By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.

Director, Yeshua Institute

A Jesus-like Leader is an S3 Leader – a Servant, Steward and Shepherd.

But before we get caught up in some abstract concept of optimal leadership, let’s put the whole idea in a very concrete context. Do you make the development of those you lead a primary part of your mission as a leader?

That question is a great litmus test of your sincere commitment to be a Jesus-like Leader – a true Servant, Steward and Shepherd.

Parenting obvious

The answer to this question for those in parenting leadership roles should be as easy as it is obvious. Of course, good parents make the focus of their parenting the healthy development of their children. That said, there are parents who stumble in this regard.

If a parent’s focus is on his or her fulfillment, that parent may try to hold back their children’s healthy development because they happen to like babies or toddlers better than teens, or they thrive on their children’s nearly total dependence in their youngest years.

However, no matter whether parents nurture or impede their children’s healthy development, children nevertheless continue to develop. Biology, an aspect of God’s domain, prevails.

At the same time, every sane person would agree that children whose parents nurture their healthy development have a huge long-term advantage over children whose parents don’t.

Work more complex

In work situations, the challenge can be more complex.

We hire people to solve problems for us. When we find good hires, we want to keep them. The temptation not to focus on their continued growth and development can be huge – even overwhelming. Not a few people talk about being “stuck in dead-end jobs.” And not infrequently they are right.

That tells us that leaders who assume they can hold people back for their own selfish ends are sometimes right. Sometimes their perspective is consciously self-serving. But often it’s just a matter of short-sightedness and lack of vision.

The leader who looks at staffing as simply a matter of finding round pegs to put in round holes is not likely to get optimum performance from anyone.

And that leader is likely to experience continued turnover as the most capable and ambitious employees eventually look elsewhere for better opportunities.

A Jesus-like perspective

My first full-time boss who taught part-time at a Catholic college looked at things differently. Or rather, he looked at people differently. He saw himself as a steward and a shepherd.

He was concerned to help his employees grow and develop their skills even if it meant they might eventually be prepared to leave his employment for better opportunities – however they measured “better.”

Apart from being a good Christian man, he realized his company benefitted every day from the growth his employees experienced on the job. And often his concern for them inspired greater loyalty, so even though people developed the skills to go elsewhere, many chose not to.

In just a couple of decades his company grew from a single small-town weekly newspaper to a multi-state publishing empire worth more than $20 million.

During this time many people moved onward and, they believed, upward. But many stayed for lifelong careers -- where they made lifelong contributions.

A huge challenge

Looking after development can be more difficult in environments, many of them non-profit, where rapid growth does not provide people with new opportunities. Job descriptions and duties remain largely static from year to year, so leaders tend to see jobs and opportunities as a matter of applying fixed skills to enduring challenges.

Growth – personal or organizational – just isn’t part of the culture.

I think these sorts of cultures suffer from a dangerous sort of myopia. As a matter of fact, the external environment is always changing – and today it’s likely to be pretty tumultuous. If you doubt that, just ask leaders in the Catholic Church.

Or ask banking executives into the 1970s. Into the 1960s banks had operated under the “3-6-3 Rule.” Money comes in at 3 percent and goes out at 6 percent – and everyone heads to the golf course by 3. If that was an oversimplification, the point was nevertheless valid: things – even vital things – didn’t change much.

And then they did – and rather suddenly in the 1970s.

And the changes weren’t an aberration. They didn’t stop. They multiplied – at ever greater velocity. Internal forces flipped back and forth from growth to consolidation. But most important, change became a persistent constant.

It’s like that in all manner of non-profit and specifically religious organizations now too.

The best way to anticipate – and then to survive – rapid change is to keep a focus on constant improvement. Even when the external environment seems stable, keep trying to do everything you do a little better every day. Before long that will mean learning new skills and taking on new organizational initiatives.

A focus on constant improvement helps assure both organizational and individual growth, development and health.

One axiom to remember

The Christian leader – the Jesus-like Leader – will recognize the critical necessity of treating everyone with dignity and respect, and of always desiring what is ultimately best for them.

Perhaps other people will be best off staying with you. Perhaps not. In any case, it’s not the leader’s choice. Ultimately the follower decides to stay or go.

I remember once where a spate of family disruptions among the editors I employed suddenly resulted in a lot of turnovers. I was so desperate to find good people that I actually paid to fly in a recent graduate for an interview. We ended up hiring her and it was a great hire.

With her on the team, I had more leeway to find more good people, and in about a year we were again fully staffed with a team of fine young editors.

Just as I was about to exhale and take a vacation, the woman we had flown in and hired came to me. When we hired new people, I told them: “If the company grows faster than you do, I promise to let you know and to help you adapt, whatever that ultimately looks like. And if you grow faster than the company, please come to me and I’ll help you adapt to that too.”

Our young editor was coming to me because she wanted to both go and grow. She had a very serious boyfriend halfway across the country whom she wanted to marry. That would involve a move. And she wanted to grow in her next post – hoping to land a spot with a large urban daily where her boyfriend was living.

She was an excellent member of the team and I hated to see her go. But one of our corporate principles was: “You never get ahead holding other people back.” So I wrote down all her many wonderful qualities, listed her impressive skills, itemized her awards and put them all in a letter of recommendation to the editor of the paper for which she dreamed of working.

Before long she had an interview, and as a result of that interview she had a new job in the city where she wanted to live and build the next stage of her life.

She was thrilled. And so was I. Yes, we missed her – we missed her tremendously. But that’s not the point of this story. The point is that she grew and thrived. And so did we.

As word got around about how we treated people, we never suffered again from lack of applicants – or as I like to think of them, partners in growth and development.

During his distinguished career, Stephen Covey liked to talk about “win-win” resolutions. They’re always the best kind. And the most important ones always have to do with you and the people you’re leading.

As Jesus would tell you: If you love them, help them grow.