The Practices of Leadership

Have you noticed that people who are leaders (i.e. who command a following) come in different shapes and sizes?

For example, Mother Teresa was a simple lady but commanded great influence. Obama has a charisma of communication and wields great influence. One of my church leaders is a quiet and godly man, but his colleagues assert that he is of great influence, highly respected and taken seriously when he speaks.

Why do people who can command a following seem to be so different?

As I was growing up, my concept of “leadership” was nebulous. I knew “leadership” existed, but could not quite define it clearly. With time, I realized that “leadership” is a multi-faceted ability. Furthermore, “leadership” was difficult to define because a leader that commanded a following did not need all its facets, but just several of them to be pretty decent leaders. Hence, “leader A” could have facets “1,2,3″ and have a following. While “leader B” could have a different set of facets “4,5,6″ and yet also have a following. But “leader A” could be very different from “leader B”—this reality is what makes leadership difficult to define.

I would like to share my observations on 7 facets of leadership in my pastoral experience.

Many effective leaders have some clusters of these facets, some more, some less. But together they give a broad definition of the leadership gift.

Good Christian Leaders…

1. Have a Divine Enablement

All godly, Christian leaders have an inner empowering that comes from their relationship with God. This “facet” of Christian leadership, is a foundational one. All other leadership abilities stem from this divine enablement which distinguishes Christian leadership from other forms of leadership.

Divine enablement comes from having a vital spiritual life and practices that are conducive to hearing and receiving from God. Such a life often encompasses well-developed spiritual disciplines, e.g. prayer and fasting, worship, bible-study, etc. These disciplines are not cursory but well-developed to enable the leader to hear and receive a “direction” or “vision” from God.

Nehemiah faced a crisis, and had an encounter with God that burned a vision into his heart. This vision was the cornerstone of the next 11 years of his leadership in Jerusalem.

They said to me, ”Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.” When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven… (Neh 1:3-4)

When Nehemiah heard of the terrible news of Jerusalem, he committed to prayer and fasting. From his time of prayer, one could see that Nehemiah was also a man who had studied Scriptures and insightfully applied God’s promises:

… ”Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, but if you return to me and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name.’

”They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great strength and your mighty hand. O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name. (Neh 1:8-11a)

Out of this Scripturally-inspired prayer, Nehemiah resolved on a direction in his heart:

Give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man.” (Neh 1:11b)

Nehemiah is one of many whose investment in a life of prayer, fasting and study of Scriptures created an environment conducive for God to speak in his life. The mandate he received from God as a result stood him through the times of difficulties and challenges.

Divine enablement growing out of a spiritual life with the disciplines that help hear and receive from God, also shapes an ability to persevere in a leadership direction despite difficulties. This perseverance comes from receiving encouragement from God, as well as a conviction that the said direction is an imperative and mandate from God for the leader’s life.

2. Vision-Cast

This is a popular and well-documented facet of organizational leadership—the “vision-thing”.

A leader is able to paint a picture of God’s desired end-product in a myriad of ways. They paint it in a way that is biblical, has eternal implications and touches on the core values of the following community. This facet involves practical skills related to the ability to communicate effectively, including preaching, teaching, sharing, writing, etc. It can be exercised in a sharing over a meal, in a small group or to a large crowd.

I had been encouraging one of my leaders to rise up to worship lead, as well as to give leadership over the worship team. She had expressed her inadequacy and inability to inspire people. I said to her, “I have often observed your ‘fire and passion’ for Christ in your private sharing. I know the ‘fire’ is in your heart. Now all you need to do is to let that ‘fire’ burn outside for people to see.”

The core of vision-casting is really letting a passion for something God has put on our hearts burn outside for others to see. It is about talking late into the night on a topic in Christ which excites you. Vision-casting is fundamentally a passionate communication of something that burns within us. Communicating it with 1 person, 10 persons, 100 persons or 1000 persons requires differing skill-sets to be learnt, but at its core it is basically the same—“setting yourself on fire for Christ and people will come to watch you burn”.[1]

Effective leaders often do not have many different “visions” to cast. They have a few key tenets or values which they cast over and over again in different ways. Like it has been said, “they make the familiar seem strange, and the strange seem familiar”.

3. Motivate Others

People need motivation and encouragement. They need it most in times of difficulties, and when led to move into a new direction. People are often stressed when they go through uncertainty and change.

Joshua’s officers gave direction to God’s people as they prepared to enter the promised land:

After three days the officers went throughout the camp, giving orders to the people: “When you see the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God, and the priests, who are Levites, carrying it, you are to move out from your positions and follow it. Then you will know which way to go, since you have never been this way before. (Joshua 3:2-4b)

Joshua’s officers remember that this was new territory, that they had “never been this way before”; so they came beside them, and called them to cast their eyes on God’s presence centered on the Ark of the Covenant. When a follower is discourage, or apprehensive due to stepping outside of his/her comfort zone, they are greatly encouraged when their leaders are aware and sensitive to this, guide them and remind them to trust in God.

