Leadership will not be successful ultimately because leaders are smarter, better informed, more experienced, or more creative than others. True success comes when leaders become empty, willing, attentive, and obedient vessels. In the Bible, the ultimate success of leaders came from obedience to the voice of God. One of the main lessons from biblical leaders such as Moses, Joshua, David, Samson, Saul, Solomon, Peter, or Paul isthat ultimate leadership success comes from obedience to the voice of God. When these leaders acted in their own power or wisdom, bad things resulted. When they yielded themselves to God’s authority and were obedient first as followers, good things happened.
The world doesn’t need any more “great” leaders. It needs far more leaders willing to first be obedient followers. The humility (kenosis) embodied by Christ cannot be a means to an end for us as leaders. If we think we’ll practice the “skill” of giving, serving,or emptying ourselves in order to get others to follow or help achieve our vision, we’ll come up empty in the end. Even if things look successful at first, they eventually fall apart. That’s always the pattern in the Biblical story And it’s that way in the Bible because its that way in the human heart. Obedience that flows out of trust in God as the primary authority always precedes leadership success.
Kings as Leaders
This was a lesson most of the kings in the Old Testament failed to adequately grasp. God promised great things to the nation of Israel, the people through whom he would reveal himself to the world. At their insistence, he established a king for them but warned them that such human kings would repeatedly lead them astray and feed off the status and prestige of the office (1 Samuel 8).
The strength of the kingship in ancient Israel lasted precisely 3 kings — Saul, David, Solomon — before it all fell apart. Solomon dies and is succeeded by his son Rehoboam, who promises to be even harsher than his father. Most of the nation revolts against Rehoboam and instead recognizes Jeroboam, Solomon’s military general, as their king. The nation splits into two parts: Israel and Judah, each with their own line of kings. The throne of Judah maintained the hereditary succession of King David, whose house God had promised would forever reign over the nation.
Both nations would eventually come to ruin at the hands of foreign invaders, Israel falling to the Assyrians in 722 BC and Judah to the Babylonians in 586 BC. From 5 on until today, the Israelites have never had another political king ruling over a nation.
But what does this story of the kings reveal? With but a few exceptions, every king on both sides sooner or later turned their back on God. The lust for women, power, and control dominated. These kingly leaders of God’s people worshipped idols, married pagan wives, engaged in ritual human sacrifice, and devastated the physical and spiritual lives of their people. All because they refused to obey God.
There are two basic descriptions given to the kings in these accounts (you can read them in 1&2 Kings and 1&2 Chronicles). The most common description was that of a king who did evil in the sight of God. But 9 kings — all from Judah — are noted as walking in the ways of their father David. That is, in obedience and humility before God.
It is no wonder that Judah experienced a greater degree of peacefulness and stability during the reigns of these kings. Nor should it surprise us that the nation of Judah lasted nearly 140 years longer than the nation of Israel even though they only had 2 more kings total compared to Israel.
The core essential for true biblical leadership is not vision, influence, transformation, motivation, or even servanthood. All of those, while important, a leader can use in pursuit of their own self-interests and ambition.
The true litmus test of biblical leadership is obedience. The emptying of one’s own ambitions, desires, and self-interests in deference to a greater authority, to the authority and direction of God. This is the heart of kenosis, the self-emptying of Jesus, that marks Jesus’ leadership. He came to us first and foremost in yielded obedience to God the Father. Out of love for God and for us, certainly, but in obedience nonetheless. His obedience was an act of love to the Father. Through that obedience he sought to bring glory and honor not to himself and not to us, but to his father. Even Jesus’ love for us was an act of loving obedience to his father.
From a biblical perspective, great leaders are first of all obedient followers. Their capacity for vision, influence, decision-making, motivation, servanthood, and all the other myriad dimensions of leadership flow from this one basic premise: they are followers of God.