Ministry Resources

People, Tasks, and Goals: What It Takes To Be A Leader

What makes a strong leader? This lesson series takes a deep dive into the characteristics and attributes of Biblical leaders to try and find an answer. Series written by Billie Davis

Leading and Following

“I am happy to announce that we have selected a youth leader,” said the pastor. “I want our work to be improved. There are many young people to reach. I can’t do it alone, and now God has provided us an excellent helper. This is Mr. Pedro Gonzales.”

Pedro was smiling as he walked briskly to the front of the room. “Thank you,” he responded. “I feel that God has led me into this position. I ask your prayers that I will be a good leader.”

This was a great moment for Pedro. He was born into a Christian family and had served the Lord since childhood. He had believed that someday God would place him in a position of leadership. “I will be a leader,” he said to his older brothers one day. “It may be that sometime the members of my own family will be among those who follow me.”

His brothers laughed at him. “What a great leader you’ll make!” they said mockingly. Even his parents warned him. “Don’t get big ideas, son,” his father said.

But now his dreams were coming true. He was chosen above his brothers and others in the church. “I will show my brothers,” he said in his heart. “I will show everyone what a good leader I can be. I will plan carefully and give clear instructions to all the young people. I will see that things are done right, and the Lord’s work will prosper.”

What do you think of Pedro? Does he understand the meaning of leadership? Will he be a good leader? In this lesson we will look at the example of one of God’s chosen leaders. It will help us discuss these questions. It will help us begin our study of what Christian leaders are like and how they work with people to accomplish God’s purposes.

Leadership in God’s Plan

Before we return to Pedro Gonzales, let’s consider the basic question of why we are interested in the subject of leadership. Why are there leaders? If you think about it you begin to realize that some kind of leadership exists wherever two or more persons are doing something together. “You take that end and I’ll take this end,” you may say as you and another person begin to lift a heavy box or a piece of lumber. The other person cooperates with your suggestion, and suddenly you are the leader. As family members work together leadership becomes necessary. In the field and on the job there are leaders. At school and in church people lead and follow. Why is this so? What reason can you give?

Leadership Defined

Leadership is needed to accomplish a purpose—to get something done. The idea of Christian leadership exists because God has a purpose. There is something He wants done. He wants to express His love and mercy to all the peoples of the earth, and He wants to be loved and worshiped by them. God has a definite plan by which He will do this. So, when we speak of the plan of God, we mean that God has a certain, specific way of accomplishing His purpose. His will is not done in a random way, by chance. God has a plan. He knows in advance what His purpose is and how He will move to achieve it.

An important part of God’s plan is that His work will be done by people, guided and empowered by the Holy Spirit. God chooses people and gives them specific tasks to do in order to accomplish His purpose.

Evidences of Leadership

Historical Accounts

There is no doubt that the concept or principle of leadership is included in God’s plan. We know this from our study of the biblical accounts of God’s relationship with mankind. When we read descriptions of events in the Bible, we find that there is no incident in which God is known to carry out His purpose by giving identical or similar instructions to every person who is to be affected by a message or a plan of action. God’s method is to work through individuals; they share with others and involve others in accordance with what they have received from the Lord. God requires of certain persons that they be responsible for seeing that His plans are put into action. The result of this is that the responsible individuals take leadership positions, and, in many cases, organize groups which they guide toward the goal indicated by the Lord. Therefore, we can say that one evidence that leadership is included in God’s plan is the evidence of historical accounts. Several of these accounts are given in this course.

Direct Calls and Instructions

In a number of biblical accounts the actual call of God is recorded. God tells certain individuals that they are chosen to carry out His plans. In some cases, He gives them detailed instructions. So another evidence of the need for leadership in God’s plan is the evidence of direct calls and instructions. One example is the call of the apostle Paul, which we will examine in Lesson 3.

