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Leadership Defined

By G. Raymond Carlson

Human nature being what it is, the need for leadership is imperative. Disasters bring out leaders. No plebiscite is necessary. People respond to the person who takes command, who seemingly knows what to do. They will listen to the one who has the presence of mind and boldness to take over.

The public is never capable of acting en masse. Without a leader it is headless and a headless body is powerless. Someone must always lead. Even the mob engaged in pillage and murder is not the disorganized group it appears to be. Somewhere behind the violence is a leader whose ideas the mob is simply putting into effect.

The story is told of a meeting between Napoleon Bonaparte and his military staff. Several officers complained bitterly about the poor quality of soldiers. They pointed out this was the reason they had not reached some of their objectives.

The discussion halted, however, when Napoleon quietly said, “Gentlemen, there are no bad soldiers, only bad officers.”

In that brief statement the little general underscored the importance of good leadership.

Ambition To Lead

Anything worth accomplishing needs good leadership. Effective leadership is in demand everywhere. Industry looks for leaders who accomplish their objectives even if they achieve them at the expense of others. But that is not God’s way. He wants leaders who stoop to wash their followers’ dirty feet. While the world’s style of leadership is often either through dictatorship or charisma, God’s method is radically different.

Jesus himself came to planet Earth to serve rather than to be served. Humility and servitude are qualities He demonstrated. His example indicates the qualities which He desires in those whom He chooses as leaders.

Recall the conversation of Jesus with the mother of James and John as she made her ambitious request for them to have the special honor of being seated at his right hand and left hand in the Kingdom. He states, “ ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant ... just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve’ ” (Matthew 20:25–28, NIV).

Does that imply that we should not desire to lead? The Bible gives us the answer, and the answer may seem to be inconclusive, if not in conflict. Jeremiah declared, “Seekest thou great things for thyself? seek them not” (45:5, KJV). In contrast, Paul wrote to Timothy, “To aspire to leadership is an honorable ambition” (1 Timothy 3:1, NEB).1 How can these statements be reconciled?

Jeremiah’s warning to Barach was not against ambition, but against self-centered ambition — “great things for thyself.” God’s man does not seek position for prestige and privilege.

It is laudable to have goals, to accomplish and attain. But basic to the desire to achieve is proper motivation. Ambition that is unbridled by the Holy Spirit can wreak havoc. Look at some pursuits which bring the wrong harvest.

The pursuit of popularity. Any desire to be popular that sacrifices principles, convictions, and ideals is to be avoided. The quest for popularity is fraught with danger. We want the favor of others, but the favor of God must come first.

The pursuit of position.Some have an unholy ambition for positions of power and authority. While the Scriptures instruct us to “seek that ye may excel” (1 Corinthians 14:12, KJV) and to “desire the office” (1 Timothy 3:1, KJV) the context of these verses clearly teaches that servanthood, not honor and prominence, is involved (Psalm 75:6,7).

The pursuit of publicity. False claims and ego-centered declarations to place one in the spotlight are not only cheapening, they are wrong.

The pursuit of preeminence. Remember Diotrephes who “loveth to have the preeminence” (3 John 9, KJV). Self-love is the master passion in every human heart. Power for ministry is imparted, not induced; given, not achieved.

If success makes us arrogant, despotic, condescending, we are marching to the wrong drummer. There is peril in pride, for “pridegoeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18, KJV).

The pursuit of privilege. The awareness of God’s grace and blessing must lead us to search our motives. Great opportunities bring great responsibilities. To lose sight of Christ’s redemptive mission to planet Earth, to lose our message and ministry of reconciliation, to become self-satisfied in our calling is to fail in the great privilege God has entrusted to us.

The pursuit of profit. Covetousness produces a dry rot that eventuates in a mass of dry dust. Preachers who pull on the heartstrings of people for personal gain are a disgrace to the Lord and His work. Greed and grace do not walk together. Lust for possession brings deterioration of spiritual life and character.

Our Lord makes it plain that the world’s conception of greatness and leadership does not fit in His spiritual kingdom. The divinely enunciated principle of servanthood must be understood and accepted.

True greatness, true leadership, is achieved not by reducing peers to servitude, but in giving oneself in service. The true leader is more concerned with what we can give to God and others than with the benefits he can take to himself. For us in the Assemblies of God it must be not what can the Assemblies of God do for me, but what can I do for the Assemblies of God.

The Psalmist states that, “Promotion cometh neither from the east, nor from the west, nor from the south. But God is the judge: he putteth down one, and setteth up another” (Psalm 75:6,7, KJV).

