It is a natural tendency of humans to search for good leaders to follow. This can be seen in the way we elevate (and sometimes even idolize) the lives and actions of heroic leaders. Golden Ages of civilizations throughout the world’s history are not marked by dates on the calendar, but by the names of their leaders: “Washington’s America”, “Elizabeth’s England”, “David’s Israel”, “Pericles’s Greece”.
I have been studying leadership for the past few months as a part of my Master’s Degree program. As I study, I have noticed more than ever how wonderful of a leader Jesus Christ was in the Gospels, as well as his great leadership today in the Church. In this article, I hope to pass along some of the things I have learned about leadership characteristics and style, and to show how Jesus Christ applied them in the Gospels and still applies them today. My hope is that this information will increase your appreciation for what a competent leader we have in Jesus and help dawn a personal Golden Age for you in “Jesus’s Church”.
Leadership Characteristics are skills or personality traits that leaders display. In this article, we will review 4: Passion, Storytelling, Listening, and Character. There are many more leadership characteristics than this (feel free to search for some lists online, there are plenty), and I do believe Jesus demonstrated most of them!
Leadership passion is the characteristic that pushes true leaders through difficult times. Passion develops in individuals as the things that “drive” them. True passion is displayed when an individual shows that they value the cause more than themselves.
The word “passion” is already loaded in Christianity. THE Passion is the climax of God’s story of redemption, and there is no better way to understand the passion of Jesus Christ than through the cross.
Another specific instance where it is clear that Christ cared more about his cause (that is, to do the Father’s will at all times) than himself was before his arrest in the garden of Gethsemane. There, he prayed “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless not my will, but yours, be done.” (Luke 22: 42)
Leadership storytelling is the ability to communicate incredibly important information to others in a way that is relatable, inspiring, and easy to retain. Effective storytelling also inspires the listeners to heed the message of the story itself.
Jesus told over 30 parables during his time on Earth. When asked why he spoke in parables, he said:
“To you it is given to know the sacred secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven, but to them it is not given. 12For whoever has, to him more will be given, and he will have abundance, but whoever does not have, from him will be taken away that which he has. 13Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, neither do they understand. … 16but blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your hears, for they hear.”Matthew 13:11-13, 16
The purpose of this article is not to explain the reason Jesus spoke in parables, although it is important to know that it was not for the multitude’s clarity. In fact, Jesus spoke in parables to fulfill a prophecy of Isaiah that the multitude would hear about the Kingdom of God, but not understand it (Isa. 6:9-10). Furthermore, that multitude would close their hearts and not pursue any understanding of the Kingdom. (For more information on this, please see the REV commentary on Matthew 13:13)
So this yields the question; if Jesus was not telling stories to the multitudes for the sake of clarity, but actually the exact opposite, how does that make him a good leadership storyteller? The answer is found in Mark 4:33-34: “And with many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it, and he did not speak to them without using a parable, but privately to his own disciples he expounded all things.”
Jesus Christ was not the spiritual leader of the multitude when he was on Earth. He was the spiritual leader of his disciples. To the disciples, these parables would have been incredibly enlightening once fully understood. I say this confidently because that is what 21st century Christians are currently experiencing: enlightenment through understanding the parables. The impact of Christ’s storytelling cannot be overstated, because it still has a deep impact on his Church, whom Jesus spiritually leads, thousands of years later.
True listening is active listening. It involves not thinking of what the listener will say next, but instead hearing through the words and receiving the heart of the message. Leadership listening empowers followers.
In his interactions with the Samaritan woman (John 4), Jesus, knowing that he was the Messiah and that his audience was likely a pagan, did not dominate the conversation. Instead, he listened to the woman and used emotional intelligence to understand the status of her heart. Because he did this, he was able to speak deeply into her life.
Anyone who has tried active listening techniques knows that it is most difficult in stressful situations. When Jesus was on the cross (there could not be a more stressful situation than public execution), he was still able to focus and listen to the malefactor who recognized him as the Christ. Jesus listened and heard the malefactor’s words, and also his heart, which yielded the famously positive response: “…you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43)
It cannot be overstated how great of a listener Jesus Christ is now in addition to his time before the crucifixion:
“And this is the confidence we have toward him (Jesus): that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. 15And if we know that he hears us – whatever we ask – we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him.”1 John 5:14-15
Character generally refers to integrity. Leaders with good character say what they mean and follow through on their words. This develops trust among their followers and generates deeply-rooted loyalty. One the other hand, lack of integrity entirely discredits leaders. Integrity has two main parts: honesty and moral goodness.
