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Blog 35: Leadership is a choice, not a rank

This is how disciples choose to lead


Moral philosopher Matha Nussbaum explains that compassion is more than empathy. Empathy allows someone to imagine what the experience of the sufferer might be like, but compassion goes beyond empathy. Compassion characterized Jesus’s earthly ministry, leading him time and time again to heal or help those suffering. To have compassion is, literally, to “suffer with” someone (“com” meaning “with” and “passion” meaning “suffer”). Compassion involves a “sense of mature judgment and an understanding of the relatedness of life” and “directs our attention to life and the suffering of others.” . . . Charity [agape love] is the bridge between mere empathy and compassion. Charity “orders our lives and our loves toward God and, subsequently, the whole of creation” and “always seeks the best for its beloved.” –On Reading Well, Karen Swallow Prior

If, as 1 John 2:6 states, “whoever claims to live in Him must live as Jesus did,” then as leaders we must lead with compassion. And, as Prior argues, to lead with compassion, we must be willing to suffer with those we lead, always with their best at the forefront of our minds.

Simon Sinek, in his TED Talk “Why Good Leaders Make You Feel Safe,” explains what it looks like to lead with this kind of compassion:

“The only variable [in organizations that do or do not have employees who excel] are the conditions inside the organization, and that’s where leadership matters, because it’s the leader that sets the tone. When a leader makes the choice to put the safety and lives of the people inside the organization first, to sacrifice their comforts and sacrifice the tangible results, so that the people remain and feel safe and feel like they belong, remarkable things happen. . . .

You see, if the conditions are wrong, we are forced to expend our own time and energy to protect ourselves from each other, and that inherently weakens the organization. When we feel safe inside the organization, we will naturally combine our talents and our strengths and work tirelessly to face the dangers outside and seize the opportunities. . . .

This is the reason so many people have such a visceral hatred, anger, at some of these banking CEOs with their disproportionate salaries and bonus structures. It’s not the numbers. It’s that they have violated the very definition of leadership. They have violated this deep-seated social contract. We know that they allowed their people to be sacrificed so they could protect their own interests, or worse, they sacrificed their people to protect their own interests. This is what so offends us, not the numbers. Would anybody be offended if we gave a $150 million bonus to Gandhi? How about a $250 million bonus to Mother Teresa? Do we have an issue with that? None at all. None at all. Great leaders would never sacrifice the people to save the numbers. They would sooner sacrifice the numbers to save the people. . . .

Leadership is a choice. It is not a rank. I know many people at the senior-most levels of organizations who are absolutely not leaders. They are authorities, and we do what they say because they have authority over us, but we would not follow them. And I know many people who are at the bottoms of organizations who have no authority and they are absolutely leaders, and this is because they have chosen to look after the person to the left of them, and they have chosen to look after the person to the right of them. This is what a leader is.”

There is perhaps no better Biblical example (outside of Jesus Himself) of this type of leadership than that of Nehemiah.

After the Babylonian empire conquered Jerusalem and swept its captives to its capital, several Jews rose to prominent positions. Nehemiah was on of these: he served as cupbearer to the Persian King himself. However, he didn’t allow his good fortune to block out the troubles of his people. He actively sought information about his homeland, and when he heard Jerusalem was in disgrace, he wept and fasted and prayed. After seeking the Lord for almost four months, he finally presented his request to return home and rebuild Jerusalem’s walls to the King.

The King not only granted Nehemiah’s request but sent him on his way with letters for safe passage and the gift of wood. Nehemiah — instead of arriving in the pomp and circumstance his position entitled him to — arrived in Jerusalem quietly. He took several days to asses the situation. Then, in a surprising move, Nehemiah did not command Jerusalem’s inhabitants to rebuild the walls by the authority granted to him under the King. Rather, he shared all God had done to pave the way for the wall to be rebuilt, and then he invited the people into the work by identifying as one of them. He said, “You see the trouble we are in. . . . Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, so that we will no longer be a disgrace.” The people saw that Nehemiah cared about their well-being, not just the task. And they accepted Nehemiah’s call to rebuild!

As they started the work, Nehemiah wisely set each family to rebuild the section of the wall closest to their own homes. He understood that they needed to feel safe. Moreover, he helped them understand that they were volunteering their time and resources to something that would truly benefit them personally, not some distant leader on a hill far away. Then, when enemies threatened to attack the people as well as the work, Nehemiah neither scorned nor ignored the peoples’ fear. Rather, he set half the men to serve as guards so that the people could continue their work protected. Most importantly, he himself not only joined in the guard but never changed out of his clothes! He was always on guard, ready to defend his people.

