What Is Leadership?

We are less than one year from our next presidential election, and already the candidates are ramping up the rhetoric. One of the buzzwords in any election cycle is leadership. Candidates will insist that they have the leadership we need for a bright future—or at least to rescue us from a dark future, they have the leadership we need to confront the challenges of the 21st century, and so on. It’s all very high level, generic, and abstract. It seems very difficult to pin these candidates down to say: how are you actually going to lead this country through fill-in-the-blank? 

Leadership comes up in every election cycle because even politicians know that leadership is essential, even if their conception of leadership is just a hollow shell of what true leadership really is.

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There are at least two challenges for Christian men—and especially Christian young men—with leadership. First, it is easy to lose sight of what Christian leadership is and the difference that it can make. Second, the culture we’re in makes it harder than ever to exercise leadership with clarity and confidence. 

So, it is the responsibility of older men to regularly return to the art of leadership, motivating and instructing younger men what leadership is, what it looks and sounds and feels like, and why it is important. Part of what Manskool is for is to motivate and equip young men—and men of all ages—to understand and apply leadership in ways appropriate to their callings.

So we need to ask: what is leadership? What should it look like and how should it work?

The Bible has a lot to say about leadership, but the Bible isn’t a dictionary; it doesn’t provide tidy definitions. Did you know that the actual word “leadership” is used only once in ESV? Numbers 33:11 refers to Moses and Aaron leading Israel. The verb “leads” is used more. A lot of verses say things like “there is a way that leads to death,” but we do find examples of God leading and kings leading. But still, there’s nothing like a definition of leadership.

What we do have in the Bible are lots of examples of leadership. Let’s think about a biblical theology of the Old and New Testament for a minute. 

If we start at the beginning of our Bibles and start working our way through, we first encounter leadership in various forms in Genesis among the Patriarchs. Leadership in the patriarchs is mostly family leadership. First, Adam was supposed to lead Eve: God gave Adam instructions about working and keeping the Garden and the prohibition about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil before he made Eve; so presumably Adam was supposed to lead Eve into an understanding of what they were in the Garden to do. Noah led his crew to get into the ark and survive a watery judgment. Abraham wanted a family to lead, and eventually received that promise. Along the way, his leadership record is pretty mixed: he does a great job leading a military rescue of his family in Genesis 14, but he fails to lead well when he offers up his wife Sarah to foreign kings and when he agrees to Sarah’s plan to force an answer to the promise by taking Hagar as a second wife. Later, Jacob leads his family: he directs his sons: go get grain, let’s move to Egypt. 

Once we leave Genesis, we mainly move past examples of family leadership (although there are more), and start seeing other kinds of leadership. For instance, the first half of Exodus depicts Moses’s example of leadership through confrontation and my direction: he leads Israel by challenging Pharaoh and then by going before Israel in the Exodus.

David provides leadership through example. In the Old Testament, David provides the ideal of leadership: he is a man after God’s own heart, he a warrior king, but he is also the sweet psalmist of Israel. Mighty men are drawn to him and follow him, but… even David exhibits significant leadership failures in his own moral integrity and how he leads his family. 

Solomon provides leadership through instruction. He documents the wisdom of Israel, teaching God’s people for all ages how to live well in the fear of the Lord. Proverbs and Ecclesiastes especially document Solomon’s leadership through instruction. After Solomon, most of the rest of the kings of Israel and Judah are negative examples of leadership failure. 

Throughout the Old Testament, the prophets provide leadership through courageous speech. They lead God’s people by enforcing the covenant: calling God’s people to faithful obedience and promising forgiveness and restoration of God’s people will repent—often at the risk of their lives.

In the New Testament, Jesus is the perfection of leadership. That feels a little funny to say, and to our modern ears it might be weird to talk about the “leadership of Jesus.” We’re not talking about Jesus as CEO or life coach or financial advisor. But Jesus is the perfection of each of the quintessential leadership roles in ancient Israel: prophet, priest, king, shepherd. As a prophet, he leads God’s people by speaking God’s words in an authoritative way; in fact he is the Word. As a priest, Jesus leads God’s people by representing them before God, even to the point of his substitutionary atonement in his death on the cross in their place. As a king, Jesus rules over his people, providing for all their needs and protecting them against his enemies. And as a shepherd, Jesus feeds his people and cares for them tenderly. So it isn’t wrong to talk about the leadership of Jesus so long as we define his leadership in the terms that Scripture uses and don’t try to overlay our modern conceptions of leadership onto him. 

After Jesus, in other parts of the New Testament, Jesus directs and commissions leadership in the family and in the church. He provides for godly leadership in the home by instructing husbands to love their wives like Christ loved the church and to train up a godly next generation. And he provides for godly leadership in the church by stipulating leadership offices that have specific qualifications and are worked out in specific responsibilities. 

So, what is that leadership?

There are other definitions of leadership out there, but I want to propose a definition that distills the stories of leadership in the Bible into a single place. Here is my definition:

Godly leadership is joyful and faith-filled responsibility and initiative to provide example and direction that motivates and moves for the glory of Christ and the good of God’s people. 

That’s kind of wordy, but you might have noticed that it is five pairs of words. 

