What Does It Really Mean To Lead?


Perhaps Warren Bennis was right. The Distinguished Professor of Business Administration at the Marshall School at the University of Southern California, wrote,

To an extent, leadership is a lot like beauty: it’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it.[1]

Identifying leaders is not that hard. We do know them when we see them. But defining leadership is a different matter. You’ve heard it said: “Leadership is influence. That’s it. Nothing more and nothing less.”[2] Well  . . . not exactly!

Joseph C. Rost, authored a massive critique of twentieth-century. Interestingly, Rost discovered that sixty percent of the authors of leadership since 1910 failed to provide a definition of leadership.[3] Rost’s exhaustive study produced this definition:

Leadership is an influence relationship among leaders and followers who intend real changes that reflect their mutual purposes.[4]

Rost’s definition is rich. Unpack it and you’ll find essential elements of what it means to lead. But what does God say? Nancy Pearcey writes,

There is a biblical perspective on everything—not just on spiritual matters.[5]

The Bible says a lot about leadership. Today’s post is designed to give you an overview, while focusing particularly on the word “lead” found in Romans 12:8. It is a bit technical, so skim the highlights or examine every word including the resource I provide at the end.

Biblical Metaphors for Leadership

The biblical record contains many metaphors for how the leader functions, and consequently what leadership looks like. Leaders are:

  • Gentle like a mother (Galatians 4:19; 1 Thessalonians 2:7)
  • Exhorting like a father (1 Corinthians 4:14-15; 2 Corinthians 12:14; 1 Thessalonians 2:11);
  • Displaying the caring heart and skillful art of a shepherd (Psalm 78:72; Ezekiel 34:23).
  • Working like a builder (1 Corinthians 3:6-9).
  • Cultivating like a farmer (1 Corinthians 3:6-9)
  • Being other-centered like a servant (Mark 10:45)

When a biblical theology drives ideas about leadership, images of CEO and manager are replaced with those of a father, shepherd and servant.[6] I will write more about that in the future.

The Nature of Biblical Leadership

It is the servant nature of leadership that stands out the most in Scripture (Mark 10:45; Titus 1:1). Leadership is ultimately an act of service. Frederick G. Gaiser writes, Is there anything the church knows about leadership that nobody else knows? Only one thing, I think: ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.[7]

But “servant” is not the same thing as “leader.”

Paul writes to the Roman church, “Having gifts that differ according to the grace give to us, let us use them: … the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal.” I took a long, hard look at the word lead. I traced its use in the New Testament. Here’s what I found about leadership:

  1. Leaders lead—They must lead respectfully, humbly, and with a servant heart—but leaders stand at the front and lead!
  2. Leaders serve—The context of the leadership gift helps the leader to remember that leadership is ultimately a service. Leaders serve the body through their work.
  3. Leaders act—God wants his leaders to be action-oriented, responsibly preoccupied with the work God has given them. Biblical leadership is marked by a bias for action.
  4. Leaders take responsibility—Biblical leadership is predicated on the idea of managing something; taking responsibility for a family, a group, a task, or a church. Biblical leadership does not focus on rights, but on responsibilities.
  5. Leaders are accountable—Leaders recognize they are ultimately accountable to God for their leadership.
  6. Leaders are zealous—Leaders know that they are responding to God’s call. They’ve got the bigger picture and the bigger purpose. It makes them diligent in their efforts.
  7. Leaders are collegial and collaborative—Leadership is not a solo act. Paul, who implores us to imitate him, had more than forty helpers traveling with him.
  8. Leaders deserve respect—Leadership that is marked by hard work, loving service, and careful teaching is to be rewarded.

What does it really mean to lead?

Understanding the spiritual gift of leadership helps to ensure effective ministry and provides a theological footing for a more broad-based biblical paradigm of leadership for God at work and in the church.

Leading means you stand at the front for God wherever you are toserve by taking oversight and influencing your team, your group, or your church toward a common goal, and doing it all for God’s glory.

May God give you grace and strength to do just that today!

Want to dig deeper? Here is a resource:

  • The Romans 12:8 Leadership Gift: You can click here for this 13-page paper that explores the way the word “leadership” is used in the New Testament. NOTE: It is a technical paper. The paper will come to your downloads folder as a pdf document.

[1] Warren Bennis, On Becoming A Leader, 1989.

[2] John Maxwell, Developing The Leader Within You, page 1.

[3] Joseph C. Rost, Leadership for the 21st Century, page 7.

[4] Rost, Leadership for the 21st Century, page 102.

[5] Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth, page 44

[6] Root, Michael. 1985. Called to the office of ministry: the New Testament and today. Currents in Theology and Mission 12 June: 162.

[7] Frederick G Gaiser,  To lead or to serve. Word & World 13 (1): 3-5, 1993.