There is much being said about leadership these days. Whether it’s excellent books about corporate leadership like “Good to great” (which, incidentally, only teaches us what Christ taught 2000 years ago, couched in modern corporate language) or the boom in “life coaches” or talk of “fathering” in church circles, one theme is common – a desire to understand and better model leadership.
If you can take your spiritual or anti-spiritual glasses off for a minute, I’d like you to take a journey with me into a passage of scripture which I think is perhaps the most powerful and definitive description of mature and righteous leadership that I’ve ever come across:
But as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, even so we speak, not as pleasing men, but God who tests our hearts. For neither at any time did we use flattering words, as you know, nor a cloak for covetousness—God is witness. Nor did we seek glory from men, either from you or from others, when we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, just as a nursing mother cherishes her own children. So, affectionately longing for you, we were well pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God, but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us. For you remember, brethren, our labour and toil; for labouring night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, we preached to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and God also, how devoutly and justly and blamelessly we behaved ourselves among you who believe; as you know how we exhorted, and comforted, and charged every one of you, as a father does his own children, that you would walk worthy of God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory. (1 Thessalonians 1:4-12)
Let’s deal with the key points here blow-by-blow and you’ll see what I mean:
1. “Not as pleasing men, but God who tests our hearts” – Perhaps the first and most important mark of leadership is that it must understand it’s place in the bigger ecosystem of order. A good leader always understands that he is under the authority of another. At the top of this order is God, which means that every leader should know that he is ultimately subservient to God and that God searches and tests our very hearts, not just our intentions and actions. When a good leader embraces his position in this order of things, he will also no longer be a man-pleaser but will stand up for what is right and true, knowing that ultimately he will give account to God. We’ve all too often heard of the soldier who committed unthinkable deeds because he was simply “following orders”. There is no room for that kind of thinking here. A good leader will know he is accountable to God and will therefore not commit acts against his conscience, even if that costs him dearly in terms of the admiration of men.
2. “Neither at any time did we use flattering words, as you know, nor a cloak for covetousness” – A true leader never uses flattery to achieve an objective, even if the things he is saying are true (in other words, there is a subtle but significant difference between flattery and encouragement. Flattery seeks to manipulate people by telling them something positive in order to get them to shape their behaviour; encouragement uses the same positive observations to affirm a person in their God-given identity). The second thing a leader should avoid like the plague is a covetous heart and worse still, make attempts to mask those kinds of motivators (having a covetous heart is a sin that must be dealt with, when you try to conceal that covetousness, then you have crossed the line into deceit, from which there is often no turning back). Covetousness leads to our core motivators becoming self-centred – what can I get out of this deal? A true leader always thinks of how he can help grow and build up others around him, which inherently is an unselfish act.
3. “Nor did we seek glory from men, either from you or from others, when we might have made demands as apostles of Christ” – The apostle Paul could well have leveraged his position to make demands on others. His achievements, authority and fame as an apostle had set the world on fire from Madrid to Damascus. Yet, he never saw this is as an opportunity to draw the glory and admiration of men. He knew that such a foundation for his ministry would be deadly and ultimately derail the purposes of God. He did what he did because it was right and true and because God demanded it, not because there was any fame or fortune in it for him.
4. “But we were gentle among you, just as a nursing mother cherishes her own children. So, affectionately longing for you, we were well pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God, but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us.” – A mature leader knows his role as a nurturer of the immature. He understands that there is a place to be gentle and affectionate with those who are young (by this I mean “young” in the sense of new disciples/followers/mentees). This is the aspect of “mothering” whereby it is understood that like a new born child, the “young” need to be looked after and nourished at a time when they have little ability to help themselves. This often takes an extreme sacrifice from the “mother” because she offers up her life selflessly to help the “young” when they are most vulnerable, and she is to receive nothing in exchange: “For you remember, brethren, our labour and toil; for labouring night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, we preached to you the gospel of God.” Paul was referring here specifically to the fact that he paid his own way and did not ask anything of his disciples by way of financial support. He not only taught the principles of “mothering” but he practised them too.
5. “You are witnesses, and God also, how devoutly and justly and blamelessly we behaved ourselves among you who believe;” The conduct of a leader can be described fully by these three words: devout – honouring God above man; just – committed to righteousness as a course of action, without fail; blameless – pure in both thought and action. These are high ideals to aspire after – impossible in fact for any human, which is why we need the grace of God to become true leaders (more on that later). What this verse makes clear is that there is no room for immature, morally inept leaders (who would not be devout, just or blameless almost by default). It truly is a case of practising what you preach.
6.”As you know how we exhorted, and comforted, and charged every one of you, as a father does his own children, that you would walk worthy of God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory.” This point actually needs to be read in balance or immediately with point 4. Leadership must start with mothering but it must never end there. Raising the next generation of leaders requires a father – and by this I do not mean a priest or a biological father but someone who understands and embraces his role in raising the next generation of leaders, who will be even greater than himself. That is not possible if the objective is building his own kingdom versus the Kingdom of the only One who is truly worthy of glory – God himself. This principal is applicable in the church and in the corporate sphere – you should never be serving your own vision. In the church, you are serving the vision and Kingdom of God. In the business world you are serving the shareholders and the vision of the founders of the business. In order to raise leaders that will follow in your footsteps you need to do three things: exhort – strongly encourage or urge (someone) to do something; comfort – when things go wrong and the disciple is failing it’s time to step in and provide comfort, knowing that not all is lost as long as we learn from the experience (this is not akin to mothering, where a mother would step in and literally seek to “fix” everything on behalf of the child); charge – to give direct commands/instructions in times of war or peril. This is where the leader steps in as “Commander in Chief” and takes the strong action necessary to save the ship from sinking. This takes great courage, skill and wisdom.