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What Does the Bible Say about Leadership?

  • Michael Lee Stallard Author
  • Updated Nov 21, 2023
What Does the Bible Say about Leadership?

Leading entails influencing people to think, say and behave in ways that take them from one place to another. Leading can be formal (you hold a position of authority in a group) or informal (you influence people but don’t hold a position of authority). It is all too easy for a leader to get wrapped up in the “what, when and how” of leadership and miss what is even more important than the tangible results of completed tasks and goals met.

The Bible tells the story of how God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — loves us and wants us to love Him, despite our brokenness and tendency to go our own way (see Isaiah 53:6). This relationship is the “main thing” about the Bible and it’s the “main thing” to keep focused on when leading people. But what exactly does this mean?

What Is Biblical Leadership?

The examples of King Saul and King David are helpful in discerning what type of leader and leadership pleases and displeases God. In 1 Samuel 15, we read of Israel’s King Saul disobeying God’s instructions communicated to him through the prophet Samuel. In verse 12, we see Saul has drifted so far from God that he set up a monument in his own honor. When Samuel confronted him over disobeying God, Saul lied about why and rationalized his actions. Mincing no words, Samuel tells Saul that because of his rebellion and arrogance, God has rejected him as Israel’s king and has decided to replace him.

In 1 Samuel 16, God sends Samuel to Jesse of Bethlehem to anoint one of Jesse’s sons as the next king. When Samuel sees Jesse’s firstborn son he assumes God has selected him but   the Lord informs him otherwise:

“Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”  (1 Samuel 16:7)

Seven sons in all come before Samuel, and not one is God’s choice. Samuel then asks Jesse if all his sons are present and is informed that the youngest, David, is off tending sheep. David is sent for and when he arrives, God tells Samuel this one will be Israel’s next king.

What was it about David that pleased the Lord? David wholeheartedly loved and trusted the Lord, and that was the foundation for his actions. God says, “...I have found David son of Jesse, a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do.” (Acts 13:22).

In 1 Samuel 17, we see that David trusted the Lord so much that he had the courage to take on Goliath, a challenge that looked foolish in the world’s eyes because Goliath, an experienced Philistine warrior who had been taunting and terrifying the army of King Saul for 40 days, was so much bigger and stronger than the young shepherd. Because he placed his trust in the Lord, David defeated Goliath with God’s help.

David’s heartfelt love for God is on display throughout David’s psalms — how he worshiped and adored God, how he cried out to God during difficult times, how he longed to please God, and how he grieved over the times he sinned and even asked God to forgive sins he was unaware of [Psalm 19:12].  

David was far from perfect (as we are all far from perfect). Before choosing him, God knew (because of His omniscience) that David would one day abuse his power as king and enter into an intimate relationship with a married woman (Bathsheba) and then have her husband (Uriah the Hittite) murdered to cover up his sin. Yet despite David’s brokenness, God knew that he would seek to be close to the Lord and to do His will. He strayed pretty far from the Lord’s will at times but the arc of David’s life was aligned with God’s will and God blessed him — and blessed Israel — for it.

In addition to loving the Lord, David loved the people he was responsible for leading. Psalm 78:72 (New Living Translation) describes David’s leadership of Israel this way: “[David] cared for [Israel] with a true heart and led them with skillful hands.” In this succinct verse are two critical aspects of leadership. Both the heart to love the people one leads and leadership skills are important to lead well. David had both. 

David had the skills of a leader so that he could perform the tasks of leadership with excellence. Leadership tasks include communicating vision and actions necessary to support it; making wise decisions about issues including strategy, delegation and authority; and selecting leaders and advisors. In addition, David had a true heart that cared for people, which allowed him to develop relationship excellence with the people he led.

From the examples of Saul and David, we can glean important wisdom about leadership. David was a God-centered leader; Saul became a self-centered leader. First, like David, seek God’s will and love Him with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength. When you sin, and you will, earnestly seek God’s forgiveness. Pray for God’s wisdom and guidance, and when you sense He is calling you to do something, do it. Love the people you are responsible for leading. And finally, develop excellence in the skills of leadership. David, as a leader, developed both task excellence and relationship excellence in his relationship with God and with the people he led.