Gifts of Ministry

Bible writers, inspired by the Holy Spirit, state that God gives to the church people to fill specific positions. These people are called apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers (Ephesians 4:11-16; Romans 12:6-8). Such people certainly hold leadership positions. And, in addition, God gives to the church abilities and operations which require leadership, such as the gift of administration or leadership and the gift of helping. Bible scholars refer to such people and operations as gifts of ministry. These spiritual gifts are evidence of the importance of leadership in the plan of God.

Qualifications and Responsibilities

Another evidence that God’s plan includes leadership is that detailed lists and descriptions of leadership qualifications and responsibilities are given in the Bible. In the Old Testament we find details concerning priests and kings. In the New Testament the qualifications for church leaders are clearly stated. The apostles showed great concern that people in leadership positions be qualified spiritually, morally, and mentally.

Later in the course, we will consider in greater detail the call of God, spiritual gifts, and biblical qualifications for leadership. We will study scriptural examples. We mention these matters now only as evidence that leadership is included in God’s plan.

The church organizations with which most of us are familiar have been established on the basis of man’s belief that God calls leaders and guides them for the purpose of accomplishing His plan on earth. The existence of the organized church and many types of Christian ministries throughout the world is evidence that God uses leaders.

A Biblical Model – Joseph

A local church, with a congregation of people and a place of worship, usually is the result of the leadership of one or a few person. As such people experience God’s calling and direction, and perpetuation of such activities require further leadership.

Now, we can return to Pedro Gonzales. His story indicated that the pastor was a local church leader such as we have described. As this pastor worked to accomplish God’s purpose, he realized that a helper was needed. That is how it came about that Pedro was placed into a position of leadership.

You notice that Pedro was to be a youth leader. At the same time, he was to work under the leadership of his pastor. Remember this principle, for we will study it later: Most Christian leadership is middle leadership. Most Christian leaders follow other leaders, and all follow the Lord.

Look back and review Pedro’s thoughts and actions when he was presented as a leader. He felt that he was being led by God, and he requested prayer. Also, he declared that he would plan carefully and give clear instructions. He wanted the work of the Lord to prosper.

All this sounds very good. But do you see any problem in the way he was thinking? What about pride? Did he seem a little inclined to be proud of his position and boast of it? Did he seem perhaps too eager to use his authority in giving instructions to others? How should a Christian respond when he is given a position of leadership?

We can find help in answering such questions as we read Bible accounts of leadership experiences. One of the most complete and detailed of these is the life story of Joseph. Certainly, this story is more than a historical record. God has preserved it for us, also, as a superb study in human behavior and leadership principles.

Even though you may feel that you know the story well, you should take time now to review it, as our discussion will be from a viewpoint which may be new to you. The complete account is found in the book of Genesis, chapters 37–50. Key portions for our study of leadership are chapters 37, 39–42; 41:1–25; 43:1, 15, 24–31; and 45:1–15. This may seem like a long reading assignment, but you will find it interesting as well as worthwhile.

Next, we will examine a summary of the story. We will notice in it some of Joseph’s characteristics and try to answer for ourselves the question: What kind of person was Joseph? In order to do this, we will consider three basic characteristics. These are personal qualities, thoughts and feelings, and actions. Success as a leader relates to all of these.

When you read books on leadership, you may find that the personal qualities of a leader are called leadership traits, the thoughts and feelings of a leader are called leadership attitudes, and the actions of a leader are called leadership behaviors. In this study, we will use the word characteristics to include all of these. Nevertheless, it will be to your advantage to understand each of these terms, so we will use them from time to time throughout the course.

Joseph – A Leader in Slavery

“So you think you’ll be the big boss, do you, and actually rule over us!” It was with words like these, spoken in tones of ridicule, that Joseph was answered when he told his dreams to his brothers. He dreamed he would be a great leader. His brothers had a belief which is wrong but is shared by many people. They believed that the main purpose of leadership is to give one person power over others—to boss people.

The Bible account of Joseph’s experiences leads us to know that this is not God’s idea of leadership. Joseph may have had some pride in his heart as he told his dreams, but nothing in his life suggests that he was boastful or oppressive to others. Probably his feeling concerning the dreams was more like wonder and amazement, which he shared openly with his family. He seems to have had a sense of being chosen by God for some purpose. We believe this, because in later years he reminded his brothers that it was God’s plan to place him in a position of leadership, not for his own honor, but to accomplish God’s purpose for many other people.

