The Bible on Leadership?

Artistic rendering of Jesus washing the Disciples' feet

My good buddy Scott Yorkovich said something to me a week or two ago that turned a switch in my thinking (funny how that happens). He said he was realizing that most of today’s “leadership” theories and literature are contrary to a biblical understanding of leadership (Scott, I hope I’m accurately reflecting what you said). He didn’t give me any details about what he meant (but did promise me we would talk about it soon), but it was enough to start a line of thought in my own head.

It struck me that the Bible hardly ever talks about “leadership.” In fact, I did a quick search for the word “leadership” in the English Standard Version of the Bible (using Logos Bible Software), and found only one reference (Numbers 33:1). It talks about the people of Israel going out from Egypt “under the leadership of Moses and Aaron.” The word used here for “leadership” is the Hebrew word YAD. Strong’s concise dictionary of Bible words points out that this word was used “in a great variety of applications both figurative and literal. It is literally “the open hand.” So, literally, the Israelites went out from Egypt “under the open hand of Moses and Aaron.” The word occurs 1,300 times in the Old Testament and this is the only time it is translated “leadership” in the ESV!

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that Israel or the Church in the New Testament had no concept of leadership. What I am saying is that, maybe, our emphasis on “leadership” misses the mark. There certainly was no biblical development of leadership theory.

However, there is a concept that is highly developed throughout the Bible (Old and New Testaments) and that is the idea of “service.” A quick search of the ESV for the words “service” or “ministry” (which biblically are the same concept) produces a list of 176 Bible references. That alone should cause us to take a step back and reconsider our fascination with “leadership.”

The focus of Scripture is on service rather than leadership. Of course, the renowned Robert Greenleaf (if he were still alive today) would probably say: “Exactly!” Greenleaf dedicated his life to developing a model that meshed leadership with service and called it “Servant Leadership.”

And now we come to one passage of Scripture (Luke 22:24-27) where Jesus makes a hard distinction between the world’s understanding of leadership and what he requires of his disciples.

The account begins with an argument that arose among the disciples about who among them would be the greatest in the kingdom of the Messiah. Jesus then tells them,

In this world, the kings and great men lord it over their people, yet they are called ‘friends of the people.’ But among you it will be different. Those who are the greatest among you should take the lowest rank, and the leader should be like a servant. Who is more important, the one who sits at the table or the one who serves? The one who sits at the table, of course. But not here! For I am among you as one who serves. (Luke 22:25–27, NLT)

Much of the literature on leadership today talks about how to become a “great” leader, maximizing your influence, achieving success, being an exceptional leader, getting results, becoming number one, and so on. In other words, it’s all about me: what I can achieve, influence, or become. We could summarize all these book with one question: “Who among us will be the greatest?”

OK. Enough rambling for one post. As I said, this is a beginning for me. I sense a new direction in thinking coming on. I have no idea where this is going to take me. But I would love to interact with others about this. Give me your thoughts.

provides consulting services for churches and organizations. Contact Dr. Waddell today at gregwaddell[at]leadstrategic.com to discuss the needs of your organization.

Credits
Image “Jesus Washes the Disciples’ Feet” by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld. Image available at Wikimedia Commons under Public Domain license. Image modified for size.

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