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What makes for a good leader?

According to Scripture, it’s not the qualities we think. When Israel looked for a king, the nation focused on traits we still enjoy in leaders. We like leaders who are outwardly impressive, who look the part. Leadership, we believe, requires a healthy dose of charisma.

God sees potential leaders differently. “For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).

I’m convinced we still look for leaders who impress. But God has a different standard for, and requirement of, leaders.

Putting Leadership in Its Place

We’re told that everything rises and falls on leadership. In contrast, Scripture views leadership as important but not ultimate. We need leaders (Titus 1:5). Some leadership tasks need to get done.

“As important and central as is the ministry of the Word of God, writes D.A. Carson, “the thoughtful pastor/elder/overseer will devote time and energy to casting a vision, figuring out the steps for getting there, building the teams and structures needed for discharging ministry and training others, building others up, thinking through the various ways in which the gospel can be taught at multiple levels to multiple groups within the church, how to extend faithful evangelism and church planting, how to engage the surrounding world as faithful believers, and much more.” Leadership matters.

At the same time, leadership isn’t everything. Every leader in Scripture is a flawed one, and leaders come and go as the gospel spreads throughout the world. In Acts, leaders come and go with little notice. One of the greatest leaders lists failure and suffering on his leadership résumé, not strengths (2 Corinthians 11:21-30).

Leaders matter, but not as much as we think. The power is never in the right leadership technique but in the Spirit working through imperfect people. Our confidence is always in God and his gospel, not in individual leaders.

Leaders matter, but not as much as we think. The power is never in the right leadership technique but in the Spirit working through imperfect people.

A New (Old) Kind of Leader

One of the church’s most urgent tasks is to think biblically about leadership and to resist the world’s pattern for leaders.

We must learn how to resist the cult of leadership. We think that getting the right leader in place will make all the difference. To be sure, God uses godly leaders. But our hope is never in a person. People come and go. Our hope is in what only God can do. Thank God that he chooses to uses weak, imperfect people. “Better a godly elder with mediocre leadership gifts than a charismatic leader with glaring moral flaws,” writes Jeramie Rinne.

We must also expect both more and less from our leaders. Expect more: more character, more conviction, more ability to defend the gospel against attack (1 Timothy 3:1-7). But also expect less. Expect that leaders will raise up other leaders and not lead alone. Expect them to be replaceable. Expect leaders to disappoint. The Corinthians were impressed by the super-apostles and disappointed by Paul, but Paul was okay with that (2 Corinthians 11). Few things are as impressive as a leader who’s stopped trying to be impressive.

We need a new kind of leader, one who’s trying to be an old kind of leader: taking cues from Scripture rather than culture on what it means to lead; not looking for personal status; serving rather than accumulating power (Mark 9:35).

The best leaders are convictional leaders. They may be weak. They may not be impressive. But they serve and point to the one who has the power, and then get out of the way. That’s the kind of leader we need.