One of the most motivating things leaders can do is to genuinely care for their followers. Nothing motivates a follower more than when they know, “my leader really has my interest at heart”. Different people respond differently to change. Learning to speak the love-languages of their followers, and understanding their personality needs are skills good leaders learn in order to understand and encourage those in their team.

4. Give Direction

In a sense, this is the defining role of a leader—to give direction. People need help and guidance when it comes to uncharted territory. When facing a new direction, some questions that percolate a follower’s mind could be:

▪ Where are we going? Why are we going this way?

▪ How will it impact or affect me?

▪ How can I move in that direction? What are the first few steps to take?

▪ How can I overcome difficulties along the way?

One of the key roles of leadership is to address these questions in people’s minds by painting the big-picture, breaking the project into bite-size steps, positioning people well, coaching and guiding are some ways that leaders help followers find direction and persevere in following it.

5. Build Harmony

Have you ever heard the remark, “I love God…its God’s people that I can’t stand”?

Working with people carries all kinds of conflict and stresses in relationships.

Jesus’ team was not exempt from conflicts and stresses:

Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”

“What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.

They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”

“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”…

…When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:35-38, 41-45)

A conflict arose as disciples became indignant with each other, and Jesus patiently stepped in to remind them of his own example and used the conflict situation to teach the spiritual principles of humility and unity.

Good leaders provide the “oil” that lubricates the different personalities. They remind people of their purpose, their strengths and weaknesses—and above all—God’s call to accept and love one another.

Few followers are able to take responsibility to ensure that their peer-team function well. If it is any one single person’s responsibility to do that, it would be the leader’s. When I served as a Lead Pastor, I pulled together a team of 6-7 staff. In the initial years, as much as 40% of my time went into oiling relationships and helping the team find their place with each other. I believed that once they found their right positioning, the team would truly get great work done. And they did!

6. Multiply Their Followers

And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others. (2 Tim 2:2)

The apostle Paul’s word to pastoral leader Timothy as part of his ministry was to “reproduce” himself, not to be the sole teacher himself, but to enable others to become teachers as well.

Good leaders seek to produce followers who can, in turn, produce their own followers. This is the dynamic of multiplication that is found in the things of Christ:

“Enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your tent curtains wide, do not hold back; lengthen your cords, strengthen your stakes. (Isa 54:2)

Good leaders ask themselves, “How can I bless more people through this ministry?”

When that ministry has saturated the church, they ask, “How can I bless other churches, other communities through this ministry?”

In order to accomplish this, they ask, “How can I raise the leaders and followers necessary to grow the impact of this ministry”?

The skill sets of multiplying beyond oneself are equipping others, mentoring and coaching followers, and finally empowering them into the position they are called to.

My friend and dean of leadership studies in seminary, Dale Galloway, once wrote,

God has never given me anything worthwhile to do that I could accomplish by myself…some leaders want to make followers. I want to make leaders. Not only do I want to make leaders, but I want to make leaders of leaders. And then leaders of leaders of leaders.[2]

7. Target God’s Purposes

In olden days, the ships that sailed often had 2 compasses, one in the bridge under the helmsman and one  the mast. When storms occurred and lightning was present, the compass in the iron boat would become unreliable. Often in the midst of the storm, a sailor was sent up to the mast to check the reading of the higher compass.[3] During the storms of life, when the leader is under great pressure, often the thoughts of the heart become unreliable. The leader needs to return to God’s word, remember his/her first call, recall his/her purpose in ministry.

We need to steer by a higher compass—the compass of God’s word and purposes:

Are we still doing what God called us to do when we started?

Am I still faithful to the calling when God first called me into this place or into ministry?

I have seen pastors who served for many years feel they have been pushed into doing things that were outside of their calling from God given at the first. How sad if that is the legacy of our lives! We need a measuring rod to keep us on track despite of busy-ness. We know that the enemy of hearing God is sometimes having too many things to do!

Every leader needs to discern a sense of God’s calling to where he/she is at.

For marketplace leadership, it may be a contribution to a particular field, product or company, to add-value to one’s team and to be a witness for Christ.

For pastoral leaders, that call may be toward discipling people, helping people reach others for Christ, growing others in Christ and empowering others to be leaders.

Whichever it may be, the question is: are you living in the center of God’s calling and purposes for you presently?

Some leaders command a following because they are visionary, give clear direction and concrete steps.

Others command a following because they position people in teams well and truly show welfare to their followers.

Yet others command a following because they are able to equip and mentor people well to grow in their call.

Even though it is rare for any one leader to have all the facets; I believe that as students of leadership, it behooves us to understand the significance of all facets, and seek to grow in all of them to the degree that God has gifted us.

I submit to you that leadership is the divine enablement to cast vision, motivate people and direct them to work harmoniously, in multiplying toward God’s purposes.[4]


[1]. This quote is attributed to John Wesley.

[2]. Dale Galloway was then Dean of Beeson Studies, Asbury Theological Seminary.

[3]. This illustration was shared to me by Edmund Chan, Covenant Evangelical Free Church.

[4]. This definition is inspired from an original leadership definition from Bruce Bugbee, Network.