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Developing the characteristics and skills of a godly leader

When Philosopher Ralph Siu was asked for a bit of wisdom, he offered a story. "Observe the cormorant in the fishing fleet. Do you know how cormorants are used for fishing? A man in a rowboat has about a half-dozen cormorants, each with a ring about its neck. When the bird spots a fish, it dives into the water and catches the fish in its beak. The ring prevents the bird from swallowing the fish. The fisherman takes the fish from the cormorant, which then dives for another fish."

Leadership God's Way or Man's Way

Just as fishermen take advantage of cormorants, leaders sometimes take advantage of followers. The cormorant is a slave to the fisherman. A true leader, however, does not enslave people, but serves them.

Confused, twisted concepts of leadership have produced dysfunctional, ineffective leaders and organizations. Many church leaders have learned business-based attitudes and practices of leadership. This infiltration of man's attitudes and practices of leadership has affected the church negatively. Godly attitudes and practices not business practices adapted to the church setting, must govern the church. The church is a living organism designed by the Master Carpenter, Jesus (1 Peter 2:4-9).

God's way of leadership often opposes man's way. Man focuses on power and freedom. God focuses on submission and responsibility. Man is concerned with gain and immediate fulfillment. God is concerned with giving and lasting achievement. Man yearns for the praise of men and self-gratification. God yearns for pure praise and self-control. Man is assertive and strives to lead men. God is patient and wants men to follow Him. Man feeds on competition and seeks control. God wants cooperation and expects servanthood.

Characteristics of Servant Leaders

Servant leadership uses internal influence by encouraging, inspiring, and motivating. Servant leaders respect others and maintain healthy relationships with coworkers. Their primary interest is to develop people while achieving long-range goals. Good leaders strive to make themselves unnecessary. Since individual workers have great value, they praise rather than condemn them. They emphasize teamwork, and, if circumstances permit, they discuss the rationale for decisions with their workers. They work to liberate individuals and encourage their participation in projects. They solicit input and feedback from coworkers and willingly share the credit. They try to equip people to produce specific results. A servant leader is a "heart leader" who serves unselfishly and demonstrates genuine concern and compassion for others.

Controlling leaders, on the other hand, depend on external control, restrictions, and regulations. They exhibit an "I'm superior" attitude and use relationships for selfish ends. They tend to demand immediate results even if it damages the morale and potential of the individual. They strive to keep subordinates permanently dependent. They are demanding and critical of subordinates' mistakes. They want power over coworkers----working like dictators who do not accept input or constructive criticism. They take credit for all accomplishments. If they are questioned, they interpret it as disloyalty and personal criticism. They seek to limit the individual freedom of followers and prefer to make decisions independently. They don't train people to work effectively. This "head man" shows little concern and compassion for others and is selfish and unyielding. He desires to lead rather than to serve.

Several Scripture verses discuss the difference between servant leaders and controlling leaders: Matthew 20:20-28; 2 Corinthians 1 :23,24; 1 Peter 5:1-5; 3 John 9-11; Revelation 2:6,14,15.

Both the Old and the New Testaments describe God's leader as a servant. The Hebrew word for leader is nagiyd. The root meaning of the word is "servanthood" which incorporates being an example to people. The Hebrew word for king is malak or melech. The word, although quite neutral, can include the idea of ruling or reigning with a strong hand. In 1 Samuel 8:9-18, Samuel warned the Israelites about wanting a king like the nations around them had. Samuel told them that the king would take their children, goods, and harvest; he would tax and oppress them. Saul, Israel's first king, models man's idea of leadership. David, however, models God's type. David was a servant leader while Saul was a domineering, controlling leader.

The nagiyd leader is under a higher authority. He strives to please that authority and is submissive to it.

David was a man after God's own heart. A servant leader must be completely God's and continually under His authority. This is the kind of leader God seeks.

The root of the word nagiyd involves another important concept----to stand out boldly, to announce, to manifest. The nagiyd leader is one who receives commands and direction from God and boldly announces them to the people. The shepherd in Psalm 23 exemplifies servant leadership.

