I recently taught a lesson for some of the men in our church titled “Building Character for Godly Leadership.” My main idea was that leadership is a series of concentric circles, starting with leading yourself, then moving to the next circle of your family (your wife and kids), and then the broader circles of church, workplace, and even the state.
The key is that greater and more expansive leadership roles are earned one circle at a time in progressive order. If we aspire to leadership, we must first work on the innermost circle of leading ourselves and developing the godly qualities that will inspire others to follow us.
We must build character for godly leadership by learning to govern ourselves first. We have to learn self-control (Gal 5:23; Tit 1:8). We have to mortify our lusts (Rom 8:13) and manifest the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-24). Only then will others see Christ’s character in us and be willing to follow us. If I feel that my wife or my kids, or those who are under me at work, are not following me as willingly as I wish, then maybe it is because I haven’t demonstrated to them by my example that I am worthy of their trust.
In my preparation for this topic, I searched for books that focused on this idea of developing the godly character that is the prerequisite for leadership. It wasn’t easy, because most books focus on the management techniques or on how to get your followers to do what you want (although they wouldn’t put it that crassly). But I found one book to be very helpful: Jeff Iorg’s The Character of Leadership: Nine Qualities that Define Great Leaders (B&H, 2007).
I was immediately hooked by his opening line: “In my 20s, I was determined to change the world. In my 30s, I tried to reform the church. In my early 40s, I discovered I was the problem” (1).
After an introductory chapter, Iorg goes through nine character qualities that leaders must have: submission, security, purity (mainly sexual), humility, servanthood, wisdom, discipline, courage, and love. (For the first and the last items, Iorg had “integrity” and “passion,” but after reading those chapters, I felt that “submission” and “love” more accurately captured his point.)
I’m not going to go through each of the nine points, but here are some highlights from Iorg’s treatment of the first two character qualities that I found helpful.
You must be in submission to Jesus as Lord (Matt 28:18; Acts 2:36; Phil 2:9-11). This is an easy thing to affirm theologically, but it is much harder to live out. It is much harder to believe that Jesus is the Lord of your life. Iorg then gives four prayers that he prays to remind himself of the Lordship of Christ in his life:
- “Lord, I am expendable. Another day or another decade of life, whatever pleases you” (29).
- “Lord, I serve at your pleasure. Use me, or not, whatever pleases you” (30). “Sometimes, God does not use a person for a while as part of his purpose for them” (30). Iorg gives the example of Paul in Roman custody – “when two years had elapsed” (Acts 24:27).
- “Lord, your kingdom matters. Mine doesn’t. Advance your cause, whatever that means for me” (31).
- “Lord, you are God. I am not. Help me keep that straight today” (32).
An important aspect of being in submission to Christ as Lord is to see yourself as a steward of that which belongs to Christ (Luke 16:1-15; 1 Cor 4:1-2). A steward is someone who manages something that belongs to someone else (33). If you have a leadership role, it is only because Christ has given you that role as a stewardship, a little part of his kingdom. It is his kingdom, his church, his ministry – and he expects you to take good care of it on his behalf (34). “You are only the current occupant of your leadership role. You are always a temporary employee. You are a transition person for your job” (34). Imagine if you were to die suddenly. There would be grief for a time, but then you would be replaced and people would move on. “You are not as indispensable as you think you are” (35).
One way the Lordship of Christ can be made real in your life, i.e., where the rubber meets the road, is if you are in submission to human authority structures that God has placed in your life. We learn to trust Jesus to work through others to correct, guide, and direct us (37). Our ultimate boss is Christ, but he uses earthly bosses to give us boundaries and keep us accountable, such as a session or board of elders. “When we trust Jesus to work through others to correct, guide, and direct us, we will grow in integrity” (37).
Iorg begins this second characteristic by pointing out the importance of security. “Secure leaders feel less pressure to perform, less pressure to please people, and less pressure to prove their worth by their accomplishments than insecure leaders do” (47). Conversely, insecurities can drive you to act in ways that are compulsive, selfish, sinful, and harmful to others.
Iorg lists some of the symptoms of insecurity:
- You can’t say no without feeling guilty.
- You crave the admiration, affirmation and adulation of others.
- Inability to trust others to make decisions.
- Inability to keep work in perspective.
What is the solution? It is to find your security in Christ (John 10:28-29). In ordinary life, security comes from relationships – people seek it in wife, husband, child, mother, father, followers, etc. (63). But true security comes from your relationship with Christ. Because of Christ, God validates you, accepts you, and gives you worth and meaning. Your life is significant and important to God, even if your contribution or sphere of influence is limited.
What are some benefits of being secure in Christ?
- Secure leaders are free to obey God (65).
- Secure leaders are confident without being arrogant (67).
- Secure leaders are relaxed, resting in Christ (67). “They have nothing left to prove, nothing left to conquer, and are not beholden to anyone” (67).
So that is just a taste. I would encourage you to read the whole book.
What I found interesting about all this is that these are qualities that all Christians, especially Christian men, should have. I conclude that being a leader in the church is simply a matter of being a follower of Christ, living out of union with him, having his character formed in us, and thus leading ultimately not by force but by example. As Jesus said (Mark 10:35-45), leadership is not about power or authority, but about being a humble servant who exhibits the character of Christ.
Iorg summarizes it well: “The aroma surrounding our actions – the unmistakable aroma of Jesus Christ – is what marks real servant leaders … Servant leadership is about the heart. It’s primarily about motive. A servant leader is driven by his or her love for God and people … Servant leaders leave a vapor trail of the sweet aroma of Jesus’ humility formed in them” (130, 137).