Go Forth & Die: Biblical Leadership – Part 1

Much of what I write in the Pearls and Swine blog is negative; toxic leadership is a very emotional subject. If you have experienced it, and nearly everyone has in some context, it is easy to become consumed by thoughts of it.

That’s the nature of trauma.

However, I would like to write at least once about the antithesis of toxic leadership: biblical leadership.  Despite what some in our culture assume, Christian leadership is not about authoritarianism. Unfortunately, many have experienced this kind of leadership in Christian organizations (including churches) and so have reason to be cynical.

But, it is not what Jesus taught or modeled.

Go Forth and Die

According to Heifetz and Linsky, authors of “Leadership on the Line,” the root of the term, “lead” is Indo-European and means “to go forth, die.”[1] What a beautiful concept for leadership . . . and probably shocking to some. Though their text is not Christian per se, the image of God is shining through them.

The ultimate example of leadership was the Son of God who went forth and died.

Business management experts have much to say that delineates those terms. Suzanne van Gils, et. al., says a good leader sacrifices “personal gains for the benefit of the team.”[2] This is antithetical to much of the business world and even many Christian organizations where the leader acts primarily for his self-gratification. It may be for personal image and status or wealth. But, leaders “die” in a positive way when they seek other’s good over their own. They die to self.

This is the image created by the Apostle Peter:

Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; 3 not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.

1 Peter 5:2-3

Sincere Humility

Literature in both the secular and Christian management worlds suggests that successful leadership over the long term will be characterized by a humble servanthood rather than authoritarian dictatorship. Richard Rardin, writing to Christian leaders, says, “The servant of God must die to self before he or she can be of much use to the Father.”[3]

Dying to self can be described as doing “nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves,” as the Apostle Paul writes.[4]

Jim Collins, author of “Good to Great,” explains that his study of top rated corporations showed humility and an attitude of service by corporate CEOs was an important component of the company’s success. His think tank studied nearly 15 businesses that were wildly successful over the longterm.

They identified five areas that all of the corporations had in common. When it came to the CEO, he said, the “level 5 leader” was “an individual who blends extreme personal humility with intense professional will.”[5] He is not a vision-less, weak-kneed, milk-toast leader. But, he has extreme personal humility.

Ken Blanchard, in The Leadership Challenge, referring to Christian leadership, says, “The key to a servant leader’s heart is humility.”[6] Richard Rardin, author of “The Servant’s Guide to Leadership: Beyond First Principles,” says this is an “inside-out phenomenon.[7] Leadership in the church cannot simply be a veneer, according to Rardin who says that which is in the heart comes out in “words and deeds.”[8] Rardin suggests that the inner attitudes that leaders bring to the workplace will be expressed outwardly.[9]

Is this not what scripture teachers as the writers go for the heart of man? Paul says in 1 Peter 1:22,

Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart.” 

1 Peter 1:22

There is no leeway given for manipulation or false-fronts in biblical teaching. Love, expressed in our humility, is to be sincere . . . from the core of man.

The Struggle

But, Amy Edmondson, author of “Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy,”  argues humility is not something that comes easily for those who are in high positions.

Christian author, John Maxwell agrees, cautioning, “Ironically, most people see leaders who change the world as needing to be brazen and audacious.”[10] He goes on to argue, “But the only way to make a real difference is to do so humbly, without regard for recognition, ego, pride, even self-preservation.[11]

Christian leadership requires a servant’s attitude and action on behalf of those who are subordinate, neither a common nor easy goal. Leaders must go beyond their own comfort and needs, setting aside the world’s motivations of ego and pride, as Maxwell notes.

Lording it over” others, as Jesus says, is a basic temptation for Christian leaders and it must be battled daily.[12] And only by knowing the good news of the gospel, and embracing Jesus’ model of self-sacrificing leadership, can the Christian leader overcome the old nature.


[1] Heifetz and Linsky, Leadership on the Line, 208, Kindle.

[2] Birgit Schyns and Tiffany Hansbrough, eds., When Leadership Goes Wrong: Destructive Leadership, Mistakes, and Ethical Failures (Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, 2010), 296.

[3] Richard Rardin, The Servant’s Guide to Leadership: Beyond First Principles (Albany, OR: Selah Publishing, 2001), 102–3.

[4] Philippians 2:3.

[5] James C. Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap–and Others Don’t (New York: HarperBusiness, 2001), 21.

[6] John C. Maxwell, Christian Reflections on The Leadership Challenge, ed. James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006), 104.

[7] Rardin, The Servant’s Guide to Leadership, 36.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Maxwell, Christian Reflections on The Leadership Challenge, 72.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Matthew 20:25

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