The Habits and Characters of Leaders
Leadership books come in and go out of style as quickly as the latest fashion or technological gadget.
Usually these bestselling books are guides for “how to” be a successful leader, manuals for identifying leaders, or stories about famous leaders worthy of emulation throughout the course of history.
What is interesting about the Bible, as compared to most leadership literature, is that it focuses very little on leadership development methods. It is not focused on offering strategies for being a good leader, nor does it explicitly describe the values that make leaders successful. In fact, Scripture might actually have more examples of bad leaders than it does good leaders.
But there’s a reason for the differences, because Scripture focuses more on character than it does on methods, more on faithfulness than it does on fruitfulness, and more on making disciples of Christ than it does on developing leaders. The Bible is not the least bit shy about pointing out the failures of even the best leaders.
The failure of leaders in Scripture points to the fact that it is only God who truly and faithfully guides and leads his people. In his covenants with his people, God is characterized by steadfast love and kindness, and his faithfulness to deliver his people is a common theme.
Leaders in today’s world have much they can learn—both positively and negatively—from the leaders in Scripture, but ultimately the point of the biblical texts is that those seeking to be great leaders would turn their eyes to Jesus, the only leader who is truly reliable.
The Habits of Leaders
The best leaders depend on God.
Rather than teaching leadership tips and methods for maximizing results, the Bible emphasizes character, faithfulness, and dependence on God when it portrays God-honoring leadership.
Leaders in Scripture represent a given people or nation. A priest who sins, for example, brings judgment upon the entire nation (Lev. 4:3). In a different way, Moses intercedes on behalf of Israel asking that God not execute his judgment upon them (Exod. 32).
Leaders witness to the gospel (Luke 24:48; Acts 1:8) and are called servants (John 13:16; Acts 4:29). They are administrators (1 Cor. 12:28), shepherds (John 21:15–16; Acts 20:28–29), and builders (1 Cor. 3:10). Leaders are athletes competing in a race for God’s sake (2 Tim. 2:5), and they are considered fools (1 Cor. 4:10) and rubbish (v. 13) in the face of the world.
Leaders are to remain steadfast.
Joshua, who is another of Scripture’s model leaders, meditated on Scripture (Josh. 1:8). Leaders study God’s law (Ezra 7:10), flee from impurity (Isa. 52:11), do not have fear (Jer. 1:8), and are honest (Mal. 2:6). Leaders are humble (Matt. 23:8–12), have integrity (2 Cor. 4:2), are pure (1 Tim. 6:11), and have pure motives (1 Thess. 2:3).
Christian leaders in particular are to teach the Bible soundly (2 Tim. 1:13), remain focused on the gospel (2 Tim. 2:1–23), and exercise their spiritual gifts (1 Pet. 4:10). In fact, leaders of the church are the group of leaders to whom God gives the most stringent guidelines, almost all of which deal with character traits.
The Character of Leaders
Leaders throughout Scripture are characterized by a variety of positive traits. Integrity is especially valued. David asks God to judge his integrity (Ps. 7:8), and he was said to have shepherded Israel with a heart full of integrity (Ps. 78:72). God tells Solomon to maintain his integrity and guarantees the preservation of his reign if he continues in integrity (1 Kings 9:4–5). Leaders with integrity are guarded, but those who lack it are overthrown (Prov. 13:6).
Leadership entails great responsibility for others, especially including those who are considered followers. Leaders, according to Proverbs, are supposed to protect the innocent (Prov. 18:5), fight for justice, and punish the oppressors of the poor and orphans (Prov. 72:4; 23:10).
God often chooses people who would appear as unfit leaders.
Leaders are to remain steadfast in the face of opposition. Ezekiel, for example, was publicly criticized, but he maintained his convictions. Similarly, Paul boldly stood up to Peter at Antioch, confronting Peter about his hypocrisy (Gal. 2:11–21).
Attempting to implement worldly models of leadership has undesirable results (Exod. 17:1–7; 1 Sam. 8:7–8) because the leadership modeled in Scripture differs significantly from that of the world (1 Cor. 1:20). For example, God often chooses people who would appear to human eyes as unfit leaders: Moses was not eloquent (Exod. 3:9–4:16), Gideon was a coward (Judg. 6:11–12), and Simon Peter was uneducated (Luke 5:1–11). This makes it clear that leadership in Scripture is a gift from God, which negates any possibility for human boasting (1 Cor. 1:26–31). Kings were anointed before God in the Old Testament (Exod. 28:41), and leaders were appointed by the laying on of hands in the New Testament (Acts 6:5–6).
The Triune God: The True and Better Leader
The best leaders depend on God. They recognize that human leadership is patterned after the leadership of God, who is the ultimate leader, and all things fit within the frame of his sovereign leadership (Eph. 1:20–21; Phil. 2:9–10). God chooses the leaders for his own people (Deut. 17:14–15), and he appoints those who rule over the secular realm (Rom. 13:1). Human leadership in no way undermines God’s supremacy as the ultimate leader, but he desires that human leaders govern according to his will (Gen. 1:28), and he says that they are accountable to him (Luke 12:48). God uses prophets (Hag. 2:20–23), the leaders of foreign nations (Isa. 45:1), and natural disasters (Exod. 7:4) to impose his will upon leaders not submitting to his authority. God is depicted as the ultimate king in Scripture (Ps. 48:2; Jer. 10:10). He sits on his throne (Ps. 47:8) and rules with his scepter (Ps. 45:6).
The best leaders revel in God’s grace and show grace to others.
Jesus Christ is depicted in Scripture as the one who brings the failures of previous leaders to an abrupt end. As a leader, Jesus attracted both small and large crowds (Matt. 4:18–25) and set an example for his disciples to follow (John 13:15). He is the true prophet, priest, and king. As true prophet, Jesus revealed the Father (Matt. 11:27) and spoke the Father’s words (John 8:28). As priest, he mediates between God and his people (Heb. 4:14–16; 10:11–22) and offered the perfect sacrifice of his life. And as the true Davidic king whose kingship will never end (2 Pet. 1:11), Jesus rules at the right hand of the Father of his church. Christ, the true and better leader, intercedes for his people.
Jesus was the ultimate wise leader. He says of himself in Matthew 12:42 that one “greater than Solomon is here.” Those who follow Jesus’s leadership are called children of wisdom (Luke 7:31–35).
The Holy Spirit also functions as a leader. In the Old Testament, the Spirit enabled the judges of Israel (Othniel in Judges 3:9–10, Gideon in Judges 6:34, Jephthah in Judges 11:29, and Samson in Judges 14:6 and 15:14–15). The Holy Spirit leads believers in the ways of God (Gal. 5:18, Rom. 8:14), teaches them wisdom (Acts 6:3; Eph. 1:17), and guides them in truth (John 16:13). The Spirit instructs in doctrine (1 Cor. 7:40), leads people physically (2 Kings 2:16; Ezek. 2:2; 3:12; Luke 2:27; Acts 8:39), sends people out (Acts 10:20), and leads the sons of God (Rom. 8:14).
Leaders Trust God
Scripture has much to offer in terms of a theology of leadership. The most important message, however, is that all leaders, even the greatest, will experience failure and must rely on God’s grace. The best leaders depend on God, revel in his grace, and show grace to others—they understand that grace motivates. Looking to the God of grace as the ultimate leader is the surest way to find resources for humble, faithful, and fruitful Christian leadership.