Chapter One: What Leadership Is





            As Matthew tells the story, the mother of James and John, accompanied by them, came to Jesus with a request.  She asked Jesus to command that her sons would sit on His right hand and left hand in His kingdom.  Mark, in his gospel, records that James and John made the request (Mark 10:35).   Obviously, James and John were involved with their mother in presenting the request.          

            The reply of Jesus and His interaction with the disciples raised several key issues concerning greatness and leadership.  Jesus deals with these issues and then presents His overarching teaching on the true nature of servant leadership.  He makes it very clear that the indispensable element is service.  The term leadership is used by many people to identify other ways to lead, but the servant leader puts the highest priority on meeting the needs of the people he serves. 

            The entire story, as related by Matthew and Mark, forms the background for all the chapters, including this one on what leadership is.  Keeping the whole story in mind, we will study Matthew’s version verse-by-verse and discuss the issues that are raised.  To facilitate this approach, I have included Matthew’s story at the beginning of each chapter.   According to Matthew 20:20-28, here is what happened:

   20 Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to Jesus with her sons, bowing down and making a request of Him.
   21 And He said to her, "What do you wish?" She said to Him, "Command that in Your kingdom these two sons of mine may sit one on Your right and one on Your left."
   22 But Jesus answered, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?" They said to Him, "We are able."
   23 He said to them, "My cup you shall drink; but to sit on My right and on My left, this is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by My Father."
   24 And hearing this, the ten became indignant with the two brothers.
   25 But Jesus called them to Himself and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them.
   26 "It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant.”
   27 and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave;
   28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many."

With this story in mind we will devote this chapter to a discussion of the need for leadership, what leadership is, and service as the indispensable factor in greatness and servant leadership.                   


The Need for Leaders      

            Over the past several decades, many books, articles, and ministries have dealt with the subject of leadership.  This has been a very popular topic.   Many, if not all, colleges, universities, and seminaries offer courses in leadership.  Undoubtedly, this is due to the very great need that there is for leaders.  As we think about the need, we will discuss our enormous task, the challenges that we face, and the demand for leaders.

            First, we have been given an enormous task. Christ has commanded us to "preach the gospel to all creation" (Mark 16:15) and to "make disciples of all the nations"   (Matthew 28:19).  Moreover, God has assigned us the task of "equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ" (Ephesians 4:12).   In addition meeting the needs of the poor and the suffering is an important concern.  When Jesus stated His mission, He included meeting the needs of those who are suffering spiritually, physically, and materially (Luke 4:18-19).

            Many Christian organizations include these elements in their vision and mission statements.  For example, I would cite the Assemblies of God World Missions (AGWM) organization with which I have served as a global missionary for several decades.  The web site of AGWM presents its fourfold mission statement as follows:

  • Reach.  “We reach the spiritually lost with the message of Jesus Christ in all the world through every available means.” 
  • Plant.  “We plant churches in 255 countries, territories, and provinces following the New Testament pattern.” 
  • Train.  “We train leaders throughout the world to proclaim the message of Jesus Christ to their own people and to other nations.” 
  • Serve. “We serve poor and suffering people with the compassion of Christ and invite them to become His followers.”

            These tasks engage the efforts of untold numbers of people throughout the world.  Multitudes are at work in their own countries.  In additions thousands of people are going from their home countries to other countries to minister.  They are going “from all nations to all nations.” 

Second, we are confronted with many challenges in completing the task. We must work in many languages, in a great variety of cultures, in difficult climates, with limited funds, with too few people, and many more.  At least some of these challenges face every leader who seeks to accomplish the tasks just named.  To accept a leadership role is to take on the challenges of the task.

            Today, one of our most difficult challenges is to present Christ in the midst of many false ideologies, agnostic or atheistic philosophies, and strange doctrines.  In our nation, as well as in many others, the truths of the gospel are under fire as never before.  However, the challenge of preaching and preserving the truth is not new.  This was one of Paul’s main concerns.  For example, his two epistles to Timothy emphasize this concern.  He asked Timothy to take a leadership role in preserving the truth, making this comment (2 Timothy 2:2):  “
The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”

We may call these challenges problems or opportunities. Either way, we must trust God for the solutions and keep advancing. The mountains must become as molehills as we follow the Lord. We must pray that the Lord, with His power in mind, will give us the right perspective.

