for service, not status. Each one of us needs to look after the good of the people around us, asking ourselves, ‘How can I help?’”

Did you hear that?  As leaders, we should not “just do what is most convenient for us.”  This is the essence of servant leadership.

Galatians 6:1-2 instructs us “Dear brothers and sisters, if another believer is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path. And be careful not to fall into the same temptation yourself. Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ.”

Secure Leaders Rely Upon the Lord

As leaders, there are times that people will fail others, themselves, the Lord and/or us.  Rather than simply discarding them, we are to instead restore them.  We are to pause what we are doing and help them back onto the right path.  This does not mean that we overlook their failure; we acknowledge it, but we use our strength to gently and humbly help them return to right fellowship with Christ and others.

For most of us, one of these three positions of leadership will come the most naturally or the easiest.  For me, it’s the mentor leader role.  However, I’m not off the hook when it comes to the other two positions.  And, neither are you.

The key is to recognize, based upon the situation, which role is appropriate and to then respond applicably with what is needed.  And, in every circumstance, whether it’s our sweet spot or otherwise, the Christian leader must first rely upon the Lord.