One of the most important lessons I’ve learned about leadership is one I look back on with embarrassment. I was a young man working in Africa for UNICEF and CARE, two of the world’s largest humanitarian agencies, which gave me a certain perceived power. Native Africans deferred to me simply because I was an American with some responsibility.
This worked its way into me so deeply that I started believing it, which was toxic. When placed in leadership I ruled by the strength of my position—by dictate and fear. In Africa this is called the “Bwana Syndrome,” “bwana” being the “big man.” I became a bwana. My approach was to use others to accomplish my goals. I was building my kingdom.
God Overhauled My Life
When I became a Christian, though, God overhauled my life. I began seeing people not as objects to use but as people made in God’s image with unique abilities, passions, and interests. My responsibility as a leader was to serve them.
When Jesus spoke about big men, he said:
You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. (Mark 10:42–44)
As a leader in Jesus’s kingdom, I must see those around me and consider how I can serve them. How do I help them remove roadblocks to becoming all they can be in Christ?
Christ-Centered Leadership Lessons
There are many ways this aspect of Christlike leadership might play out for those of us who want our leadership to flow from our faith. Here are five:
1. Smash glass ceilings.
Most people have obstacles holding them down, keeping them from goals they’d like to achieve. They may believe they aren’t smart enough or talented enough, or aren’t in the right place. A leader can help people identify their “glass ceilings” and then smash through them.
This is a entirely different from looking at people only to see what they can do for you. I long to be a leader about whom others say, “He helped me achieve my goals.” Hence one of my work mantras is: “I care more about you and your faith in Christ than what you do for me or Serge.”
2. Model weakness.
Many approach work and other group tasks feeling a constant need to prove themselves competent. They spend their whole work lives worrying about their reputations and defending their right to be in their jobs. They seldom learn and grow. I want to be transparent about my struggles and weaknesses so that I model running to Christ—pointing others to Christ and his sufficiency rather than pointing them to a “strong Bob” who has it all together.
If you’re always trying to prove your own fitness as a leader, you’ll make others feel less fit and less empowered. And you’ll never have joy. So create an environment where admissions of weakness are not just allowed, but encouraged. It is invigorating to see the power of God at work as he meets us in our weakness.
3. Have fun.
When people don’t feel pressure to prove themselves—and when they feel cared for instead of used—relationships can flourish. Good leaders spend time with those they lead, without any agenda. They take them to lunch and are interested in their lives. They celebrate and give thanks together.
Godly leaders may even be able to pray with those they lead, and to come alongside them in personal struggles. To be that kind of leader, though, you can’t take yourself too seriously. I recently heard it said you can learn more about a person in an hour of play than you can in a year of monthly, hour-long meetings.
4. Grow in Christ.
Only a leader who’s secure in Christ will be free to serve others. A leader whose identity is wrapped up in a job title or list of achievements is bound to end up defending himself and using others.
So be more concerned about your spiritual health and growth in Christ than you are about building an organization. Know that your supreme joy and lasting hope are found in belonging to Jesus. And out of that confidence, care for others will overflow.
5. Be spiritually curious.
One of our greatest desires is to be truly known and truly loved, but it’s so often an elusive dream. What do you think happens when you inquire about how someone is doing? It gives them a chance to tell you a little about themselves, and it gives you an opportunity to validate, honor, and bless someone for being spiritually curious.
It’s always amazed me that Jesus asked so many questions. A thoughtful question can profoundly encourage someone and strengthen their faith.
Only One Big Man
Jesus and his good news trains us never to think of ourselves as the big man. The only bwana is Jesus, and he practiced leadership by obeying his Father and thinking of others. He is the example for us, and his grace provides us with the ability to lead in a godly manner.
When we know that we are safe in Jesus—the big man who humbled himself for us—our insecurities fade and we are set free to love and serve others.
“For even the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).