            Third, all these challenges demand leaders. Without leaders the church languishes.  Chaos, inefficiency, and aimlessness prevail. Moreover, the commands of Christ go unfulfilled. With leaders goals are set, people are united, work progresses, and Christ's commands are fulfilled.

            Fourth, the challenges demand faithful followers as well as leaders.  Sometimes we think that we are extremely independent and do not want to be led. Actually, we often are hoping for leaders to emerge. Even though we want to be involved in what is taking place, we do not inherently reject leadership. We want to follow as well as to participate in leading. 

What Leadership Is

            Our focus in this chapter is on the concept and practice of leadership.  This is an issue that arises when we consider Matthew’s story (Matthew 20:20-28).  My comments below focuses on the types of leadership, definitions of leadership, factors to be considered in leadership, and my own definition of leadership.       

First, there are several types of leaders.  Murray G. Ross and Charles E. Hendry distinguish three types: "(1) the person who has achieved pre-eminence by unique attainment, who is ahead of his group, a person of the calibre of an Einstein; (2) the person who by designation, for whatever reason, has been given official leadership status involving formal authority, who is the head of his group; and (3) the person who emerges in a given situation as capable of helping the group determine and achieve its objectives and/or maintain and strengthen the group itself, who is a head of his group" (1957, 15, Italics mine).

            To illustrate this, in Biblical terms we can think of the prophet, the priest, and the king. The prophet is usually ahead of his followers.  He is a seer and has insight into where history is going.  The priest is a head of his followers. He is one of the spiritual leaders who guides the people.  The king is the head of his followers. The king has the full power and the position to rule the people of his group. Some kings are more considerate than others of the wishes of the people, but the king has the power.

In a supreme and unique sense, Christ is all three--Prophet, Priest, and King!  According to Acts 7:37, God will raise up a prophet like Moses.  That prophet is Jesus.  The writer of Hebrews declares that we have a high priest “who has taken His seat at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens” (Hebrews 8:1).  That high priest is Jesus.   When Christ returns, He will have a name written on His robe and His thigh which will be “KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS” (Revelation 19:16).  That King is Jesus.  Jesus Christ fulfils all three roles supremely. 

Second, we want to know what leadership is.  There are many definitions of leadership.  John C. Maxwell states, “Everyone talks about it; few understand it.  Most people want it; few achieve it.  There are over fifty definitions and descriptions of it in my personal files” (1993, 1).  Even though there are many definitions of leadership, and leadership is difficult to define, we often know it when we see it.  It is like the wind blowing--we see the result.

Many definitions focus on the last two types mentioned by Ross and Hendry, the leader who is either the head or a head of his group.   Not as much attention is devoted to the leader who is ahead of his peers. Sometimes a person who is ahead of a group becomes the head or a head, but not always.  Like a prophet, he may or may not be well accepted by the group.  The definitions below focus mainly on a head or the head, but the one who is ahead of his peers is not excluded.

            One, in Matthew’s story, the mother of James and John asked Jesus to seat them on the right and left hands of Jesus (vv. 20-21).  Apparently, they had in mind a temporal kingdom and political leadership.  Because of this, I will mention several definitions of leadership from the political world.

            Political leaders often put a strong emphasis on the position, power, and authority of the leader.  Writing about the nature of political processes, Charles Hickman Titus states, "Leadership, synonymous with politics, is the art of getting what one wants and making people like it" (1950).    President Truman’s definition is similar.  According to J. Oswald Sanders, he stated that “A leader is a person who has the ability to get others to do what they don’t want to do, and like it” (1967, 19).  These definitions do not focus on the needs, wants, and desires of the people being led.  In these definitions, neither Titus nor Truman mentions service.  They may elsewhere, but not here.