Numerous Scriptures and examples of servant leaders are evident in the Old Testament: Proverbs 14:35; 17:2; Isaiah 42; and Ezekiel 34:11-16.

The following individuals exemplify servant leadership: Abraham (Genesis 22:1-18); Moses (Exodus 14:31; Numbers 12:7,8; Deuteronomy 34:5; Joshua 1:1,2,7); Joshua (Exodus 33:11; Joshua 1:1-9); Caleb (Numbers 14:24); Samuel (1 Samuel 3:9,10); David (1 Samuel 29:3; 1 Chronicles 17:17-27); Elijah (2 Kings 18:36); and Isaiah (Isaiah 6:5-8; 20:2).

In the New Testament Jesus draws a sharp contrast between a hireling and a shepherd leader. The word hireling means "one that is hired for wages by day or by year." Most people today fit into this category; however, Jesus focused now on the motives and attitudes of the hireling. One who works solely for money to spend selfishly probably is working as a hireling. Shepherd leaders work to provide for their families while considering their jobs as ministry. They don't work only for money or to please the boss, but to please the Lord. They serve productively to build a better future as a faithful servant.

Although a hireling and a servant both receive wages, only the servant has God's heart. A hireling is ambitious for power, position, and/or money, but he doesn't have a love for God or His people.

Take a moment to check your own attitudes and practices as a leader. Are you leading God's way, or have you been influenced by the world's attitudes and concepts of leadership?

Skills Of Servant Leaders

  • Hireling Shepherd
  • Labors only for money (Matthew 20:12-15) Labors out of love
  • Has no heart for the people Has a heart for the people
  • Leaves when trouble comes (Jeremiah 46:21) Gives his life for the sheep (John 10:11)
  • Is unfaithful to his master Faithfully serves his master
  • Feeds himself and not the sheep (Ezekiel 34:3) Feeds the sheep
  • Neglects the sheep Tenderly cares for the sheep
  • Lacks mercy (Ezekiel 34:4) Is full of mercy
  • Is harsh, cruel and forceful Is gentle, kind and loving
  • Drives the people too hard Leads the people wisely
  • Scatters the sheep Unites the sheep
  • Is not willing to make personal sacrifices (Ezekiel 34:2) Is always willing to make personal sacrifices
  • Is ambitious for position but avoids responsibility to serve people Is not oriented to position but has a servant's heart
  • Does not take time to bind up the sheep's wounds Binds the brokenhearted and heals the bruised
  • Domineers the sheep Leads the sheep lovingly
  • Does not care about the sheep's needs Discerns needs of the sheep
  • Produces barrenness in the sheep Causes the sheep to be fruitful
  • Is anxious at the close of the day Is peaceful and watchful (especially at night)
  • Has not part in the master's inheritance Receives the flock of God as his inheritance
  • Makes no personal investment in the sheep Invests his life in the sheep at the highest price he can pay
  • Has no balance in discipline: too harsh or not at all Disciplines in love with the rod and the staff
  • Limits his work to a given time period (Isaiah 16:14; 21:16) Gives himself to his work full-time because it is his calling and lifestyle
  • Forgets the lost or those driven away Seeks out the lost and those driven away
  • Is a work of men's hands (Psalms 115:4-8; 135:15-18) Is a work of God's hands
  • Has a mouth that doesn't speak truth Has a mouth that speaks spiritual things
  • Has eyes that do not see Has eyes to discern spiritual things
  • Has ears that do not hear Has ears that hear spiritual things
  • Has a nose that does not sense Has a nose that senses spiritual things
  • Has hands that do not touch Has hands that touch spiritual things
  • Produces his same unfeeling, undiscerning, carnal nature in the people Produces his same feeling, discerning, spiritual nature in the people

What type of leader do you admire and desire to emulate? In comparative research done in 1987 and 1993, James M.. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner found 20 key leadership characteristics people admire. Honest, forward-looking, inspiring, and competent were the four top characteristics (Credibility: How Leaders Gain and Lose It, Why People Demand It, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1993, pp. 14-18).

Six Characteristics That Make Servant Leaders Effective.