Probably Joseph did not fully understand this in his youth, but evidently he did accept without question the fact that God was leading him. The Bible record repeats several times the words: The Lord was with Joseph. Surely Joseph was aware of this, and his actions are evidence that he felt confident of God’s guidance.

When Joseph’s jealous brothers sold him as a slave, he was taken to Egypt and bought by a government official. In a short time he was put into a position of leadership. This is an example of the principle of middle leadership, isn’t it? Joseph was a slave and had to follow orders from his master. At the same time, the master needed a helper in order to get all his work accomplished. So he chose Joseph as a middle leader, with assigned areas of responsibility. Joseph was put in charge of everything in the household and business of his master. That meant he had to manage property, money, and people. The Bible says that the Lord gave Joseph success in all that he did. This indicates to us that he was noticed by his master. It indicates, also, that Joseph made it known that God was the source of his success. The fact that the Lord was with him did not mean that his work was easy, but rather that God gave him strength to do it. It did not mean that God kept him from having problems, either. Rather, God gave him wisdom, courage, and faith so that he was able to solve problems.

Major problems began when his master’s wife tried to tempt him with sexual advances. He refused her absolutely, saying, “I will not take advantage of my position of authority. I will not betray my master who has put me in a place of trust and responsibility. I will not sin against God who has blessed me.”

So we see that Joseph respected his master and, even more, the Word and the will of God. But the woman persisted and became angry with Joseph because he rejected her. Finally, she accused him falsely and caused him to be put into prison.

Joseph – A Leader in Prison

Now it must have seemed to Joseph that his dreams of leadership would never come true. He had done his best, and those he served had turned against him. It is evidence of his true leadership character that he did not say, “What’s the use? People are like that. You just can’t trust anyone!”

Joseph was intelligent and very much aware that he had been mistreated. Nevertheless, he continued to have faith in God, and, most remarkable for our study of leadership, he continued to work efficiently and relate well to people on various social levels. Even life in prison could not keep the God-given dream from its influence upon the life of Joseph. Again his leadership capabilities became evident. The Bible gives no details but says simply that the Lord was with Joseph and gave him success, and the warden put Joseph in charge of the other prisoners and all prison business.

How did the warden know that the Lord was with Joseph? What do you suppose a person could do in prison to show that he has God-given leadership ability? What did the warden see? Keep these questions in mind. Later, when we compare the story of Joseph with what we find in books on leadership we will understand that Joseph demonstrated several characteristics typical of successful leaders.

While Joseph was in prison two members of the king’s staff—the chief baker and the cup bearer—were convicted of crimes. Since Joseph was in charge, they were under his supervision. One day, he noticed that they looked dejected. Joseph was interested in them. He was concerned when they appeared to have troubles. “Why are you sad?” he asked them. They explained that they had had dreams which bothered them. Joseph did not hesitate to take control of the situation. “God can give us the meaning of your dreams,” he declared. This showed again his complete confidence in the Lord and in his own relationship with the Lord.

God gave Joseph the true interpretation of the dreams, and he explained them to the men. For the cup bearer the dream meant release and restoration to his place with the king. Then, Joseph wisely took advantage of an opportunity which seemed to be supplied by God. He told the man of his own situation. “When you go before the king,” he asked, “please tell him about me, and request him to consider my case.”

“All right,” the cup bearer replied. But when he was released he forgot about Joseph. Once more a person failed to live up to Joseph’s expectations.

Two years later the king had disturbing dreams. He began to inquire if anyone could interpret them. Then, finally, the cup bearer did remember his experience in the prison. He told the king about Joseph. Joseph was brought from the prison to face the king, and again, giving all the credit and honor to the Lord, he told the interpretation of the dreams.