According to James L. Fisher, Eisenhower, who was both a military and political leader, defined leadership as follows: “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it” (1984, 15).  This definition brings in the desires of the people being led.  While still emphasizing the strong role of the leader, and the ability to persuade, this definition comes closer than the other two toward service being an essential element in leadership.  Many political leaders talk about service, but obtaining power is often, if not always, an important goal.  

            When you listen on TV to the political pundits, they seem to be conflicted about the nature of leadership.  They want political leaders to be responsive to the people they lead.  However, they will criticize the leaders for following the polls.  In addition they often applaud the leaders for taking an unpopular stand and then persuading the people to follow.  Or they may criticize the leaders for not “listening” to the people.  So it is difficult to “win” with many of the pundits.

Two, turning from leadership as defined in the political world, to leadership in general, quite a few stress the idea that leadership is, or at least involves, influence and, for many, the self-fulfilment of the people being led.  For example, Emory S. Bogardus says, "A leader is a person who exerts special influence over a number of people" (1934, 3).  In addition he states that “Leadership is a process in which there is a give-and-take between leader and followers. … The leader must thus consider continually the various possible reactions of his followers” (1934, 6-7). 

Similarly Ordway Tead states that "Leadership is the activity of influencing people to cooperate toward some goal which they come to find desirable" (1935, 20).  He goes on to say "The unique emphasis in the idea of leading here advanced, is upon the satisfaction and sense of self-fulfilment secured by the followers of the true leader"  (1935, 20).  Both these definitions include the concept of influence and the relationship the leader has with the followers. 

            Three, many authors write from a Christian perspective.  They often acknowledge that many good leadership principles are not uniquely Christian, but they include them in their overall all Christian framework.  The idea of leadership as influence, as well as other factors, is widely accepted and emphasized.

            Maxwell, for example, defines leadership as follows: “After more than four decades of observing leadership within my family and many years of developing my own leadership potential, I have come to this conclusion: Leadership is influence.  That’s it.  Nothing more; nothing less” (1993, 1).  Similarly, James C. Hunter defines leadership as: “The skills of influencing people to enthusiastically work toward goals identified as being for the common good, with character that inspires confidence” (2004, 32).

            Ken Blanchard and Phil Hodges posit that “Leadership is a process of influence.  Anytime you seek to influence the thinking, behaviour, or development of people toward accomplishing a goal in their personal or professional lives, you are taking on the role of a leader” (2005, 5).  They advocate leading like Jesus.  According to them, the leader is a servant, not a self-serving leader. 

            J. Robert Clinton holds that "A leader is a person with God-given capacity and God-given responsibility who influences a group of followers towards God's purposes for the group. The central element of this definition is the leader influencing the group toward God's purposes" (1988, 127).  Similarly, Henry and Richard Blackaby maintain that “Spiritual leadership is moving people on to God’s agenda” (2011, 36).   In order to do this, they say, spiritual leaders must hear from God.  They maintain that “Spiritual leaders cannot know God’s agenda if they are disoriented to his voice.  As with any facet of the Christian life, it always come down to one thing.  The most important thing spiritual leaders do is cultivate their relationship with God (John 15:5; Jeremiah 7:13)” (2011, 42).

             Third, as we think about various definitions of leadership, at least eight factors emerge for our consideration.  In this section I have commented on seven of these factors.  The eighth fact is service.  Because service is the main factor in Matthew’s story, I have treated it in a separate section.  The theories of leadership usually highlight one or more of all these factors. A complete definition of leadership will encompass all of them.

            One, let us consider the leader himself.  The leader is obviously an important factor.  His background, personality, and traits are a part of the total leadership picture. Ross and Hendry say that the "great man" theory holds that men are predestined by their unusual natural traits to lead events and shape situations (1957, 18).  Other theories emphasize the training and the development of leadership qualities.

Our Bible colleges and universities stress the training of leaders.  It is commonly believed among us that most individuals will have stronger and more fruitful ministries if they are trained to serve.  Nevertheless, we all recognize that God sometimes chooses someone to lead--whether pastor, evangelist, or teacher--in powerful and unusual ways who has not been trained in one of our institutions.

