By Matt Perman
There are many different types of leadership roles, and, as Mark Sandborn has pointed out, you don’t even need a title to be a leader. So leadership doesn’t equate to having a role on the top leadership team or even necessarily having any formal authority at all. But it is not the only kind of leadership. Leadership, at its essence, is influence. And therefore you can lead wherever you are. But these principles are still important, even if you are not in a formal leadership role in your organization, because leading where you are involves more than just doing your work. You need to look outward, develop networks, motivate people, and rally them to a better future. These tasks are things you need to do beyond your individual work, if you are an individual contributor—which means you still need to be careful about the tendency to get pulled in to a narrow focus on your own work.
1. Make the Good of Others Your Primary Aim
Leadership is not about you. It is about serving others, building them up, and making them more effective. We should lead this way because it is right and it is the way the Scriptures teach us to lead (Matthew 20:25-28; 1 Peter 5:1-3; etc.). But it is also the case that this is actually the more enjoyable way to lead as well. It is far more fun to invent ways to help others thrive and grow than it is to conceive of plans for your own private advancement. And, beyond that, you’ll find that it actually makes you more effective as a leader because it unlocks the essential ingredient for true leadership: trust. Mark Sanborn nails this:
When people know you are interested in their best interest, and in helping them meet their needs, they will trust you. It’s human nature. And that genuine interest in helping others and making a positive difference is the essence of leadership.
The proponents of servant leadership are not simply contemporary leadership thinkers. Speaking over 250 years ago, Jonathan Edwards wrote:
Especially will the spirit of Christian love dispose those that stand in a public capacity, such as that of ministers, and magistrates, and all public officers, to seek the public good. … It will make them watchful against public dangers, and forward to use their powers for the promotion of the public benefit; not being governed by selfish motives in their administration; not seeking only, or mainly, to enrich themselves, or become great, and to advance themselves on the spoils of others, as wicked rulers very often do, but striving to act for the true welfare of all to whom their authority extends.
And, on the other hand, Edwards also spoke of the sin of those who, “if clothed with authority, carry themselves very injuriously toward those over whom their authority extends, by behaving very assumingly and magisterially and tyrannically toward them.”
Those whom you lead are not there to serve you; you are there to serve them. This is how Jesus himself led (Matthew 20:28); how could you see your role as being any different?
2. Turn the Work Over to the Team
As we saw, you cannot give attention to the true tasks of leadership unless you let your team focus on the managing and doing of the work.
This is not to say that the task of the leader is to avoid all menial work. Jesus himself showed us that is not the case by washing his disciples feet on the way to the cross (John 13:12-17). But the primary task of the leader is to set direction, align, and motivate—not primarily create plans and do the specific work tasks.
We don’t succeed at the executive level because of additional functional strengths. You have to turn the work over to your team—even if, at first, they can’t do it as well as you.
2b. For Pastors: Don’t Turn Over Preaching and Teaching
It might be tempting for a pastor to think, “OK, if my primary task is leadership, then I need to hand off more preaching and teaching so I can focus on leading the staff.” This would be a mistake.
The focus of the pastoral role is to be prayer and the ministry of the word—not leading the pastoral staff. That does need to happen, but it is not the primary role of the pastor.
The primary role of the pastor is to shepherd (lead) the flock. And this is done primarily through—not apart from—preaching and teaching.
The right application of this for pastors, then, is not that they should reduce their preaching and teaching load so they can do more staff leadership and administrative work. Rather, it is that they should reduce their administrative work so they can devote even more time to preaching and teaching.
Some people think that pastors are an exception to the importance of leadership. They think that a focus on leadership leads to a pastor as the CEO model. This is incorrect. Leadership in the pastoral role is practiced primarily through the ministry of the word and prayer. And thus pastors are not an exception to the things I am saying on leadership here; rather, these things actually protect the true nature of the pastoral role.
One nuance here: In larger churches, there is often an executive pastor who leads the staff, and you have a bunch of other roles that other pastors fulfill as well (small group ministries, family discipleship ministries, etc.). I am not saying that’s bad. The role of the executive pastor, for example, is primarily to lead the staff. I am talking here about the primary preaching and teaching pastor—which includes the senior pastor. (And, even so, the executive pastor should place a heavy emphasis on preaching and teaching in his contexts as well.)
3. Take Time to Think
A leader needs to take time to step back, get up on the balcony, and reflect. All good leaders do this. They process what has happened, think of new and better ways to do things, make sure they keep their eye on the big picture, and just plain think.
