What Great Leaders Do

Recently, a colleague and I had a conversation about leadership.  He referred to a blog post where the question was asked, “Would people still follow you if they didn’t have to?” An intriguing question to be sure. I challenged the question by asking, “Why are so many leaders focused on getting people to follow them?”  Is that what great leaders do? That led us to discussing the traits of some of history’s greatest leaders.  We ultimately decided that the greatest of the great was Jesus of Nazareth. So, we then discussed the question, “What did Jesus do that made him such a great leader.  We came up with three ideas…

  1. He was dedicated to his mission. Whether you agree with it or not, it’s hard to argue that Jesus wasn’t solely focused on his mission.  He said things like, “My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life,” and “My nourishment comes from doing the will of God who sent me, and from finishing his work”.  Jesus knew his mission, and he was fully dedicated to seeing it through.  Yes, distractions and detractors came and went, but he never let them deter him from his focus of completing the mission.

  2. He Loved People.  My favorite movie of all time is “It’s a Wonderful Life”, the story of a man named George Bailey who, frustrated with life, gets to see what life would have been like had he never been born.  In one scene, George is arguing with the wealthy town miser, Mr. Potter.  In this argument, George compares how his own father treated people compared to Potter.  George says, “People were human beings to him. But to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they’re cattle. Well in my book, my father died a much richer man than you’ll ever be!”  This line reminds me so much of how Jesus loved people. Like Potter in the movie, the authorities in Jesus’ day had a mission, usually a self serving one. And if people got in the way, they were brushed aside, punished, or even killed.  Not so with Jesus.  He was able to stay on mission, but still show a selfless care for those around him, even those who tried to thwart his mission.  He didn’t always win them over, but he did love them.

  3. He always did the right thing. Jesus’ life was one that was marked with undeniable  integrity.  He did what was right. He said what was right.  Taking shortcuts, telling white lies, “end justifying the means” behavior were never options for him.  This way of living wasn’t embraced by those already in power. But for those who followed him, it created a level of trust and confidence unlike never before.

As my colleague and I discussed this more, we came to the conclusion that there was also something of significance that Jesus didn’t do:  He didn’t seek to become a leader. Nothing in the stories written about him indicates that a leadership mantle was something he sought.  Yet, people followed him. Thousands followed him, and they still do today. So if he wasn’t trying to lead, how did he become a leader?  Well, he stayed on mission, he loved people, and he always did the right thing.  Living that way was attractive to people.  So much so that they followed him. And by definition, when people follow you, you are indeed a leader.

If we are going to take a lesson from the greatest leader who ever lived, then perhaps we shouldn’t focus on how many people are following us.  Instead, we should focus on our mission. We should love people. We should always do the next right thing.  Maybe if we do these things, we’ll wake up one day and see some people behind us. Maybe then we just might become leaders.