            Two, as Richard Wolff points out, leadership may be seen as "a group property and as a function of the group structure. The significance of the leader is recognized, but largely because he is seen as the dynamic focus of the group" (1970, 113).  The leader assists the group in achieving its goals, with its functions, and helps maintain the group.

Many churches are planted by an individual who is called of God for this task.  However, there are other churches that are started by a group which looks for a pastor to become the leader.  In such cases the group has an important role in the planting of the church. 

            Three, another approach emphasizes the situation.  Leaders are involved in many different situations.  It would not be wise, nor practical, for a given person to be a leader in every situation.  Thus, a leader in one situation may not be a leader in another situation.  Sometimes a leader in one situation is very much a follower in another situation.  Moreover, the practices that produce a result in one situation may not work very well in another situation.  A pastor might have a huge result in one city and then write the story with an emphasis on how this was done.  Then the pastor goes to another city and does not see the same harvest.

            According to Wolff, the leader, the group, and the situation are all important elements in leadership.  After discussing the leader and the group, he makes this statement:

Finally, it has been suggested that leadership is situational.  It is argued that a leader may be ineffective in situations where his abilities are not useful.  Since personality traits are stable or fixed, whereas group goals and purposes are variable, it has been deduced that leadership must be fluid and move from one member of the group to another, depending on the situation. (1970, 113-114) 

Wolff concludes that "We are then face to face with three basic concepts of leadership: the center of gravity is either in the leader, in the group, or in the situation" (1979, 114).  My conclusion is that wherever we place the center of gravity, we can include all these factors in our definition of leadership.   

Four, in any leadership situation both private and group goals exist. As Christians, we submit ourselves to the will of God. Because of this, the challenge is to discover what His will is both for us as individuals and for the group.  Henry and Richard Blackaby stress that “Spiritual leaders work from God’s agenda” (2011, 40).  They maintain that “God is working throughout the world to achieve his purposes and to advance his kingdom.  His concern is not to fulfil leaders’ dreams and goals or to build their kingdoms and careers” (2011, 40). 

Both the leader and the group must sense the leadership of the Holy Spirit.  Leaders may focus on what the group initiates and wants, what the leaders want, or what the group comes to find desirable under their guidance.  The important point is that they all hear from God.  In church life, very often the lead pastor hears from God, shares the vision with other leaders in the church, and presents the vision to the congregation.  When the congregation is united in believing in the vision, great things can be done. 

            Five, the act of leading is all-important.  Some leaders speak of the leader getting what he wants and making people like it. Others stress more what the leader does to influence or guide the group. Going further, others put the emphasis on the leader being mainly an implementer of group goals.  Whatever approach is taken, the ideal is for the leader and the people to work and move together.  A prophet, of course, is frequently found out front and alone. He walks where others do not wish to walk or, perhaps, fear to walk! 

Six, a very important factor in leadership is vision.  Although Maxwell defines leadership as “influence, he expresses this opinion: “My observation over the last twenty years has been that all effective leaders have a vision of what they must accomplish” (1993, 139).  With regard to the source of the vision, George Barna holds that “True vision comes from God.  When we personally conjure up a vision, it is fallible, flawed, and limited; God’s vision is perfect in every way” (1997, 48).

            Seven, with regard to Christian leadership, the work of the Holy Spirit is the most important factor.  Administration (
1 Corinthians 12:28), for example, is a gift of the Spirit.  In addition the Spirit uses the natural talents that we have. Even these natural talents are themselves a gift from God. Moreover, the Spirit guides both the leader and the group toward the goals God sets before us.

            Fourth, many years ago, with the above factors in mind, I wrote my own definition of leadership. With slight modifications I will present this definition today.   As you will see, it is somewhat eclectic and inclusive of the seven factors just discussed plus service.  Here is my definition:

Leadership is the art, science, and gift of the Holy Spirit demonstrated by a person, in a given situation, by means of which a group and its constituency are inspired, guided, and served, in the cooperative accomplishment of a vision which is accepted by the group as the will of God and desirable, whether the objectives of the vision were formed by the group or presented to the group by the leader. 