Servant leaders are credible and, therefore, are trusted and followed. They demonstrate credibility in several ways.

They serve first and lead second. In our assertive world, striving to lead or gain position is encouraged. However, God intended leadership to flow from service. Leaders develop character through a relationship with God. The Holy Spirit then leads them into positions of service to meet needs. As A.W. Towzer said, "A true and safe leader is likely to be one who has no desire lead, but is forced into a position of leadership by the inward pressure of the Holy Spirit and the press of the external situation" (Hans Finzel, The Top Ten Mistakes Leaders Make, Wheaton: Victor Books, 1994, p. 31).

Service must precede leadership. Without servanthood, leadership becomes domineering, authoritative, and self-serving.

They are self-disciplined. Self-discipline is essential in the lives of credible leaders. Leaders who fail in public have failed in private first. Credible leaders like Jacob have wrestled with both God and man and have prevailed. They have struggled against deceit, self-will, rebellion, selfishness, carnality, and greed, and won.

They maintain high values and wise judgment. The values of credible leaders include fair-mindedness, loyalty, independence, straightforwardness, and honesty. In Kouzes and Posner's study, honesty was the characteristic most desired in a leader. Honesty is demonstrated both ethically and verbally. We follow leaders we trust, and we trust someone who is honest (14-18).


Servant leaders are also called. This is evident in two ways.

They have a strong sense of destiny. A servant leader is inspired by a sense of eternal purpose. He is unable to get away from this calling and responds in obedience.

People can be placed into leadership by God, by man, or by self.

Korah demonstrated self-appointed leadership (Numbers 16). He rebelled against Moses, God's appointed leader, but God did not honor Korah's self-appointed leadership. Saul demonstrated man-appointed leadership. The call to serve came from man, not from God. Man-appointed leaders view ministry as a profession. They may lack the compassion, sensitivity, direction, and anointing necessary to lead effectively.

God-appointed leaders are effective because they are separated, sent out, and anointed by God. Their service manifests a seriousness and a deep awareness of God-given responsibility. Moses, Joshua, and David are all examples of God-appointed leaders.

They have a strong vision. By faith they see the vision. They know how to reach that vision, and they know when they have arrived. This vision motivates them to take initiative. The servant leader helps others accomplish eternally significant purposes.

According to Kouzes and Posner, admired leaders have foresight. They have the ability to see the future and make timely decisions. They have intuition and a gift of wisdom. They do not only set and define the vision, they encourage others to participate in it.


Servant leaders communicate the vision to people so that it becomes theirs. In their book, The Leadership Challenge, Kouzes and Posner said, "The puzzle principle says that it is easier to put the puzzle together if you can see the picture on the box cover. In any organization, people have different pieces of the organizational puzzle. Members may have detailed descriptions of their roles and responsibilities, but very often they lack information about the overall purpose or vision of the organization.

The leader's job is to paint the big picture, to give people a clear sense of what the puzzle will look like when everyone has put his pieces in place. Visions are the big picture" (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1987, pp. 98, 99).

The servant leader communicates the vision so that it touches the human spirit and inspires people to follow. Because people can identify with the vision, they are inspired to dream and are encouraged to endure.

Servant leaders also speak the Word in the language of the people so that it touches their spirits. This Living Word heals, guides, corrects, and delivers. The servant leader is able to interpret the Word and communicate it with clarify, conviction, and compassion.


Competence enhances the credibility of the leader. Servant leaders demonstrate competence with honest self-assessment and skill development.

They have a realistic view of themselves and the skills they possess. The leader's character and position may be respectable; but if he lacks the skills to accomplish the vision, people are reluctant to follow. A leader should be realistic about his skills. Being aware of one's capabilities and limitations is a part of competency. People follow leaders who are realistic. If the vision is not compatible with the leader's ability to accomplish the vision, people will not follow.

They have a winning track record. Competent leaders get things done. Servant leaders consistently accomplish the goals they establish. One of the surest ways to lose credibility is to propose unnecessary changes or fail to meet established goals.

They strive to increase their skills and competency. