4 principles of Leading Like Jesus

Posted on October 11, 2016 in: Articles

By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.

There’s a lot involved in learning how to be an S3 Jesus-like Leader.

Among other things it involves developing the heart, head, hands and habits of a servant leader. Adopting the habits alone can take months. Developing a servant’s heart requires the commitment of a lifetime.  

There are also the tasks of learning how to be a Steward and Shepherd Leader.

It’s a challenge. But it’s not an overwhelming one. As people begin the development process – or continue it – it’s helpful to keep in mind four key principles of leading like Jesus.

1. Jesus is the best leadership teacher and role model of all time.

We all gravitate to various leaders to serve as role models for us – and we should. The more and richer these relationships are, the more we are aware that the process of becoming an effective leader is not a solitary pursuit.

We should all find—and be grateful for – any good, selfless role models that cross our path.

But at the end of the day – or even a lifetime – we should acknowledge that no other person will be as good a teacher and role model as Jesus. So it’s important to learn as much as we can about his leadership by regularly reading the Gospels, studying what others have to say about him, and spending as much time as possible getting to know him better in prayer.

Eventually, ordinary human beings will fail us or come up short. But Jesus will always be there for us if we invite him to guide us and his Spirit to inspire us as we face the day-to-day challenges that arise in our lives.

2. Leadership is not about structure; it’s about relationships.

So often when we think about leadership, we immediately think about formal, positional leadership and the strengths and weaknesses of positional leaders. It’s true that people who are given positional leadership can exercise authority over us. But it’s not true that having a leadership position automatically assures anyone that they will have any lasting influence in anyone else’s life.

Indeed, positional leaders who don’t get their relationships right often inspire more subversion than compliance, making themselves their own greatest obstacles when it comes to achieving desired outcomes.

Being an effective leader is not just about being liked or letting people do whatever they feel like doing at the moment. Effective leadership – and in particular Jesus-like Leadership – is about getting people to work together as one on a common purpose that respects human dignity and fosters justice.

Extensive research even of for-profit organizations makes it clear that self-serving leaders are not very effective over the long-term, no matter how good or bad their organizational goals happen to be.

Everyone is born into a complex web of interdependent human relationships, so everyone is called to be a leader some of the time. As we demonstrate in our Catholic Vision for Leading Like Jesus Encounters, life-shaping influence that can last beyond the grave grows out of intimate, trusting relationships where we invite others to guide us because we know they really care about us.

Jesus cared about us so much that he sacrificed his human life for us. He’s the leader who, above all others, is worthy of our trust and our invitation to guide, shape and inspire us all through life. Our relationship with him is key. And he sends others to care for us and help us, just as he sends each of us to care for and help others.

When we strive to lead like Jesus, we focus on nurturing the kind of relationships that will make us truly effective leaders whether or not we are ever given any formal leadership position.

3. Leadership is not a choice; it’s a mandate.

It’s tempting to think that leadership is a choice – so if we choose not to lead, we don’t have to worry about becoming a Jesus-like Leader or any other kind of leader, for that matter.

The only problem with that assumption is that it’s simply not true. Leadership is an influence process – and all of us try to influence others at some points in our lives. So all of us are called to lead at least some of the time.

One example I like to use is that of a little child, not yet 2, just learning to walk and talk. One of their first words today seems to be “mote.” In you spend any time around children that small you know what I’m talking about. If not, here’s the news: the child is looking for the TV remote.

Why? Because he or she wants to introduce you to Mickey Mouse ... or the Bubble Guppies ... or any number of other animated characters to which they may have recently taken a liking. In a phrase, the child wants to influence you and the environment you share with them.

Even more dramatic when it comes to early human efforts to influence our environments, we are learning more every day about how unborn babies influence their environments. No, it’s certainly not conscious. But it does speak to the innate drive of humans to exercise influence.

In fact, efforts to influence are not even limited to humans. Anyone who has ever had a dog knows they can be very insistent when it comes to influencing you to take them out or get them a treat. Influence is all around us – everywhere. And whenever we are trying to influence others, we are trying to lead.

Moreover, we often exercise incredible influence when we are not being intentional -- or even being aware of our influence on others. Any parent who has heard one of their sweet, innocent tiny children utter a swear word knows what I’m talking about. Kids are sponges. We are influencing them every moment we’re in their presence – even if they often act like they don’t hear a single word we say.

I love the story a friend of mine tells about a time when she was a stay at home mom raising a little child. The woman was in the bathroom brushing her hair when her little one walked in and asked: “Who’s coming over today?” The mother replied, "Why do you think someone is coming over?” And the child said: “The only time you brush your hair is when someone is coming over.”

The mother says she made it a point to brush her hair at least once a day after that.

Leadership is not a choice. It’s inevitable – a mandate of life. We are always leading because we are always influencing people, whether or not we’re aware of it.

So our only choice is what kind of a leader we are going to be. And it’s our view that the very best kind of leader you can be is a Jesus-like Leader.

4. Leadership begins on the inside.

We’ve all heard the phrase: “Dress for success.” It’s not bad advice. We’re always well-advised to project an image of confidence and competence. Whatever the expectations of an occasion, it’s always to our advantage to indicate that we’re aware of them and respect them.

But we’ve all also heard the old adage: “Appearances can be deceiving.” Focusing on our appearance at the expense of focusing on what’s going on inside ourselves is a sure way to find disappointment. Sooner or later, our balloon of externals bursts – revealing nothing of value inside.

Stephen Covey, author of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, talks about a cultural shift in the last century that switched our focus from developing true character to making a good impression – a switch from internals to externals. He absolutely did not think that was progress.

We know one thing for sure: Effective, Jesus-like Leadership begins on the inside – in a person’s heart.

It’s interesting to note that even when we are not talking about leading like Jesus, effective leadership is still very much a matter of the heart. That was made evident by the research of Jim Collins, who in his business classic Good to Great found that the very best leaders of the very best for-profit corporations build “enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.”

We can speak of “professional will” as a focus on the organization’s mission, not on the leader’s own personal self-interest. Outstanding leaders in the business world are mission-centered, not self-centered.

Of course, when we put it that way Collins’ research findings become fairly self-evident. When a leader is focused only on himself or herself, then who or what do the followers focus on? Themselves, of course. And then who is minding the organization’s mission? No one. That’s why mission-centered leaders get consistently better results than self-centered leaders.

That’s true in any kind of organization. Leaders who can get their charges to focus on a common mission, especially by example, have a huge leg up on the competition. When followers know their leaders care about them and respect their human dignity in the pursuit of a common goal, the results are often amazing.

That’s why effective leadership – and most especially Jesus-like Leadership – begins on the inside, in the heart, where leaders ultimately decide what matters most to them. We know what mattered most to Jesus. And we know what he said should matter most to us.

It remains for us to animate our heads, hands and habits to reflect what Jesus taught us and showed us about what it takes to be effective leaders.

I know you can do it. And I’m sure Jesus will help you when you ask him to.