The Leader's "I Wants"


Does being a servant leader mean never saying, "I want"? Is it great arrogance or great stewardship when a leader says, "I want"?

Leadership: An Adventure In Tension

Leadership is an adventure in tension.

  • There is the tension between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. God is sovereign. His plan and purposes trump all, but I am still responsible. As a leader I am responsible to plan, to organize, to decide, to communicate, and to delegate.
  • There is the tension between task and relationship. Leaders must simultaneously keep their sights set on the task to be done while ensuring that the people who accomplish the task are equipped, cared for, and protected.
  • There is a tension between listening and deciding. Leaders must ask, "What do you think?" But there are times when leaders must say, "This is what I want!" 

I struggle with "I wants." It smacks of being autocratic, self-serving, and heavy handed. Proclaiming "I want" seems to take the word "servant" in servant leadership and turn it on its head. At the same time, I know that to lead is to stand at the front, cast the vision, point the way, and by God's grace move things forward. That means there will be times for "I wants." I see this in history and in Scripture.

"I Wants" In History

A few nights ago, I was continuing my adventure through Winston Churchill's biography. 1941 was a tough year for Britain and for the Prime Minister. The combined assault of Nazi Germany and Japan was threatening the very life of the British empire. As Churchill himself once said, "This is no time to be pawing the ground." His notes to subordinates indicated quite clearly his "I wants."

On September 6, having sent his telegram to Stalin, Churchill visited Bletchley, where he told the staff how much they were worth to the war effort. When he learned six weeks later that a shortage of typists there was holding up the work, he minuted, 'Make sure they have all they want as extreme priority and report to me that this has been done.' [1]

On October, 2, having read further German messages brought to him in his locked box, giving details of the gathering of German military and air forces on the Moscow front, Churchill wrote to Colonel Menzies, the head of the British Secret Service: 'Are you warning the Russians of the developing concentration? Show me the last five messages you have sent to our Missions on the subject.' [2]

Like Churchill, there are times in war and in peace that require clarion calls for action and action now.

"I Wants" In Scripture

I catch glimpses of "I wants" in the Scriptures. Nehemiah 13 records Nehemiah's return to Jerusalem after a tempory stint in Babylon. Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem to find that a rabble-rouser named Tobiah had set up shop in the Temple. Nehemiah was incensed. He tossed out the furniture and ordered the chamber restored to a way that honored God. I can hear the "I want" loud and clear.

And after some time I asked leave of the kingand came to Jerusalem, and I then discovered the evil that Eliashib had done for Tobiah, preparing for him a chamber in the courts of the house of God.And I was very angry, and I threw all the household furniture of Tobiah out of the chamber.Then I gave orders, and they cleansed the chambers, and I brought back there the vessels of the house of God, with the grain offering and the frankincense. Nehemiah 13:6-9 ESV

Paul was another leader who meant business for God. Losing ground? Not on his watch! Paul had a charge from God. He knew exactly what needed to be done. Listen to his "I want":

This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you. Titus 1:5

Expressing wants without being dictatorial is essential. Let's return to Nehemiah to find out how it is done.

How Leaders Express Their Wants

While Nehemiah does not provide a theology of "I Wants," he provides key principles for how leaders make their desires known:

  1. The "I want" was specific, time-sensitive, and focused.
  2. I want Tobiah out of the Temple and I want him out now.
  3. The "I want" was driven by a sense of propriety, not by the leader's selfish desires.
  4. I want the chambers cleansed and restored to the way that honors God.
  5. The "I want" had as its goal the glory of God.
  6. Nehemiah said, "Remember me, O my God, concerning this, and do not wipe out my good deeds that I have done for the house of my God and for his service." (Nehemiah 13:14 ESV)
  7. The "I want" helped to move the work of God forward.
  8. One only need read the book of Nehemiah to see the impact of his strong leadership for advancing the cause of God's people.

There is much to learn from Nehemiah about taking charge. Chapter 13 includes five critical incidents that called for strong leadership. In each instance there was a very clear and concise "I want."

Leading well means clearly stating what you want that helps advance the cause for the glory of God.

Question: What are your leadership "I wants"?


[1] Martin Gilbert. Churchill: A Life (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1991). Page 707.

[2] Gilbert, Churchill: A Life. Page 708.