Learning Leadership From Jesus

Great leaders understand the important interplay between power and authority, and lead accordingly. Much leadership insecurity comes from a misunderstanding of these dynamics. When a leader hands off a leadership role, something in the back of their mind tells them that they will no longer have the same authority as before. This is fertile soil for insecurity to breed. This insecurity can lead to abuse. If left unchecked we will likely tend towards manipulation, ruling from the grave, or subtly undermining the new leadership, together with a host of other poor leadership choices. For this is how the seeds of fear blossom in leadership. However, doing this erodes our authority quicker than handing off a position could ever do.

Every leader must exercise their authority in a godly manner.

Like our varied English renderings of the word ‘love’, for which there are four distinct Greek words, authority has several crucial distinctions. Every leader, regardless of maturity levels, must understand how to correctly lead and exercise their authority in a godly manner.

Learning Leadership From Jesus

Let’s consider authority from a simple yet profound example from Jesus. When Jesus handed over primary leadership of the New Testament church to his disciples, did his authority increase or decrease? In Matthew 18:18, Jesus appears to extend his divine authority to his apostles, “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven”. Putting aside debates about the ‘power of the keys’, here Jesus clearly shares his authority with others.

Jesus clearly gives his authority to others.

At the Great Commission, Christ simultaneously speaks of possessing all authority and tasks his apostles with making disciples among the nations. Thus he says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:18-19).

This leaves us with three possible scenarios. Was Jesus:

  1. Giving away the authority that he had? 
  2. Retaining the authority he had?
  3. Multiplying the authority that he had?

We Multiply Authority by Giving It Away

We know from the rest of the New Testament that Christ is seated at the right hand of God the Father (Hebrews 1:1-4), where he reigns forever (Hebrews 1:8). Thus Paul assures us “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Philippians 2:9-11). Clearly Jesus still possesses his full authority, so scenario one above is not possible.

When we raise up leaders we also multiply our own authority.

We then read in 1 Thessalonians 4:2, “You know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus”. Here Paul is clear that he—and the other apostles—carried the authority of Jesus. So the only possibility from Jesus’ example is that godly authority that is given is also authority multiplied. Jesus multiplied his power by entrusting it to others. The insight we gain from this is that when we raise up leaders and release authority we also multiply our own authority.

So much leadership insecurity, which often leads to leadership failure, comes from a misunderstanding of the dynamics of power and authority. When a leader hands off a leadership role, something in the back of their mind tells them they will no longer enjoy the authority they had before. Hence the temptation to the insecure clinging to power. If left unchecked, or if our theology stays incorrect, this results in abusive, manipulative, and undermining leadership.

Rethinking Leadership and Authority

Now, there are different forms of authority. However, I’d like us to take a look at just two types. As a leader, it’s important to understand what to do with the authority you are given.

1. Positional Authority Relates to Power

Two people cannot carry the positional authority of the senior leader in one organisation. This would be disastrous. Even though positional authority is the lowest level of authority, we often consider it to be the highest. In ministry the implications of having two people in positional authority—for example, a founder who transitions to chairman, with a new senior leader in place—who exercise their power unwisely, is often harmful to the church.

People who only carry and rely heavily on positional authority often abuse power.

People who only carry and rely heavily on positional authority often abuse power. Power is one of the most corruptible forces known to humankind. Few people can carry it without being negatively affected by it. As we raise up younger leaders, we must mentor them to understand that position is only important for how it brings clarity and order to an organisation. Leadership positions are essential to release others in the organisation to function effectively and to direct activity towards mission.

Since positional authority is given away when we step out of a leadership role, we must put more energy into raising leaders who seek to lead with relational authority, rather than relying on positional power. This is far harder to master. But it will have a significantly greater impact on the world. So let’s take a deeper look at this lesser recognised form of authority.

2. Relational Authority Relates to Influence

People can easily influence others without positional authority. Think of Martin Luther or Nelson Mandela in their early days. They were not considered positional leaders by any governing authorities. Yet they carried such great influence as to direct the energy of hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people.

When we serve others, our relational authority increases.

Jesus, likewise, had tremendous relational authority, from the moment he shared his life with his new friends to the time when he washed his disciples’ feet (John 13:15; 15:12). After he did this they would have gone to war for him—and did, spiritually speaking. The remarkable point he was making in that act was that when we serve others, our relational authority increases.

Relational authority also increases through encouragement. When leading an organisation of 80 volunteer staff, a mentor taught me that volunteers are best led by constant encouragement. With volunteer staff, when the manipulation potential of a paycheck is removed, encouragement is a powerful leadership skill. Young leaders should be trained to learn the art of encouragement. It propels people to reach their full potential. This is the kind of influence leaders should look for. For this is the kind of leadership Jesus embodied.

True Leaders Don’t Cling to Authority

I encourage leaders to particularly guard against clinging to positional authority, whether that resistance to handing over is fuelled by fear of their ministry failing, or whether it’s driven by a sense of pride that no one would be able to lead from that position like they did. Once Christian leaders truly realise the difference between these types of authority, there is no room left for insecurity. When we handoff leadership we realise that all we are handing off is positional authority.

Guard against clinging to positional authority, whether that resistance is fuelled by fear or driven by pride.

In addition to letting go of positional authority, we increase relational authority as people come to trust us. Therefore even if we have no “official” or positional authority, Christian leaders must use their God-given relational authority and influence to the best of their abilities, wherever they find themselves.