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Published Date: March 5, 2002

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What Does a Godly Leader Look Like?

My mother was a godly leader — though I’m sure she would never have described herself that way. She had a high school education, and her only employment outside the home was either in a hosiery mill or a dime store. If she had been asked to speak to an audience of adults, she would have been terrified.

But she was a leader. When the minister’s kids needed attention while their father preached and their mother led music, Mama babysat. A family reunion needed to be organized — Mama did it. At the church dinner, the food needed to be set out, the dishes washed, the floor swept — Mama led the way.

A leader needs vision.

Much of the talk about vision involves big words and high-sounding principles. To call someone “visionary” brings images of a business entrepreneur or a world leader. Simply put, however, a person with vision is one who sees a need and a way to meet that need.

How did Joseph go from being a slave (and a prisoner, at that) to being second to Pharaoh? If he had merely interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams, how much would his status have changed? Joseph immediately saw the implications of the fat cattle and lean cattle, the fat heads of grain and the lean ones. Without an appropriate strategy, years of plenty would be followed by years of starvation. “Here’s what we need to do” was Joseph’s immediate response. A need, a solution — Vision!

Few of us will have the opportunity to save a nation, but even great leaders do not begin at that level. Joseph, for example, began by responding to fellow inmates who were having disturbing dreams. Their need was simple — “What does my dream mean?” And Joseph’s response was simple, “God helps us understand dreams.”

Saving a nation from starvation, helping an immigrant learn English, babysitting for the over-worked young mother, feeding the homeless, cleaning the church — a need may be great or small. All, however, require the recognition of a need, then an idea, and then an attitude that says, “Let’s do it.”

Attitude is more important than ability, education or position.

Consider the story of the Good Samaritan. The priest and the Levite — the “leaders” — clearly saw the needs of the man that had been robbed, beaten and left half dead by the side of the road. They were educated; they probably even knew first aid! Moreover, they clearly had the financial and physical resources to meet the man’s needs. Rather than exercise their leadership, however, they passed selfishly on their way.

Jesus shows us a different model. After hearing the disciples argue about rank and status, he took a towel and washed their feet. First by his actions and then by explanation, he said, “If you are going to be a leader, you must put the needs of others ahead of your own desires.”

Elsewhere, Jesus spoke of a leader as a shepherd. Good shepherds, Jesus said, will give their lives for those entrusted to them. Most of us are called upon to do much less. Ameal, a few hours of our time, maybe even a little money or a little sweat — our investments in God’s kingdom are usually not much larger than this.

A leader is not afraid to work.

My Aunt Chloe once remarked, “Daddy loved to work; I didn’t inherit that quality, but Ellen did.” Ellen was my mother, and she did indeed enjoy working. Many summer mornings, I awoke to the chop, chop of her hoe in the garden. If her hands were idle, she was most likely either in church or asleep (and in later years, maybe both).

I’ve noticed that about leaders — they are not afraid to work. “Lazy leader” is a contradictory statement, like “old news,” “giant shrimp,” and “deafening silence.” Much of effective leadership involves example — followers tend to work only as hard as the person setting the pace.

I grew up in a farming community where most people earned a living very literally by the sweat of the brow — if not in the fields, then in one of the area mills. A Christian unwilling to work hard had trouble getting a hearing. My dad never forgot the pastor who came and helped him get up hay before a storm struck. When my brother’s trailer burned, the volunteer fire fighter who kicked in the door became a hero — as did the neighbor who came by and asked, “What do you need?”

Ecclesiastes advises us, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might!” (Ecclesiastes 9:10). Leaders take that advice to heart!

A godly leader has reverence for God.

The first time (it may have been the only time) someone introduced me as a “godly woman,” I was both flattered and dismayed. “Godly” seems like such a lofty concept — describing a status well out of my reach. But reading a formal definition has allayed my anxiety: being godly means “having reverence for God.” That’s a description I can live with!

In presenting the eulogy at my mother’s funeral, our pastor described her as a good, Christian woman. Neighbors and friends agreed. But one person objected, “How can you say that? She had a child while she was unmarried!”

That misses the point, doesn’t it? Being godly does not mean being perfect. In 1939, it must have taken enormous courage for my mother to face her pastor and her congregation; she never talked to me about it, but that pastor did — Mama was a repentant, active member of the congregation up to and after the birth of her child.

The leader we respect acknowledges sin, asks forgiveness of God (and others when necessary), and moves on. There is no better example than that of David — the hard-working shepherd who became King of Israel. Though described as “a man after God’s own heart,” David did not escape the snares of sin. When confronted about his adultery, deceit and murderous manipulation, David had several options. He could have denied his guilt; it would have been his word against that of the prophet. Or he could have denounced the prophet or had him killed to shut off the source of accusation.

David, however, responded by saying, “I have sinned against the Lord.” David had such reverence for God that his immediate response was not an explanation or excuse but an acknowledgement of his sin. This humble, repentant response paved the way for his continued leadership.

Reverence for God has other implications for the godly leader. It prevents a leader from getting a “big head.” Recognizing that opportunities and abilities are both God-given, the leader cannot become puffed up. Likewise, a leader refrains from abusing a position for self-gain. When God places us in a position to help others, he also gives us the responsibility to use our talent in his service, not our own.

In fact, reverence for God underlies all the leadership traits we’ve talked about.

  • From God comes the ability to see a need. That is why we pray, “Open our eyes, Lord.”
  • From God comes the ability to recognize opportunities for service, a way we can help meet the need he has helped us see.
  • From God comes the call to work. Often, the call is direct — here is a need, meet it.

What is the difference then, between a leader and other workers? If you wait until someone asks for your help, you are a follower, not a leader. But if you recognize a need and then pitch in to make a difference, you have taken your first step in leadership. Who knows what God has in store for you next!