The greatest key to successful leadership

Yesterday I turned 65. I don’t believe I’m that old, but neither the calendar nor my 97 year old mother lie. Here’s another statistic. I have been in Christian leadership now for 44 of those years. I started leading a student group at the University of Toronto at the age of 21, and never managed to escape leadership in one form or another. I have at long last laid down local church leadership, but have exchanged it for something that in the end will probably prove more demanding yet.

Along the way, I have learned some things. Many, if not most, have come through my own mistakes. I’ll be the first to admit it. All leaders accumulate a catalog of mistakes. Real leaders learn from them. What astounds me is how many don’t.

Of all the things I’ve learned about leadership, this is probably the most significant: successful leadership is always based on relationship. Always. No exceptions.

Jesus defined his ministry exclusively in terms of relationship. Servant. Friend. Disciple. Son. By contrast, he defined the world’s leadership in terms of position and hierarchy. Ruler. Benefactor. Great man.

The kingdom of darkness is ruled by fear, rank and control. It does its best to infiltrate the church, and none of us are immune.

How do I define my role in the body of Christ? Do I define myself by the position I hold, a position which leaves me above some and below others? If that is the case, I have a problem.

The kingdom of God operates on the basis of relationship, not position. And that relationship is based on servanthood, not rulership. Jesus was pretty clear about that. Does that mean we throw out all positions? No, for then we would have anarchy, and that brings a different form of control. What we need to do is to root all our church positions firmly in our relationship as brothers and sisters in Christ.

One of the saddest things I’ve ever seen is men and women who exercise, or try to exercise leadership, but have few real friends. They often think they’re relational, but they aren’t. The day they retire or leave town is the day everybody forgets about them, or heaves a sigh of relief.

John Maxwell, a pastor who became one of America’s greatest experts on leadership, makes this simple statement: leadership is influence. Influence is when people follow you simply out of relationship and because they want to, not because they have to or are told to.

Influence is never gained or held by position or by intimidation. But people you have loved and served as friends will always be there for you. The dividends of true servant leadership just keep coming in, no matter whether you have any position in church or not.

When I lived in England, I knew several young men who travelled to London regularly to visit Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones at his home. The great doctor had retired from Westminster Chapel. But even past the age of 80, he had never stopped being a spiritual father. I remember asking one of the young guys how they had been able to secure this privilege, never having even been members of his church. The answer was simple. They had written him a letter, and he had opened his home to them. Relationship. And a leader who never stopped influencing people until the day he died, when he asked his family and friends to stop praying for his healing, because he didn’t want anyone to “hold him back from the glory.”

The church is the greatest relational network on earth. That’s how Jesus set it up. The greatest key to success in leadership is to know that every day of your life. Make sure no one is ever doing what you told them to do because they’re afraid of you or because of the position you hold. That’s not leadership, and it has no real or lasting influence.

I want to have young guys coming to my home when I’m 80. Then I’ll know I’ve succeeded as a leader.