This definition is in total harmony with the emphasis on servant leadership by Jesus in Matthew’s and Mark’s story.  The leader serves the ones whom he leads and the people they serve.  With this in mind, we turn to a discussion of service as the indispensable element in spiritual leadership.

Service and Greatness

            Many writers, both secular and Christian, hold that the great leader is one who puts service first rather than power.  This has led some of these writers to develop the concept of servant leadership.  They show that leading by serving is an excellent way to lead.  We can add that it should be a desired element in all approaches to leading.  Some approaches, however, preclude the idea of servant leadership.    

            As we consider greatness and leadership, it important to note that these are not totally synonymous terms.  These terms overlap when many who are great become great through their leadership.  However, there are great people who are not leaders and there are leaders who are not great.  Our focus here is on being great servant leaders. 

First, according to some sources, Robert K. Greenleaf is the “father” of the concept of servant leadership in the secular world.  He did not base his work on what Jesus said in the stories by Matthew and Mark.  Rather, he chose a story by Herman Hesse which had to do with a person named Leo who led by serving.  In an essay that Greenleaf wrote in 1970 he introduced the term “servant leadership.”  Later, in his book, he makes this descriptive statement:

The idea of the servant as leader came out of reading Hermann Hesse’s Journey to the East.  In this story we see a band of men on a mythical journey, probably also Hesse’s own journey.   The central figure of the story is Leo, who accompanies the part as the servant who does their menial chores, but who also sustains them with his spirit and his song.  He is a person of extraordinary presence.  All goes well until Leo disappears.  Then the group falls into disarray and the journey is abandoned.  They cannot make it without the servant Leo.  The narrator, one of the party, after some years of wandering, finds Leo and is taken into the Order that has sponsored the journey.  There he discovers that Leo, whom he had known first as servant, was in fact the titular head of the Order, its guiding spirit, a great and noble leader. (Greenleaf, 2002)

According to Greenleaf, “this story clearly says that the great leader is seen as servant first, and that simple fact is the key to his greatness” (2002).   He applies this insight to many domains as he comments on servant leadership in business, education, churches, and foundations. 

            Second, almost 2000 years earlier, Matthew and Mark wrote the story of Jesus interacting with the disciples about service and leadership.  This book deals with the leadership issues raised by this story.  In the story Jesus declared: “whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave” (Matthew 20:26-27).  Without service, one does not become a great leader.  In other words the indispensable element in greatness and in great leadership is service.  Moreover, to be first among others, one must step down and be a slave. 

When authors, both secular and Christian, write about servant leadership, they often cite this story.   It is, indeed, a powerful story that inverts the normal values of a secular society.  Individual believers in Christ, as well as the church, need to act in accordance with what Jesus taught and did.  Many secular businesses and institutions have captured the essence of what Jesus taught and used His teaching in productive ways. 

            Service, then, is the indispensable factor in greatness and, we may add, of servant leadership.  Jesus contrasted this with the “Gentile” concept of greatness and their view of leadership.  For the Gentiles, greatness and leadership did not exist without power.  Without power all was lost.  Jesus exhorted the disciples to make service the indispensable element of greatness and leadership. Without service, the disciples do not lead. All the power in the world would not make them leaders in the sense that Christ spoke of leadership.


            The story by Matthew about the mother of James and John asking that her sons have positions of honor in Christ’s kingdom raises many issues about leadership.  In this chapter we have focused on what leadership is.  First I have discussed the need for leaders. We have been given an enormous task in evangelism, discipleship, training, and compassion ministries, and there is a demand for leaders.  Second, I included a section on what leadership is.  This included the types of leadership, definitions of leadership, seven major factors in leadership, and my definition of leadership.  Third, I presented a discussion of service and greatness, including both a secular approach and the story by Matthew and Mark. 

            As we conclude this chapter, let us simply exalt Jesus.  In His leadership, as in all other things, He is our highest example.  When we look at Jesus, we are inspired to follow His example and accomplish His task in His way.  His emphasis in the Matthew and Mark story is on becoming great through service.  As we do our work, we need to focus on service the people we seek to reach. 

© 2016 G. M. Flattery