A.W. Tozer stated, “that it might be accepted as a fairly reliable rule of thumb that the man who is ambitious to lead is disqualified as a leader. The Church of the First-born is no place for the demagogue or the petty religious dictator. The true leader will have no wish to lord it over God’s heritage, but will be humble, gentle, self-sacrificing, and altogether as ready to follow as to lead when the Spirit makes it plain to him that a wiser and more gifted man than himself has appeared.”

The now-famous Lech Walsea said, “I never wanted to be the leader of solidarity; it was more the result of the work I was doing. I have never fought to be number one. And I advise everybody not to, because if you start fighting for rank, you lose energy and end up with nothing left for the cause.”

Leadership Defined

J. Oswald Sandersin his book, Spiritual Leaders, quotes several definitions by others of leadership. Lord Montgomery defines it in these terms: “Leadership is the capacity and will to rally men and women to a common purpose, and the character which inspires confidence.”

John R. Mott, a world leader in student circles, gave as his definition: “A leader is a man who knows the road, who can keep ahead, and who can pull others after him.”

President Truman defined it: “A leader is a person who has the ability to get others to do what they don’t want to do, and like it.”

General Charles Gordon asked Li Hung Chang, an old Chinese leader, a double question: “What is leadership? and how is humanity divided?” This was the cryptic answer: “There are only three kinds of people in the world—those that are movable, those that are immovable, and those that move them.”

President Eisenhower defined it: “The ability to get a man to do what you want him to, when you want it done, in a way you want it done, because he wants to do it.”

Leadership is attained by four means — election, appointment, usurption, or respect. Spiritual leadership, however, does not come by election or appointment. It is not made by the decisions of men. Only God can make one a spiritual leader. To hold a position of importance does not constitute spiritual leadership.

The gift of leadership is a cherished privilege and a high honor. There is no doubt that when Paul wrote, “To aspire to leadership is an honorable ambition,” he meant that the function of serving and not the office is honorable.

The church languishes,not for leaders but for the right kind of leaders. The sheep seldom go farther than the shepherd. History shows that the church has prospered most when blessed with strong, Spirit-filled leaders. Conversely, the church has suffered the greatest decline when her leaders were weak and time serving.

Leaders Are Motivators

Ifsomeone says of you, “He is a great motivator,” you should take it as a compliment. Motivators are in. They know how to get things done. They have the unusual skill of making people want to work with them.

This skill appears priceless. Some leaders plead, cajole, threaten, coddle, and pamper followers to spur them to action only to be disappointed. Others motivate followers and accomplish the seemingly impossible.

Motivators capture our attention and respect. But not all motivation is correct. The priceless qualities of spiritual leadership and servanthood must control the skills of motivating.

A 4-year-old can motivate his parents. They will give him almost anything lest he performs one of his awful tantrums. They are highly motivated to keep him in good humor. Or when a gunman sticks his Saturday night special in my back, I become highly motivated to turn over my billfold.

Anyone can crack a whip, swing a club, or throw a tantrum in an attempt to get his way, but it takes a special kind of person to be an example in servanthood and a model in leadership.

Wrong motives, misguided methods, and unsatisfactory results are pitfalls for some motivators.

My motives can be wrong if I am not careful. If I lose compassion for people, I can be moved by a desire to use them. I can lose my dedication to Christ and be driven by a compulsion to succeed. And success is so illusory I am never quite sure when I have attained it, and so personal that I am overwhelmed by selfish reasons to pursue it.

My methods can be misguided if I become careless. I can become more and more dependent on my knowledge of psychology, and less and less dependent on my commitment to theology. I can be so intrigued by what makes people tick that I forget the gospel alone can make them right.

The tragedy is that wrong motives and misguided methods end up with unsatisfactory results. I may become the star, but I build with wood, hay and stubble. There is no permanency.

Numbers, statistical reports, and financial success become the measuring stick, and the end justifies the means. Outward, visible, measurable results are the bottom line. The flesh is fed but the spirit is starved as we enjoy sensual gratification, ego satisfaction, and unrestrained material indulgences.

If I am not careful, the desire to be outweighs the desire to become. I must beware lest the plaudits of men take from me the desire for the approval of the Lord.

We need the skills of a motivator and the principles of psychology. But let’s share with our followers their scars in the arena rather than indulge ourselves with the medals in the grandstand.

G. RAYMOND CARLSON, former general superintendent of the Assemblies of God.


1. Scriptures marked “NEB” are from The New English Bible. Copyright © Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press 1961, 1970. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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