At first glance, that is an unusual title, isn’t it? It could bring to mind someone who was pressed into leadership out of pure necessity, although leadership wasn’t his or her gift (Romans 12:8). Sometimes the need does in fact call for such a decision and those who serve in such situations are to be commended for their efforts. However, I am using the title in another way, a way that may seem unusual, but with closer examination I think you will agree that it is a perfectly normal and necessary part of true spiritual leadership.
Although I have authored one book on leadership (Dynamic Leadership) and co-authored another (Golden Rule Leadership), I am always trying to learn more about such a vital subject. I believe that we have wonderful disciples of Jesus in our churches who want to be their best for God, and who will do about as well as they are led to do. That realization makes me want to keep growing as a leader in order to better help them grow as Christians. Further, the more you learn about any subject, the more you become aware of how much more there is yet to learn. I certainly view my knowledge of spiritual leadership in exactly that way. I’ve much still to learn.
So, what do I mean by the term “unnatural leader?” Actually, several related things. In the Golden Rule Leadership book that Wyndham Shaw and I co-authored years ago, we made a point about the importance of leading in an age-appropriate way. The parent who tries to lead their fifteen year old child the same way that they led them when they were five is headed for conflict and likely rebellion. The ministry leader who tries to lead a 45 year old disciple in the same way they led that same person when they were a new campus convert 25 years previously is making a similar mistake. The older disciple may not openly rebel, but at the very least they will not respond by wholeheartedly following that leader.
This leads us to the observation that leaders must be flexible enough to adjust their leadership style to the needs of those whom they are leading. All true leaders have a style that is natural to them. I call it their default style – they just do what comes naturally to them. That is not good enough. One style doesn’t meet all of the needs of the different types of people being led. Thus, all leaders have to learn to expand their leadership approaches beyond their own comfort zones in ways that are unnatural. At first, doing this will feel unnatural to both the leader and those being led, but in time, it will actually become fairly natural.
Does this sound something like hypocrisy to you? After all, it puts the leader in a position to do something that seems awkward and unnatural, perhaps making them appear as someone they are not. I have watched many leaders, perhaps the majority, lead in only one primary way – the way that comes most naturally to them. If they have a leadership gift, then they may well be effective with the majority of those whom they lead. But what about the minority of their group who doesn’t respond well to their particular leadership style? Can we just say that they are poor followers and leave it at that? That’s exactly what many (most?) leaders do, by the way. As a leader, I’m not satisfied with that answer, although I’m tempted to be. What if I can expand my leadership style in ways that would actually be effective with some of those minority folks who are more difficult to lead? If I could do that, wouldn’t God expect me to do it?
If you are a parent and have a child with learning difficulties or other behavioral challenges outside the norm, you can answer that question for us rather quickly, can’t you? You want teachers who adapt to the needs of your child, not teachers who just dismiss those needs because it is too much trouble to deal with them. Do you really think God wants those who lead his kids to just dismiss the needs of those who are more difficult to work with?
What are the real biblical issues involved here? “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). Oh, you mean that this verse about self-denial and taking up daily crosses might just apply to me as a leader? “in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Philippians 2:3-4). So now you are saying that these verses also apply to more than just ordinary Christian relationships − that they also apply to leader/follower relationships? Does not agape love demand that we do all that we can in any capacity to help every person as much as we can possibly help them, no matter the amount of sacrifice demanded on our parts?
Perhaps I’ve asked more questions than I’ve answered, but the answers are pretty obvious aren’t they? Being a leader is not about me; it’s about God first of all and then about his children. I don’t lead just because it’s my “thing.” I lead because God has given me a gift that carries a huge responsibility with it, the responsibility to help as many people as possible get right with God and then grow to be more and more like Christ. Every aspect of being a disciple is about the imitation of Christ in every area, especially in the area of leadership because of its increased influence on others.
Some leaders find it natural to be very challenging in their style and they love the passages that describe Jesus rebuking the Pharisees or turning over the tables of the money changers in the temple. Now that’s real leadership, right? That same Jesus had this said of him: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out…” (Matthew 12:20). That seems a bit different leadership style, used no doubt on those who were weak and damaged both emotionally and spiritually.
Other leaders find it natural to be gentle and encouraging. They love the Matthew 12 passage, but are uncomfortable with the Jesus who overturned those tables and rebuked the Pharisees. They pick and choose which parts of Paul’s well-rounded admonition in 2 Timothy 4:2 they want to follow: “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.” They are good with the encouraging, the patience and even the careful instruction, but they are not so good with the correcting and rebuking parts.
Leadership is about leading in the most effective way for the most people possible. 1 Thessalonians 5:14 demands that you adapt and expand your leadership style to meet those varied needs: “And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone.” (Note that Paul is addressing all disciples here, not just leaders.) Leaders are not called to lead within their natural personalities and comfort zones; they are called to lead like Jesus. They give encouragement when that is most needed by whomever they are leading; they give a timely rebuke when that is what is most needed. Neither discipleship nor leadership is about you doing what comes naturally. Following Jesus in any area and in any capacity means that we deny what comes naturally and do what is right before God, and through such heartfelt obedience, we will become like Jesus and what was once unnatural will become natural or at least much more natural. All leaders have to deal with their selfishness, and it comes in many forms. But if we take seriously the imitation of Christ as a lifelong process, the words of the old hymn will become an increasing reality in our lives: “Less of self, and more of Thee; none of self, and all of Thee.”