By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.

Director, Yeshua Institute

NOTE: At the start of January, we published a list of nine “core principles” of being a Jesus-like Leader. The article struck a chord with readers, prompting us to devote some time and space to drilling deeper into each principle. Here we focus on the second principle: All of us are leaders some of the time.

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Often when we hear the word “leadership,” we think of people who hold prominent positions in large organizations. At the pinnacle of this image of leadership are the kind of folks who flew their private jets into Davos earlier this month for an annual conference on the economic state of the world.

But when we look at leadership that way, we overlook nearly all of the leadership that goes on in our lives.

Here at the Yeshua Institute we define leadership as “anytime anyone tries to influence someone else.” That process starts young. Take, for example, when a toddler, barely able to walk, starts looking around for the “mote.” Yes, she’s talking about the TV remote, which she’s looking for to influence our environment. Anyone for Mickey Mouse?

When that toddler is trying to surf the channels, she is trying to lead.

Not always conscious

Actually, the leadership process is so ubiquitous it's not even always a conscious one.

Take the case of Charles Barkley, a prominent NBA basketball player, who was once chastised for getting into trouble off the court. “What kind of a role model are you?” outraged sportswriters asked.

“I ain’t no role model,” Barkley replied.

Charles was wrong – and not just in his use of grammar. In fact, youngsters were getting their parents to pay grand sums for Barkley’s sneakers and warmups. They had posters of him on their bedroom walls. They wanted to walk like him, talk like him and play like him.

Like it or not, Barkley was a role model.

Same for us, especially if we’re parents. Have you ever heard one of your dear, sweet little children suddenly blurt out some profanity? Judging from the response I get when I ask that question to groups, most parents have. Then we realize the word they used is one we’ve been using around the house. Coincidence?

In those moments we realize – regrettably – that we have been leading even when we didn’t intend to .... even when we wished we weren’t.

Or take the case of an unborn baby who kicks her mom until mom moves and gives the little one more comfortable space in the womb. It’s not conscious. The baby certainly doesn’t give it any thought. But when mom moves, the baby is leading her.

Yes, we start being leaders at a very, very early age.

Leadership not a choice

One thing these examples make clear is that leadership is not a choice. It is happening all the time, often when we are least aware of it.

Our only choice, then, is what kind of leader we are going to be.

We can be self-serving leaders. There are certainly more than enough of them going around these days. Or we can be mission-serving leaders – focused on some purpose larger than ourselves, focused on influencing others in ways that are good for them and for the common good.

Jesus was a mission-serving leader. As he told his disciples: “I came down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of the one who sent me” (John 6:38).

Jesus was true to that mission through unspeakable humiliation, suffering and death.

Research’s grace

Just as we commonly think of leadership as a position in some organization, we commonly think of a leader as someone who gives orders.

It’s true that many leaders do give orders. But it’s also true that orders are not what changes things or people for the long term. Modern research is confirming this everywhere.

An extreme example: Someone points a gun at you and tells you to do something. It’s pretty certain you will comply. But what if the person falls asleep or you notice that the cylinders in the gun are all empty? Do you keep following the gunman’s orders?

Not for a heartbeat. You resolve to leave the scene as quickly as possible.

Long-term, life-shaping influence – the most important kind of leadership – is always exercised in the context of a relationship where the follower trusts the leader and invites him or her into their life to have an influence.

We know too – and modern empirical research also confirms this -- that actions usually speak louder than words.

When you act – we could say whenever you act – there is a very good possibility that you're leading someone somewhere.

Always consider: Is it a good place for the other person and for the common good?

If not, don’t do it. Choose, instead, to be a good leader – a mission-centered rather than self-centered leader, perhaps even a leader like Jesus, who was absolutely mission-centered unto death.