I don’t think it is necessary to describe Jesus Christ’s moral goodness; it can be easily summarized by John 8:28: “…And I do nothing of myself, but as the Father taught me, I speak these things.” Jesus only did God’s will, making him the perfect example of a man walking in complete moral goodness.
Regarding honesty, it is my experience that the most common form of dishonesty in leaders occurs when being dishonest makes life easier. This is common in business; employees may slightly misrepresent the truth to managers in an attempt to make things better than they seem, or to avoid difficult conversations. Likewise, executives may misrepresent the status of the company for a number of different reasons (to cover up problems, to motivate by applying pressure, etc.) The Gospels document occasions where lying would have made Jesus’s life much easier.
For example, at Jesus’s daybreak trial in Luke 22, he was asked to admit to being the Christ (which was an admission of guilt to the chief priests) and the Son of God. In a moment like this, many leaders would lie to save themselves. Although lying would have saved his life, it would have greatly discredited him to his followers (aside from the fact that it would have been sinful, ruining his status as a perfect sacrifice). By following through and admitting he was the Christ and the Son of God, Jesus stayed true to his word and demonstrated great integrity.
Another great example of when Christ demonstrated his integrity was when the adversary tempted him in Matthew 4. Jesus had plenty of opportunities to cave on his moral goodness in this situation. I know for me, after 40 days by myself in the Judean desert while fasting, I would be hungry, lonely, and tired (3 of the 4 parts of the HALT principle – Do not make important decisions or partake in stressful situations if you are hungry, angry, lonely, or tired) which would have negatively impacted my decision-making. Instead, Christ stood his ground and showed the true strength of his foundation in the Torah.
Jesus showed us perfect character. He further revealed the moral goodness of God the Father. We are called to imitate that character in Ephesians 5:1: “Therefore, be imitators of God as beloved children”
Leadership styles are methods of leading. A good leader is able to use many different styles, and, more importantly, to determine which style is most appropriate given the circumstances. The four styles evaluated in this article are Imperative, Affiliative, Pacesetting, and Visionary. Just like with the characteristics, the list presented here is not exhaustive.
Imperative (also known as coercive):
Imperative leadership involves commands and orders. A leader using this style makes quick orders and asks for very specific things from their followers. This is not a sustainable leadership style, as consistent use over long periods of time is often considered micromanaging. However, it is useful in crisis situations.
Many of Jesus’s commands are recorded in Scripture, but there is one I want to focus on to show that he is a great imperative leader:
“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee preaching the good news of God 15and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God has drawn near. Repent, and believe the good news.’”Mark 1:14-15
It is important to remember that the imperative style of leadership can often have a negative impact on followers if used for prolonged periods of time or for non-crisis situations. The above example in Mark 1 is a great example of the imperative leadership style because the command is of utmost importance! Jesus commands the world to repent and believe the gospel. Human life is a crisis with one of two outcomes: eternal life or perishing (John 3:16). Jesus, as a great leader, understood the significance of the decision to accept the gospel message, which yielded his application of commands.
In contrast, Jesus does not tell us everything we should do or not do. We are told to search the scriptures daily and acquire wisdom (which is the principal thing – Proverbs 4:7) so that we can make good choices in situations that are not “crises”. We all experience that Jesus is not a micromanager; he allows the members of his church to make mistakes by free will. Allowing people the freedom to make mistakes without harsh chastisement (assuming they repent) is an incredible application of both love and leadership.
Affiliative leaders put their people first. They focus on building relationships between themselves and their people. Constant open communication is a focus of leaders using this style.
Jesus loves people, even those who do not love him (Romans 5:8, 1 John 4:19). All of the other styles and characteristics presented here demonstrate the love Jesus Christ has for mankind. The Old Testament made it abundantly clear that God desired a true relationship with Israel when He said “And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people” (Leviticus 26:12). Jesus, like God, yearns for a relationship with his church similar to that of a husband and wife (Ephesians 5:21-33).
Through the holy spirit born in us when we confess and believe in Jesus’s Lordship, we have a constant communication line to our spiritual leader. We need to do our best to reciprocate the desire for relationship and love that Jesus shows us.
Pacesetters do just as it sounds: they set the pace. When using this style, the leader will set a high standard (sometimes unattainable) for performance and ask their followers to keep up. Like the imperative style, this style will only work for short bursts before followers become tired.
