Everyone leads. Like it or not you are shaping how others think and feel, believe and behave. You might not always notice it but people are looking to you to help them answer the questions they are asking about their world. How are you leading?
Despite the lingering image of what we might perceive to be effective leadership—stern, heavy-handed, ruthlessly efficient—the Bible teaches us a better way. The best leaders are loving leaders. What will it look like for you to lead lovingly?
1. Loving Leaders Understand the Power of Love
People operate at the level of love or desire. As James K. A. Smith has articulated (borrowing from Augustine), “the center of gravity of human identity” lies in “our kardia–our gut or heart.” We feel our way around life by our desires. When people have a choice, they tend to do what they love. Since love is the best motivator the best leaders are governed by love. Jesus’ true disciples follow him because they love him (John 14:15), not because they are strong-armed. Paul explains his motivation to follow Christ even beyond the apparent bounds of sanity: “The love of Christ compels us” (2 Cor. 5:14). A biblical theory of motivation can be summarized in three words: Love precedes obedience.
You will never lead anyone into genuine, God-honoring, long-lasting, community-building, self-fulfilling obedience unless they are directed by love for God and his glory. Of course, we can’t create that love; only the Holy Spirit can. Still, true leaders know the importance of nurturing love for God by means of wise words and kind actions. True leaders reflect God’s heart so those they lead can see it.
We cannot truly lead until we captivate hearts. An older model of leadership prized cut-throat fierceness, and iron-fisted determination. Right or wrong, many people today are more likely to follow leadership that respects and stimulates their desires. You can command followers by strength. But you can only draw followers by love. When you have control, you can make people do what you want, but when they are no longer under your thumb they will do what they love.
Positive leaders know that a God-honoring sense of duty never outpaces love. Godly pacesetters “lead followers continually into a deeper and more comprehensive love for what is most real, most true, most right, and most important.”
2. Loving Leaders Project Love
Positive leaders transmit a spirit of warmth. Consider an analogy with Scripture. God’s Word deals frankly and firmly with sin. Yet, the strongest melody of Scripture’s song is that of redemption and salvation. Redemptive history is more like a smile than a frown! Likewise, positive Christian leaders face the difficulties of life with a tangible optimism you would expect from someone who has become God’s friend.
Truly spiritual leaders project a likeability because their personalities are flavored by the fruit of the Spirit. Loving leaders smile because they’ve experienced God’s smile. The word smile and its opposite, frown, are not usually thought to be theological words. But God conveys his displeasure toward his enemies by frowning. God threatens his enemies by saying: “I will set my face against that man” (Ezek. 14:7-8). By contrast, David rejoices in the “light of God’s countenance” (Ps. 44:3). He asks God to “make Your face shine upon Your servant” (Ps. 31:16). Positive leaders smile because God smiles on them.
This means that positive leaders are cheerful. And this is important because people tend to follow those they like. Do we not feel enriched by positive people and drained by negative people? One historic catechism even codified the necessity of Christian cheerfulness. All church members must use their “gifts readily and cheerfully for the service and enrichment of other members” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q/A 55). How much more should this be true for leaders?
3. Loving Leaders Speak Love
Choosing to speak love requires first understanding the power of words. Positive leaders recognize that words can kill and can bring life (Prov. 18:21). Godly leaders choose their words carefully and retract them when necessary.
Second, loving leaders handle hard matters with care. They don’t dwell on the negative but speak five positive statements for every negative one. Leaders articulate concerns winsomely. They are careful not to exaggerate or belabor their own personal burdens. Positive leaders don’t amplify their sacrifices. They believe and talk about their privilege to lead.
Third, loving leaders make others feel valued. They give compliments wherever possible. They put into words the appreciation they feel for others, making explicit what others might not always sense. They congratulate and affirm people by name.
Fourth, loving leaders speak hopefully about the future. In the context of opposition and hardship, Paul said, “For I know that this will turn out for my deliverance through your prayer and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:19). Paul’s harshness to the Galatians stands out because it was so uncharacteristic. His method was to encourage. Positive leaders remind other believers that “with a view to the future [we] may have good confidence in our faithful God and Father that no creature shall separate us from His love” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q/A 28).
Fifth, loving leaders speak enthusiastically about their projects. They pursue a godly vision with energy. They heed Paul’s imperative: “The one who leads must do so with zeal” (Rom. 12:8). They communicate their zeal verbally. Positive leaders have a passion for God, for the gospel, for the church. They see sin as no match for Christ. Leaders project success in dependence on God’s promises and character. They speak the language of Joshua and Caleb, who said about the land of Canaan, “Let us go up at once and take possession, for we are well able to overcome it” (Num. 13:30). Leadership is hard but inevitable. You need God to lead you in love. So others need you to lead them in love.
This article is adapted from William Boekestein’s chapter “Positive Leadership: Leading like Jesus (Not Rehoboam) in Faithful and Fruitful: Essays for Elders and Deacons (Reformed Fellowship Inc., 2019) edited by William Boekestein and Steven Swets.