04/29/2014 04:12 pm ET Updated Jun 29, 2014

Follow Like a Leader

If you can dream - and not make dreams your master,
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools...
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings - nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!

(From "If" by Rudyard Kipling)

Who would desire to follow the leader - or desire to lead others who would follow?

My father once told me that people should only aspire to leadership if they have truly learned to follow. At the time I didn't give much thought to his seemingly quirky observation, but the thought has remained with me as I've both worked with leaders who knew how to manage but couldn't lead, and also as I've struggled my own way through the challenges and expectations of leading an organization and its people.

During the past few months, I've been doing a lot of reading and reflection about the nature of leadership. Given the sheer volume of literature being written about leadership, the innumerable seminars being presented, and the endless coaching being offered it seems to me that the world has more leadership experts and people theorizing about leadership than there are real leaders. So why is it that, with so much talk about leadership, there is a bankruptcy of dependable and decisive leadership at every level of society and in every field of business, politics, justice, religion, economics, peace making, education, etc.

Jesus of Nazareth is often held up as one of the highest models of leadership. A number of years ago I read a book written by Laurie Beth Jones titled, "Jesus CEO." The book introduced itself as presenting Jesus "not as a religious messiah but as an executive leader" - a model for leadership success. The title made me a little uncomfortable, perhaps because it attempted to define Jesus in chief executive terms. Yet as I read through the book, I realized that the life and teachings of Jesus do exemplify leadership qualities and character of the highest order. While Jesus Christ was and is more to me than merely a paradigm of executive leadership, I began reflecting on what I could learn about leadership from the life of Jesus - about leading like Jesus. This has become an ongoing reflection for me, and here are just a few of my observations:

Jesus was clear about his purpose and focus. He knew his mission, the vital importance of that mission and he never wavered from it. Against all distractions and temptations Jesus stuck to His mission. He resisted every opportunity designed to lure him into taking shortcuts to "success" or to pursue popular support, or to win the approval and consensus of others. Jesus did not compromise his commitment; he remained faithful to the One who sent him into the world. He was intent on pleasing only the Father, by fulfilling the things the Father gave him to do.

Jesus was courageous in the face of criticism, opposition and difficulty. His actions were not based on risk management strategies or on any fear or negative consequences. Neither his mission nor his message changed in response to the opposition of other leaders or the fickle passions of the people. And even when Peter tried to dissuade him from going to Jerusalem for fear of what might happen, Jesus resolutely "set his face toward Jerusalem."

Jesus inspired others to a higher cause. He was not a seeker of consensus but a shaper of consensus. He called on people's noble qualities - self-giving service, forgiveness, courage, loyalty, justice, mercy and compassion - and he inspired them by his living example. The qualities that he taught were exemplified in the way he treated others, even Judas who would betray him.

Jesus did not look down on little things or people of humble status as being unimportant to his mission or being unworthy of his time and attention. In fact he chose to work with twelve unlikely men, who were described as being unschooled and ordinary men. He praised the widow's paltry contribution as being every bit as significant as that of a major donor. He valued the resource of a few small loaves and fish because he knew what the Father could make from nothing. He did not despise the woman who was being publicly accused and shamed because of her immoral behaviour, but treated her with respect and dignity. He had time for the children even his followers thought were a nuisance and distraction when there were "real" people to be dealt with. Jesus called Bartimaeus the noisy beggar to be brought to him when others were telling the beggar to "shut-up". He stopped and took time to speak with the woman who dared to touch Him in the crowd as he was on his way in response to an urgent plea from an important official whose child was ill.

These are not the typical leadership qualities and best practices that most leaders aspire to or emulate. The leadership of Jesus runs counter to our contemporary culture of leadership that is predicated on appearance, popular appeal, and return on investment. Yet Jesus is the leader who calls everyone including leaders to follow him, and in so doing to be shaped by his character, courage, and compassion. My father was probably right when he spoke about aspiring first to be a follower before accepting any call to leadership. The truth is that you cannot lead like Jesus if you are not following Jesus. To lead like Jesus is never a matter of power, position, or privilege - nor is it subject to the metrics of measurable results, profit margins, opinion polls, and investor or donor confidence.

"Teacher, we have something we want you to do for us...
Arrange that we will be awarded the highest places in your glory -
one of us at your right, the other at your left."
Jesus said "you have no idea what you're asking."...
When the other ten heard of this conversation
they lost their tempers...
Jesus got them together to settle things down.
"You've observed how [leaders] throw their weight around...
And when people get a little power how quickly it goes to their heads.
It's not going to be that way with you.
Whoever wants to be great must become a servant...
That is what the Son of Man has done:
He came to serve, not to be served -
and then to give away his life in exchange for many who are held hostage."
(From Mark 10:38 - 45 MSG)