Bible Verses about Leadership

In Jesus’ words and example, we gain greater clarity about leaders and leadership. Here are a few key passages that are relevant to Biblical leadership.

When asked by one of the teachers of the law which is the most important commandment, Jesus replied: “The most important one is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31)

To his disciples (and it applies to us today), Jesus reinforced the importance of connection to him: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” (John 15:5-8)

Jesus prayed to God the Father: “My prayer is not for [the disciples] alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one — I in them and you in me — so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:20-23)

In these and other passages — I highly recommend reading John 13-17— we see that Jesus tells his disciples to love God and stay connected to Him plus love the body of believers and stay connected to them. This reinforces what we see in King David’s example. Notice at the end of John 17:23 Jesus explains why this connection is so important: “then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them as you have loved me.” Jesus is saying being connected through love to God and to the body of believers is the main thing!

Being connected evokes the nature of the Trinity. In the Trinity we have a paradox that God is three — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — while also being so perfectly connected in love that God is one. God is our model and Jesus, as God among us, showed us the way.

What Makes a Good Leader?

Jesus emptied himself [Philippians 2:7] and he came to serve, not to be served [Mark 10:45]. N.T. Wright, the New Testament scholar, expressed an important aspect of Jesus’ death and resurrection when he observed that it showed that the power of love is greater than the love of power. When you stop and think about that, it makes sense. Both the religious authorities and the Romans ruled with power. The religious authorities felt threatened by Jesus’ growing influence so they colluded to have him killed by the Romans who crucified anyone who threatened their power. Jesus showed another way to lead. He let them take their best shot at stopping him by allowing them to crucify Him. The power to put Jesus to death was man’s ultimate power. But then Jesus showed God’s way is superior to the power of men when he defeated death and rose from the grave, his sacrifice sending a profound message, triumphing over the unseen principalities and powers (see Colossians 2:13-15) and atoning for our transgressions so that we might be reconciled and reconnected with God.

Like Jesus, leaders are called to follow God’s will which calls for staying connected to Him, dying to self and following His will for our lives. Doing so will require faith, for God may ask you to do what is foolish in the eyes of the world (see 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 and Hebrews 11). God called Moses to raise his staff to part the Red Sea. God called Abraham to leave the land of his birth without knowing where he was going. He called Noah to build an ark before any rain had fallen. God called Esther to go before the king although she had not been summoned, a risk that could have led to her death. Biblical leadership often, if not always, entails the call to take a visible step of faith that looks foolish from the world’s perspective.

Much is at stake from how we respond to God. Are we connected or not? Will we obey or not? When God’s people, including leaders, follow His will by staying connected to Him and the body of Christ, and take the steps of faith God calls us to take, then we contribute to creating a reflection of what Jesus referred to as the Kingdom of God (or Kingdom of Heaven) described in Revelation 21:1-3. Seeing this reflection of God’s Kingdom shows people that God loves them as Jesus prayed for in John 17:20-23. When the Kingdom of God comes in all of its fullness, we will live for eternity in God’s presence.

Leading God’s way calls us to lead from love and connection, using our skills wisely. Leading God’s way begins with our relationship with Him. Why not ask Him to help you draw near to Him in a fresh way and to those He calls you to lead?

Michael Lee Stallard is an author, keynote speaker and seminar leader on leadership, employee engagement and organizational culture. He is a leading expert in how effective leaders boost human connection in team and organizational cultures to improve the health and performance of individuals and organizations. Michael is the primary author of Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy and Understanding at Work and primary author of Fired Up or Burned Out: How to Reignite Your Team’s Passion, Creativity and Productivity. Sign up for Michael’s monthly email newsletter on connection and free resources on connecting at work at this link.

Additional articles from Michael Lee Stallard:

Why Women Leaders Are Outperforming Men

10 Practices to Create a Workplace that May Lengthen Your Life

6 Ways Leaders Can Dial Up the Level of Value in the Workplace

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