Joseph – A Leader in Triumph

The dreams mean that a famine is coming,” Joseph told the king. “This land will have seven years of very good crops and abundant harvests. There will be more food than is needed. Then seven years of famine will come, when all crops will fail. There will be starvation, not only here but in the lands all around us. It would be a good idea for you to set up a plan for storing food during the good years. Then there will be food during the seven bad years.”

The king was impressed with Joseph and his words of wisdom. “I will put you in charge,” he said. “You work out the plan you have described and put it into operation.” So Joseph was released from his prison sentence and placed in a position of leadership next to the king himself. He made the plans and saw that food was collected and stored.

The results were just as the Lord had revealed to Joseph. When the famine came, food distribution was begun and the people were saved from starvation. Many came from the surrounding countries to buy food. Joseph’s position became more and more powerful, and he was given the highest honor and respect.

One day, as Joseph was supervising the selling of grain to those who had come from other countries, he saw his own brothers coming to buy food. They did not recognize him, for in the rich clothing of his office he was a very different person from the youth they had sold into slavery. But Joseph recognized them. And they bowed down before him, in respect as to a king. His dream of being a leader over them had come true at last.

We see in the Bible account that Joseph did not boast of his position nor try to get revenge for the way his brothers had treated him. He used the opportunity to help them learn some lessons, but he did it with kindness, not for his own honor, but to strengthen them. Finally, he was not ashamed to let them see his emotion. He wept with gladness and love for his family.

Most important of all to his success as a leader chosen by God was that he recognized, in the time of his greatest power and victory, that he was an instrument used by God to bring benefits to others and to accomplish a divine purpose.

Leadership Characteristics

No one who has made a careful study of the subject of leadership would try to describe the “typical leader.” Studies show that some successful leaders have one set of characteristics and some have another. Hundreds of pages have been written on the subject. One book on leadership lists 339 references concerning characteristics of leaders. Writers of other books have declared that leadership cannot be understood in terms of characteristics and that there is no use for any discussion of the subject.

It is our belief that no set of traits, attitudes, and behaviors can, in itself, describe a successful leader. However, we see considerable value in making a brief study of leadership characteristics. We have begun this already in our study of Joseph. We found that his traits (the sort of person he was), his attitude (the way he thought and felt), and his behavior (the way he acted) all combined to make him a successful leader. For example, we know from the words of Pharaoh that Joseph was wise and discerning, or discreet (Genesis 41:39). Also, we know that he was patient, since he waited many years without losing confidence that God would work out His plan. We could say, then, that wisdom and patience are two traits of a good leader. This does not mean that every person who is wise and patient will be a good leader. It does mean, we believe, that when we wish to develop the traits of good leadership in our own lives we should seek the Lord for wisdom and patience. It means that if we are wise and patient we have some leadership characteristics.

In a review of the best sources we know among professional books and textbooks, we found several lists of characteristics which are said to be typical of successful leaders. Those which were mentioned in most of the lists are the following:

1. Empathy

2. Goal achievement

3. Competence

4. Emotional stability

5. Group membership

6. Ability to share leadership

7. Consistency and dependability

As we examine these one by one we shall see that all of them are found, not only in textbooks on leadership, but also in the Bible, as characteristics of good Christians. There is no doubt which ones scholars believe are needed for successful leadership! However, a list from the Bible would include these in addition:

1. A sense of God’s calling, or mission

2. Awareness of being Christ’s channel of love to mankind

3. Dependence upon the guidance of the Holy Spirit

4. Exemplary living in accordance with Christian morals and ethics

Now we will consider the seven leadership characteristics that most scholars agree are essential. Our purpose is to answer from a biblical viewpoint this question: What is a leader like? We will encounter most of these characteristics in later lessons as we examine in more detail some attitudes and behaviors associated with successful leadership.

What a Leader Is Like

1. Empathy. Leaders can see things from another person’s point of view. They try to understand how others feel. The Bible expresses this in what we call The Golden Rule: “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31). The writer of the book of Hebrews says, “Remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering” (Hebrews 13:3). We are told, also, to be sympathetic (1 Peter 3:8), and to carry one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2). Empathy is essential to Christian service and witnessing and, therefore, to Christian leadership.

