I used to think a leader was someone who knows a lot, talks a lot, and works a lot. But I’ve learned that the opposite is actually—and often counterculturally—true: a leader is someone who learns, listens, and leaves room in their schedules for others.
Unfortunately, I learned this the hard way by working for a while under a very talented yet very talkative and time-constrained supervisor. Early in our relationship, she handed me a company-owned iPad and said, “You’ll want to take notes with this. I talk fast. You just gotta keep up.” During meetings I felt like I was running on a treadmill. Questions and clarifications seemed to be prohibited. Relationship-building felt impossible. And I felt altogether disrespected.
The good news is this: Jesus’ model of leadership wasn’t to say, “You just gotta keep up.” Rather, I think he says, “You just gotta slow down.” In Matthew 11:28-30, for instance, Jesus exhorts a crowd:
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
There’s a burden to leadership, yes, but in Christ it is light. There’s a yoke but also learning, laboring but also listening, heaviness but also rest.
Leaders are learners.
Another—less intimidating—supervisor I’ve had likes to share this story: “A newspaper once asked, ‘What’s wrong with the world?’ G. K. Chesterton wrote back, ‘Dear Sirs: I am.’”
I respect this leader in part because he doesn’t just spout quotes about being wrong; he admits when he’s wrong, unsure, stressed. I follow this leader because he’s real. And leadership, perhaps, is more about being real than being right.
Jesus, knowing just how real and often wrong we are, says “learn from me” (Matthew 11:29). This is a gracious invitation to be a lifelong student (or disciple) of Jesus Christ, the ultimate servant leader. We are called to learn from Jesus and the resources offered in his Word, in church practices, and in the wisdom of saints through the ages.
Leaders are listeners.
Want to make a difference? Listen to the people you lead.
Listening makes a difference because it is different. “Listening is in short supply in the world today,” Eugene Peterson says in The Contemplative Pastor. “People aren’t used to being listened to.”
How do we listen well? Make eye contact. Take the speaker seriously. Avoid interrupting. Withhold judgment. Ask clarifying questions (“What I hear you saying is . . . Is that correct?”). When we do those things, we can make a significant difference in someone’s life. That someone, having been listened to, is then more likely to trust us and our leadership, ask questions, make suggestions, and even enjoy their work.
Leaders are leisurely.
Eugene Peterson goes on to say that good listening “requires unhurried leisure, even if it’s only for five minutes. Leisure is a quality of spirit, not a quantity of time. Only in that ambiance of leisure do persons know they are listened to with absolute seriousness, treated with dignity and importance.”
In other words, even if we’re tempted to stay schedule-focused, we’re called to stay soul-focused. Schedules are important, yes; the soul is simply more important.
For example, sometimes when I’ve called colleagues they’ve said with all sincerity, “I’m running late for a meeting. But I really want to hear what’s on your mind.” They make a promise (and keep it) to call me back. Perhaps they even take 60 seconds to pray for me right then and there, on the way to their meeting. Busy? Yes. Too busy for me? Not exactly. That’s a leader.
Leaders, “find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29). Find rest for your own souls and the souls you oversee. Christ instructs it. And Christ enables it.
Julia Powers is an InterVarsity alumna who studied English at The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, VA. She now lives in Dallas, TX, works at Church of the Incarnation, and writes atwww.juliapowersblog.com.
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