Jesus Christ is the ultimate pacesetter. Matthew 5:48 says “Therefore, you are to be perfect (mature), as your heavenly Father is perfect (mature).” Furthermore, Ephesians 4:1 says “Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you were called”. I think it goes without saying that nobody has fully lived up to these two verses, which shows how high Christ set the pace.
Many people do in fact become tired while trying to meet the pace. For me, the quality of my Christian walk ebbs and flows on a regular basis. The amount of energy it takes for an imperfect human like me to try to live up to the calling by which we were called is enormous, and I do sometimes find myself ready to throw in the towel. Thankfully, this is not the only leadership style Jesus currently employs with the Church.
On the other hand, the great part about having such a high mark to reach is the lack of complacency it cultivates. As Christ’s followers, we know we cannot be perfect, but we can try. The lives we live are those of continuous improvement; we can always be better. By always having the opportunity to improve, in times where we are ready to make personal strides, there is no ceiling on how much we can grow.
The mark has been set for us to attain. We need to keep trying as hard as we can to follow him!
Visionary leaders are confident to break the status quo. Oftentimes their strongest leadership characteristics are storytelling and vision. They relate to their followers by inspiring them with visions of the future and commonly say things like “follow me”.
We experience daily the status quo of the world: focus on the things of man. We wake up, rush to work, work hard all day, go home to the house with the white picket fence, kiss the spouse, pet the dog, and put the 2.5 kids to bed before starting over again tomorrow. I find myself stuck in the rut of secular life, because the world has established its status quo to be so regimented that it is easy to lose focus on the things of God.
After Jesus taught the disciples that he would go to Jerusalem and be crucified, Peter argued that he was wrong. Jesus replied: “Get behind me, Adversary! You are a stumbling block to me, because you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things fo man.” Then Jesus said to his disciples, “if anyone wants to come after (follow) me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matt.16:23-24)
The intensity of this situation needed great leadership. Jesus broke the status quo of the world by reminding Peter to focus on the things of God, not of man. In the same context, he reminded the disciples that true godly living involves the willingness to “die to self” and bear the burden of suffering for the advancement of the Gospel. Christ projected his focus on the future (the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God) to his disciples and invited them to follow him in acting on that vision: a textbook example of visionary leadership.
We are also invited to focus on the future and follow Christ by taking up our own cross, and are reminded to focus on the things of God in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18: So we are not discouraged. On the contrary, even though our outward self is wasting away, yet our inner self is renewed day by day. For our light momentary affliction is producing for us an everlasting weight of glory beyond all measure, because we do not look at the things that are seen, but at the things that are not seen; for the things that are seen are temporary, but the things that are not seen are everlasting.
A quick internet search of “most influential leaders of history” will yield many lists developed by secular sources that include the Lord Jesus Christ. To no surprise, he is not usually ranked #1, although, usually in the top #20. I hope this article helps move Jesus up in those lists for you!
I also hope you are able to apply some of these leadership principles in your own life in a Christ-like way. Whether it be at your place of employment, your church, or in your family, we all have the ability to lead with both example and action. Jesus was destined to be a leader, but he also grew in wisdom and stature (Luke 2:52) as he matured. Surely, this means we can all grow our leadership abilities. It is noteworthy that a majority of the work in this article extrapolates modern leadership philosophy into the Gospels and the Christian Church. This should serve as a reminder that the modern world is still a mission field, whether that means going out witnessing or trying to imitate Jesus as a leader at your workplace.
Always remember that we are supposed to be followers of the Lord Jesus. He is the greatest leader we could ask for; no prince has ever been a more complete or righteous king. No leader has deserved humble, loving, and willing followers more than Jesus of Nazareth. Isaiah 9:6 is my favorite Old Testament prophecy about the Messiah, and until formulating this article, I never realized how many of the Christly titles presented there have the connotation of leadership:
“For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will call his name Wonderful Counselor, Mighty Hero, Father of the Coming Age, Prince of Peace.”
Lastly, and most importantly, I hope this article increases your excitement for the coming kingdom. Understanding now, more than ever, how magnificent of a leader Jesus is, I truly cannot wait for him to rule from the throne he deserves. What a golden age this will be, one with no end: “Yahweh’s Kingdom”!
Isaiah 9:7 – “Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end. He will reign on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and sustain it with justice and with righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of Yahweh of Armies will perform this.”
Come quickly Lord Jesus, and until then, God be with you all.
These lists of characteristics and styles are by no means comprehensive. Depending on what sources are investigated, there are dozens in each of these categories. The work of this article is based on the work of Daniel Goleman in “Leadership that Gets Results”, and the work of Ohio University.