2. Goal achievement. Leaders are able to set goals and work toward them until they are achieved. Christian leaders set goals for themselves and their group within the framework of the achievement of God’s purposes. The apostle Paul states this plainly: “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14). Throughout his writings, the concept of goal achievement is evident. He speaks of his “purpose,” his “reason,” his “intent,” and his “purpose” (see Ephesians 3:1, 10–11 and 2 Timothy 3:10).

3. Competence. Leaders do their work well and have the skills needed for their purposes. They know facts and where to find information to help others. They work hard and set high standards for themselves and those who follow them. Throughout the Bible there are many references to the need for skill and diligence in the work of the Lord. For examples, see Exodus 35–36; Proverbs 12:27; 22:29; 31:10–31; 2 Timothy 2:15; James 2:14–16; 2 Peter 1:5–10.

4. Emotional stability. Leaders “keep their heads.” They are reasonable, confident, and cheerful. They do not get angry easily, are not willful, and are not easily discouraged. They can react in a peaceful and graceful manner when plans do not work out and difficulties arise. David expresses this concept from the point of view of one who trusts in the Lord. He declares that in all trouble he is still confident and will sing praises. “Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord,” he says (Psalm 27:14). See also Ephesians 4:31, 2 Timothy 4:5, and 1 Peter 4:7.

5. Group membership. Leaders have a strong sense of being part of the group. They are aware of a common interest and enjoy working with others. For the Christian leader, this is the body relationship explained in 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4. Absolutely essential to Christian leadership is the understanding that individuals, like parts of a body, find their true life and usefulness when they are “joined and held together by every supporting ligament” (Ephesians 4:16). Every part of the body helps support every other part. There are various functions as God’s people work together, and leadership is one of them. So the leader exists only in relationship to those who follow.

6. Ability to share leadership. Leaders works well with other leaders. They can accept a place as a middle leader, following others with loyalty and respect, and they can appoint helping leaders, trusting them with control over certain tasks. This characteristic is closely related to that of group membership. The emphasis here is on humility and trust and respect toward others. A good leader has high regard for other people, and a Christian leader knows that God’s method is to work through humankind, His highest creation. Therefore, the gifts and the callings of all are to be respected. We are told to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21). Paul sets the example for leaders in his frequent expressions of appreciation for his co-workers and helpers. Among the many references are Philippians 4:1–3, Colossians 4:7–14, and 1 Thessalonians 1:2–4.

7. Consistency and dependability. Leaders are consistent and dependable. They communicate in a clear and honest way what they expect from the group and then help to keep everyone working according to the plans. They do not become enthusiastic about a project and then forget it or change their mind suddenly without informing others. They keep their word and obey the same regulations they set for others. Jesus made it very clear that consistency and dependability are required in Christian service: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service
in the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). Paul said, “Stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 15:58). See also Galatians 5:1 and Ephesians 4:14.

Let us look back and review what we have accomplished in this lesson. First, we considered Pedro Gonzales, a newly appointed leader. Then, we examined the biblical account of Joseph in order to discover the traits, attitude, and behavior of a leader in a real situation. Finally, we looked at a list of leadership characteristics as compiled by scholars in textbooks on the subject of leadership. We found that each of these characteristics of good leadership is also a characteristic of good Christians and that Joseph is indeed a good example for us to follow.

Think once more of Pedro. What could we tell him to help him be a better leader? We can see now that he has some problems, can’t we? First, he must remember that he is a middle leader, working under the Lord and under the pastor of the church. Then, he needs a more humble attitude. He must be careful not to take pleasure in the thought that he has a position above his brothers and the other young people. He must realize that being a Christian leader is somewhat different from being a boss in a commercial company. A good leader, like Joseph, has respect for those in positions above him and below him. A good leader does much more than give instructions to others. He works with others. He is quick to forgive others’ mistakes, and he continues to love people and expect the best from them, even when they fail him. He will try to guide them into more godly living, as Joseph did his brothers, to accomplish the will of the Lord.

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