True Leadership Is Sacrifice, Not Privilege

It is one of the filthiest lies Satan whispers in the ear of our comfortable and entitled generation.

From before we can even remember, we have been indoctrinated, at nearly every turn, with the idea that being “a leader” means getting the gold star. Leadership is a form of recognition, a kind of accomplishment, the path to privilege. Being declared a leader is like winning an award or being identified among the gifted.

Leadership is a form of success. And since you can do whatever you dream, and can achieve whatever you set your mind to, you too can be a leader — at home, at work, in the community, in the church. Why would you settle for anything less? Leadership means privilege, and no generation has considered itself more entitled to privilege than ours.

The Lie About Leadership

The world’s spin on leadership is in the air of our society, felt in the subtext of our adolescence, and reinforced in our public elections. We are swimming in it everywhere we turn. Why follow when you can lead? Why contribute to the glory of another when you can be the chief beneficiary instead?

“One of the marks of Satan’s influence in a society is leaders lording it over those for whom they are supposed to care.”

As novel and inspiriting as it may seem, it’s a very old deception. From the garden, to the history of Israel, to the Middle Ages, to our innate notions about leadership today, the natural, human, sinful way to think about leadership is to be king of the hill. To view leadership as the ascent to honor and privilege, rather than the descent to attend to the needs of others.

One of the distinct marks of Satan’s influence in a society — evidence that the god of this world is blinding unbelievers en masse — is that leaders lord their leadership over those for whom they are supposed to care. The lie may be as prominent (and embraced) today as it’s ever been, but by no means is it new.

Not Lording It Over

The voice that calls most clearly for the true path of leadership — leadership as sacrifice, not privilege — is Jesus himself. He warned sharply against both the pagan and religious leaders of his day who sought to use their people for their own benefit, rather than serve.

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25–28; also Mark 10:42–45)

Jesus summons us to have a distinctly Christian perspective on leadership. And if these words from Jesus on the nature of true leadership weren’t enough, he made it unforgettable, on the night before his death, on his knees with a washbowl and towel in his hand.

“If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.” (John 13:14–15)

Sacrifice for Their Joy

The apostle Peter, who led the apostles as first among equals, strikes the same clear note for a distinct vision in the church. Christian pastor-elders are to serve “not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:2–3).

“Christian leadership is fundamentally about giving, not taking.”

For a follower of Jesus, greatness in leadership is not defined by how many you have beneath you, but how consistently and significantly you are led by the Holy Spirit to make personal sacrifices to serve the true needs of others. Christian leadership, as captured by John Piper, is “knowing where God wants people to be and taking the initiative to use God’s methods to get them there in reliance on God’s power.” And taking such initiative is typically another way of saying “sacrifice.” Initiative is personally costly.

What specifically is the good for which faithful leaders will take initiative and make sacrifices? According to the apostle Paul, it is laboring for the joy of those in our charge. “Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith” (2 Corinthians 1:24).

Leadership as Sacrifice

Christian leadership, then, is fundamentally about giving, not taking. Christian leaders are not empty, immature individuals looking to prop themselves up with new privilege. Rather, they are men and women who are secure enough, and mature enough, to empty themselves for the good of others.

“At the heart of leading is taking initiative we otherwise wouldn’t take and making sacrifices we otherwise wouldn’t make.”

Mark this, husbands and dads, pastors and presidents, the very essence and heart of leadership is taking initiative we otherwise wouldn’t take and making sacrifices we otherwise wouldn’t make, to guide our people somewhere good they otherwise would not have gone. We embrace short-term personal difficulties for long-term corporate gains. We are among those who are learning that life’s greatest joys come not in private comfort and ease, but in choosing what is uncomfortable and hard for the sake of others’ joy. We are learning to find our joy not in the ease of attending to self, but in the toughness of attending to others.

Christian leadership — in the home, the church, and elsewhere — is not for those clawing for honor and recognition, but for those most ready to fall to their knees and be inconvenienced by the needs of others. They are those who, in a sense, have their house sufficiently in order to be able to turn their attention to serving others. Instead of pursuing their own immediate benefit, they are willing to sacrifice for others’ benefit.

Like the Son of Man, we lead not to be served, but to serve (Mark 10:45). We die to self so that others might live.