The Secret of Leadership Success


I sat in front of my new desk on my first day of a new job. New challenges, opportunities, and responsibilities faced me. I felt that familiar mix of “What in the world am I doing?” and “This is going to be fun!” But as I sat there, I kept thinking about the etymology of the word lead

Etymology is where we study the origin of words. Where did this word come from, and what does it really mean? Lead in the Latin root literally means “to go forth and die.” Well, that’s cheery!

Jesus’ example of leadership is perplexing to us in modern-day America. It’s confusing because it feels backwards and inefficient. How are we supposed to get stuff done if we’re always dying to ourselves and serving others? How can we meet our deadlines if we’re constantly thinking about how our daily responsibilities fit into God’s larger plan? It’s tough.

Servant of All

I have read dozens of books on leadership, taken courses at seminary, and listened to podcasts on the subject. Everyone wants to know the secret: What will it take to make me an effective leader? And we know that since leading is influencing, anyone can lead because we all have relationships with other people we’re trying to influence for good.

However, most of our desire to be a good leader has to do with getting people to do what we want them to do. Sometimes, when we’re honest about our dark side, it’s about finding self-worth in accomplishing things with other people. Wanting to get things done isn’t bad, but when that desire isn’t submitted to Jesus, ready to die at any moment, that impulse will carry with it a threat to our ministry and leadership.

When Jesus was with the disciples, He routinely told them things like, “You want to be great? Learn to serve” (see Matt. 20:26) or “You want to follow in My footsteps? Good! Take up your cross; it’s about to get dangerous” (see Luke 9:23). That classic passage in Philippians 2:7 tells us that Jesus, in His ministry “emptied himself and took on the form of a slave.” He took His commitment to God and people all the way to the end and died for those whom He came to save, even those who hated Him.

Settling Our Identity

As I sat at my desk I thought, I have no idea if I’ll succeed at this job or in leadership in the world’s eyes, but I do know the secret of leadership success in the Kingdom: die. Jesus said when we lose our lives, we actually find them.

Dying to ourselves and our own desires is a long, painful process of self-awareness, grieving, character formation through suffering, and even some leadership failures. Feeling motivated? The good news is this: When we let go of our selfish ambition and vain conceit, true care and concern for God and His people is born in us.

The first step in dying to ourselves as leaders is to realize, as my buddy Rob Reimer says, our identity is settled at the cross. When we realize that Jesus’ death and Resurrection give us our identity, not our work, accomplishments, how many people like us, or how much we do for God, we are free to love Him and His people. And frankly, we’re less sensitive when things don’t go our way. In the big picture, Jesus has accomplished it all, and we’re just invited to the party.

Common Characteristics

There is not a quick success plan on this journey, but there are certain characteristics common to “dying-to-self” leaders. Leaders who have entered the emptying process with Jesus:

Cultivate depth. Christian leadership is first a journey in submitting to Jesus in quietness, in His Word, in the inner parts of us as we are quiet, alone, and going deeper in love and submission to our Maker.

Listen first. They listen to God after talking to Him and spending time with Him, and then they listen to people around them. It’s not a badge of honor to come up with all the ideas on our own. Listening is hard because it invites people into our lives and gives them a voice to speak, but it is essential for us on our “dying” journey.

Empower and release. Good leaders know that the people around them are not there to serve them or even their organization. The people in their care are there for the Kingdom and have been given to the leader for a season of growth and development. As they expand in their depth and experience, they will be launched to other places for Kingdom purposes. It is one of the upside-down realities of the Kingdom that much of the time we don’t get credit for what people do outside our organizations, but it’s actually a great blessing from God. It’s a chance for Him to be on display yet again.

Hold plans loosely. Our strategies, plans, desires, and ambitions are not bad. Sometimes those things come right from Jesus, so we should listen and act when He calls us. But it’s easy to think our church’s vision or our personal plans are infallible. Truth is, they’re not.

As we die to our desire to be accomplished and always “do something,” we realize that being with Jesus in the Kingdom is the goal; the plans are a byproduct of a deep relationship with Him. When we get to that place, we know that plans change, people leave, vision statements morph, but the core of our purpose does not waver.

In our celebrity culture we might feel pressure to get more likes on Facebook, more subscriptions to our podcasts, and more people sharing excerpts from our sermons or blogs. Again, those things aren’t inherently bad, but they can distract us and our people from the center of our attention: Jesus.

As we die to ourselves and make intentional decisions to get out of His way, He is faithful to accomplish what He has begun. So, come and die . . . and then you’ll truly live.

11 responses to The Secret of Leadership Success

  1. Jesus–“kings and kingdoms will all pass away, but there’s something about that name.”. When it is all said and done only what is said and done for Him matters! Thank you!

  2. I love the way leadership is articulated. I would practice and help others in Christ to learn. Thank you for blessing me.

  3. I’m dead. Cause I agree. But it’s not funny. It’s the way Jesus modeled and to be most effective for Him we must die to ourselves.

  4. Dying to self is WAY counterintuitive for leaders even in the church. Great truth in your article; thnx for writing and sharing!

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