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Let me explain what I mean by each of these word pairs. First, godly leadership is joyful and faith-filled. Here, I want to address the attitude of godly leadership. There are other qualities that need to define leadership, such as patient or wise or others, but I think joyful and faith-filled sum them up. Godly leadership is joyful because God is joyful. God delights over his creation and over his people. 1 Timothy 1:11 could be translated, “the gospel of the glory of the happy God…” And godly leadership is faith-filled because leadership takes faith. If faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen, then godly leadership is able to look through present circumstances, obstacles, or problems, see a God-glorying future, and take steps to get there. Faith-filled also means that godly leadership is dependent upon God. It is not self-sufficient or self-reliant but rather depends upon the power of the Holy Spirit to bring about the effects in people that God wants.

Next, godly leadership takes responsibility and initiative. Here, I’m thinking of the activity of leadership. Leadership is about responsibility. This word is not well understood in our culture today but I think it means that a leader is answerable for problems and challenges when they arise. Harry Truman had a plaque on his desk that said, “The buck stops here.” Responsibility bears the burdens of direction-setting and decision-making and bears the consequences when things go wrong. If that’s true, then initiative is just responsibility in action. Initiative sees an opportunity or a problem and takes action to seize the opportunity before it gets away or address a problem before it gets worse. Godly leadership is always on, always alert and attentive and always ready to act when action is needed. 

Next, godly leadership is joyful and faith-filled responsibility and initiative to provide example and direction. If you’re going to talk about leadership, sooner or later, you have to talk about example. There are qualifications for leadership and a leader has to be willing to do whatever he is leading people into. Only Jesus is the perfect example of godly character. Leaders are not perfect examples, but they are called to be authentic and growing examples of leadership. And leaders provide direction. When I was young, my dad had a sailboat. One time we decided to sail from Annapolis to Baltimore. I didn’t know which way to go, but Dad knew the compass heading. He could say, this is the direction. You can’t see it from here, but this is the direction to reach out destination. A leader has to be able to say, “We’re not stuck here; we’re headed somewhere. We’re moving a direction and I can tell you where and why and how.” A leader might cast vision or provide instruction, but it is all directional. We’re always moving, so will it be towards God’s intentions for his people or away?

Then, godly leadership is joyful and faith-filled responsibility and initiative to provide example and direction that motivates and moves. This is really the guts of leadership. These are real, measurable outcomes. First, a leader has to be able to motivate, to inspire people to want to do the will of God in specific circumstances. And then a leader has to be able to actually move people in the direction and with the motivation. A leader is constantly asking: are we growing? Are we getting there? If not, there could be reasons for stagnation that aren’t the leader’s fault, but normally, leadership produces results of some kind. I like the way Vince Lombardi embodied this. He has a famous quote: “as a coach, my job is to make full grown men do what they don’t want to do in order to help them become what they’ve always wanted to be.” 

Finally, godly leadership is joyful and faith-filled responsibility and initiative to provide example and direction that motivates and moves for the glory of Christ and for the good of God’s people. Godly leadership is not about the leader. “Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness.” (Psalm 115:1). And it is always calculated to serve God’s people. Leadership that is self-oriented, self-serving, self-anything is contrary to the leadership God intends for his people. Instead, godly leadership is a stewardship. We’ve been entrusted with the care of eternal souls, and that is a great privilege. 

So, godly leadership is joyful and faith-filled responsibility and initiative to provide example and direction that motivates and moves for the glory of Christ and the good of God’s people. It’s only possible by the grace of God and its undertaken in dependence upon God. There is a lot more we could say there, and in future episodes of Manskool, I want to go through each of these components and consider a thorough Biblical defense. 

To all men, and to young men in particular, I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that when men are fulfilling their calling to lead in godly ways in the family and in the church, we are being like Jesus Christ. And this is so essential because the enemy of our souls opposes godly leadership at every turn. For young men especially, J. C. Ryle speaks to this reality in his book Thoughts for Young Men. He writes: 

“Satan knows well that you will make up the next generation, and therefore he employs every craft quickly and early to make you his own. I would not have you ignorant of his devices… He will exalt the pleasures of wickedness, but he will hide from you the sting. He will lift up before your eyes the cross and its painfulness, but he will keep out of sight the eternal crown. He will promise you everything, as he did to Christ, if you will only serve him. He will even help you to wear a form of religion, if you will only neglect the power. He will tell you at the beginning of your lives, it is too soon to serve God, he will tell you at the end, it is too late. Oh, be not deceived! Young man, this enemy is working hard for your destruction, however little you may think it. You are the prize for which he is especially contending. He foresees that you must either be a blessing or a curse in your day, and he is trying hard to gain an early entrance into your hearts, in order that you may help further his kingdom in the end. Well does he understand that to spoil the bud is the surest way to ruin the flower.” J. C. Ryle, Thoughts for Young Men, 14–16.

Men, and young men in particular, you can be a blessing in your day by learning godly leadership. In fact, one of the slogans of Trinity College is To Learn. To Love. To Lead. If you’d like to learn more about how Trinity College can help you to gain a vision for godly leadership and equip you with skills for godly leadership, please visit our website at trinitycollegelou.com. Our YouTube channel has more video content like this, and of course you can keep up with all the happenings at Trinity College on our social media pages.

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