There is a significant reflecting component to leadership. The best leaders tend to be the best thinkers.
You need to find your own way to do it, but you need to build this into your life as a discipline. For many leaders, virtually all down time automatically tends to become thinking time. They are always thinking, always musing, always having ideas and reflections and questions running through their heads.
Or you might combine thinking with exercising or, like Jonathan Edwards, go for long walks to spend time in prayer and thought. The key is that you create time to think and do it regularly.
Beyond the ordinary time that you take to think during the course of a week, I would also suggest taking a week out every quarter or six months to go somewhere secluded and read and reflect on major issues and across a broad range of topics.
Bill Gates exemplifies this in his famous “think weeks” where he takes “a seven-day stretch of seclusion he uses to ponder the future of technology and then propagate those thoughts across the Microsoft empire.” Now that his efforts are turned primarily toward his foundation, I doubt that his focus is still the future of technology. But what better way to contribute to the solutions for large global problems than to spend a week reading and thinking about new and better ways to address them?
And you can do the same for the problems—and, most of all, opportunities—in your organization.
One other word here: Don’t merely think. Draw conclusions. That’s the point of thinking. Those who ponder, ponder, and ponder some more, without ever coming to a position on things, will be ill equipped to bring much insight and help to others.
Leaders need not only time to think, they also need time to connect with people. This should be a top priority for you in your leadership.
You need to connect not only with the people in your organization or primary sphere of influence, but also with people all across your industry or movement or marketplace or area.
Leaders need to stay in close touch with the people they serve and develop networks of relationships with other leaders.
Conferences are a great time to combine taking time to think and connecting with others. And, by combing these two, they both become more effective because you are able to share your ideas and see how they are refined and built on by others.
And this, in fact, is the purpose of conferences: connect with others and share ideas.
Some people regard attending conferences as a bonus expense, as something to do if some extra money is in the budget, but not worth prioritizing otherwise. I couldn’t disagree more. The value that comes from making connections, having time to think, being exposed to great new ideas, and refining your ideas is invaluable. If you work for a non-profit or a church, you will find that conferences radically expand your ability to accomplish your mission. And if you work in business, there is a strong case to be made that attending (good) conferences is actually revenue generating.
5. Don’t Ignore the Condition of Your Soul
Andy Stanley gets this right when he points out that “without character you won’t be a leader worth following. Character provides the moral authority necessary to bring together the people and resources needed to further an enterprise … Character is the source of your moral authority.”
And this means you need to keep your walk with God vibrant and growing. Andy Stanley captures this well again: “To become a leader worth following, you must be intentional about developing the inner man. You must invest in the health of your soul. Nobody plans to fail, especially leaders. But to ignore the condition of your soul is the equivalent of planning to fail.”
Matt Perman is the former Director of Strategy for Desiring God and is currently in process of launching a new organization devoted to equipping Christians theologically and practically, especially in the developing world. This article was adapted from the bonus chapter of his book, What’s Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done.
— See his excellent book You Don’t Need a Title to Be a Leader: How Anyone, Anywhere, Can Make a Positive Difference.  Mark Sanborn, You Don’t Need a Title to be a Leader, p. 64. Keith Ferrazzi gets this as well: “Do you understand that it’s your team’s accomplishments, and what they do because of you, not for you, that will generate your mark as a leader?” (Never Eat Alone, p. 57). That’s a critical difference: what they do because of you, rather than simply for you. He also adds a bit later: “I realized that my long-term success depended on everyone around me. That I worked for them as much as they worked for me” (Never Eat Alone, p. 58).  Jonathan Edwards, Charity and Its Fruits: Christian Love as Manifested in the Heart and Life, 170-171.  Jonathan Edwards, Charity and Its Fruits, p. 169. Note that servant leadership is not a recent innovation in leadership theory. It is taught and modeled in the Bible, and writing more than 200 years ago one of the greatest theologians the church has ever produced affirmed it.  I know some people say the concept of “senior pastor” is not in the Bible. And I do believe, as Alexander Strauch argues in Biblical Eldership, that all elders are equal in authority. But as Strauch also points out, one elder typically stands out as “first among equals,” and there may be different reporting relationships within the pastoral staff.  See my post, “Is Attending Conferences an Unnecessary Expense?” http://www.whatsbestnext.com/2010/03/is-attending-conferences-an-unnecessary-expense/  Andy Stanley, The Next Generation Leader.  Andy Stanley, The Next Generation Leader.