The Actual Marks of a True Leader

Who do you look up to? Who do you point to and say, “Now THAT is a good leader?” Are you looking up to and saying this about people who are truly leaders? Are you identifying actual marks which will allow you to lead yourself, or allow you to train somebody else to lead? Or are you falling for the self-help books, and all of their training to help you identify the “7 marks of an effective leader,” or whatever new NYT best selling book on leadership which will come out in 2019?

Jesus Christ is truly a leader who has actual marks of leadership. I’m not denying there are other good leaders who have followed in Jesus’ footsteps (actually much to the contrary!). I also recognize because of God’s common grace on all humanity there are some non-Christians who exhibit many of the characteristics I will include below, but here I suggest the 5 actual marks of a true leader.

  1. Mark of a true leader #1: They have a higher purpose than their present circumstances. Jesus became Incarnate and came to earth, and from the very early days of His ministry he made his purpose on earth known. Jesus had clarity on where He belonged, in heaven, who He was, the Son of God, and why He was on earth, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, BECAUSE HE HAS ANOINTED ME TO PROCLAIM GOOD NEWS TO THE POOR. HE HAS SENT ME TO PROCLAIM FREEDOM FOR THE PRISONERS AND RECOVERY OF SIGHT FOR THE BLIND, TO SET THE OPPRESSED FREE.” What got Jesus out of bed in the morning? What allowed him to have such clarity as he looked ahead to Jerusalem where he would bleed and die to redeem sinners from the slavery of sin? He had a purpose that was always higher than his present circumstances. A true leader will do everything-make every decision-take every step knowing they have a higher purpose than whatever their present circumstances show or say. So, whether they are presently successful, or not, they approach each day with clarity of their “higher calling,” which is to “Love God and love their neighbor,” and to “Go and make disciples of all nations.”
  2. Second Mark of a True Leader: They see themselves as leading from the front and not ruling from the back. When Jesus came to earth He did so because He saw the human predicament of being separated from God by sin, and out of His love for sinners He actually got His hands dirty and involved Himself in the predicament. Jesus didn’t stand back and watch as we tried to build our own paths to salvation, but He entered into our mess and walked through our sinful world alongside us, yet he never sinned! A true leader isn’t somebody who stands back and barks orders while being unwilling to get messy, sweaty, and even bloody at times; no a true leader sees their people can’t pull the rope, so they roll up their sleeves and jump to the front to help pull the weight.
  3. Third mark of a true leader: A true leader knows how to follow. A true leader learns the art of submission from their authorities or authority. Even until the end of Jesus’ life we see Him saying “Not my will but yours,” whenever He prays to His Father in heaven. Jesus was experiencing the same trials and temptations that we do, but unlike us He perfectly submitted to God the Father as He followed His leading. In our individualistic/anti-authoritarian culture this is not something we do well at, however, if we are ever going to recover true leadership rather than dictatorship, or personality CEO styles of leading then we had better re-emphasize the importance of only leading once we know how to follow.
  4. Fourth mark of a true leader: They know love is an act of sacrifice. Man our culture gets some things way off doesn’t it? One of those things is our image of what a leader looks like. Most TV shows or movies depict strong leaders as relatively cold, and distant people who have very few moments or opportunities for pathos with the people they serve. “Love” is hardly ever a word used when discussing who our society sees as strong leaders. Very rarely do you hear of an American leader who was or is “very loving.” This is because we’ve allowed a “dog-eat-dog” mentality to determine for us what a leader looks like, and this sort of thinking finds its root in Darwinism and Ayn Rand-not in the Jesus of Scripture. Jesus is the one who said “There is no greater love than that a man lay his life down for his brothers.” Jesus is also the one who “loved us and gave his life up for us.” Jesus “gave his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus showed the greatest act of leadership is actually love-and the greatest sign of love is sacrificing for those who serve you. This means that if we are going to lead well in whatever capacity God has given to us we must sacrifice, not only personally, but also for the sake of those we lead.
  5. Fifth mark of a true leader: A true leader leads with grace. Unfortunately, a lot depictions of “bosses” or “The-powers-that-be” show these characters as harsh, merciless, and even ruthless. The truth is that a true leader who knows true love seen in the greatest sacrifice of all time, Jesus on the cross, also follows this Jesus, leads as Jesus led (from the front not the back), and they know their higher calling is to love God and glorify Him forever; these true leaders have their hearts changed by grace so they lead with grace. What does this look like practically? Let me give you a visual example… One time I was playing basketball for a new coach when I air-balled a free throw during a game. My old coach would have pulled me from the game, “had a talk with me,” and made me run at practice the next day, thus instilling fear and “discipline” into me. This coach didn’t do this… He clapped his hands and said make this next shot. I made the next shot, he kept me in the game, he cheered for me louder than anybody else in the room, and then he still made me run a suicide the next day for missing my free throw. He didn’t neglect discipline; leading with grace does NOT mean allowing people to walk all over you-it means you cheer loudly for those under your authority, you encourage them, you give them second chances, and you prove to them that you trust them. The leader who leads with an iron fist will quench spirits and instill a culture of fear which gets people to do what they want, but the leader who does so with grace will build spirits up, instill a culture of grace, and their people will actually want to do work for their leader.

These are the 5 actual marks of a true leader. I’m not at all naive to the fact that Jesus exhibited other marks of a true leader, but these are the ones that stand out to me above the rest. Take notice of how radically different these are when compared with many “marks of a leader” books and manuals of today. Most of our culture’s ideas are focused around things like eating a balanced diet, waking up at 4:30 AM, doing yoga, doing a good deed every 6 hours, and all kinds of other suggestions, but these 5 marks are more focused on who the leader is rather than what the leader does. I leave you with this thought: a true leader always uses these 5 marks to raise up new leaders. So, go and lead with these 5 marks and identify somebody you can pour into as you raise them up for future leadership which follows in the model Jesus set for us in the gospels.


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