Additionally, these same enemies mocked and derided Nehemiah’s work and leadership. Nehemiah didn’t allow his decisions to be influenced by the opinions of outsiders. Nor did he take out any embarrassment he felt from this on the people, or blame them for what was happening. Rather, he simply presented his thoughts and feelings to the Lord, and trusted Him to work out all the details. Then, he continued to lead as the Lord directed him.

In the same way Nehemiah defended the people from an outside attack, he also wisely defended them from inside division that could destroy them. When the poor could not afford the interest on loans they’d been forced to borrow in order to feed their families, he condemned the actions of the wealthy, again calling them to something higher with an argument based on serving God well. He set the example by offering interest-free loans. Even more impressively, he refused the food lawfully alloted to the governor because it would burden the people. Instead, he devoted himself to the work.

When the work was finished, Nehemiah returned to Babylon to again serve the King. He didn’t see himself as entitled to the position of Governor in Jerusalem. Yet, upon Nehemiah’s return to Persia, the King sent him back to serve as the Governor of Jerusalem, which Nehemiah did faithfully.


Great leaders know how to serve excellently and faithfully. Nehemiah would never have been granted his position or his request if these weren’t true of him.

  • Consider this Scripture: Luke 16:10; 19:11-26


Great leaders are not eager for advancement. (They don’t see whatever current position they’re in as setting them too far above the needs of others.) Nehemiah didn’t accept the task for its privileges. He was motivated by his compassion for the people struggling; he suffered with them in their disgrace.

  • Consider this Scripture: Luke 17:7-10; 2 Kings 2:1-9


Great leaders seek the Lord’s will for the next step forward. They don’t advance themselves, but only what God has put in their hearts. They are continually in prayer.

  • Consider this Scripture: Proverbs 16:9; Romans 12:1-3


Great leaders don’t puff themselves up in their authority, and they don’t choose an authoritarian approach. Rather, they invite people into the work by sharing the vision God grants, laying biblical truth as a foundation to move from, and by identifying as one of them.

  • Consider this Scripture: Philippians 2:1-4; 1 Corinthians 9:19-23


Great leaders don’t just identify with the people with their words. Rather, they lead as they work alongside the people.

  • Consider this Scripture: 1 Corinthians 3:8-10; 2 Samuel 11


Great leaders understand what motivates the people they lead; they don’t scorn or condemn those motives, but rather figure out how to best incorporate the peoples’ God-given gifts and talents to use by inspiring the people to move the work forward.

  • Consider this Scripture: 1 Corinthians 12; Exodus 18:13-27


Great leaders don’t allow anyone’s opinions to dictate their decisions, and they don’t allow shame to provoke responses. Most importantly, they never blame those they lead for any perceived failure on their part.

  • Consider this Scripture: 1 Corinthians 4:1-5; Ephesians 4:31-32


Great leaders don’t see their leadership positions as license to accept everything the position entitles them to because, like Paul, they understand that not everything that is permissible is also beneficial. Rather, they are always, always thinking about whether or not their choices will build their people up or put a heavy burden on them.

  • Consider this Scripture: 1 Corinthians 10:23; Romans 15:1-3


Great leaders don’t cling to their positions of leadership, but rather step aside when their time comes. They understand the work is God’s, not theirs, and will faithfully carry out what God has entrusted to their care: no more, no less.

  • Consider this Scripture: John 13:1-3; Philippians 1:21-24



  • When I hear the struggles of others, does my heart go to God in prayer and fasting, with compassion? Does this compassion move me towards action or just high emotion?* (Consider the above quote.)
  • What is the work I am called to do? Am I prepared now? How am I preparing myself for future work?
  • When the Lord puts something on my heart, am I willing to wait on Him to show me what action to take?
  • Do I let others’ opinions affect my calling and choices? What is my first response when I am mocked or scorned?
  • How are my prayers mirrored in my actions, and vice-versa?
  • How do I respond to peoples’ fears and insecurities?
  • Am I always equipped for a (spiritual) attack? (Ephesians 6:10-18)
  • How do I respond when I see injustice?
  • Where do I expect to be served instead of taking the time to serve or not burden others? Do I place love for God ahead of even my comforts? What “little luxuries” do I insist on?
  • In persecution, do I pray for relief and release or the for the boldness and strength to continue?
  • Does my leadership lead to renewed devotion to God and rejoicing in Him?
  • How can I help those I disciple balance awareness of sin with living in grace, forgiveness, and joy?
  • Do I hold the work the Lord has given me with an open or closed hand?
  • Do I see the people I invest in as a temporary investment or as a life-long work?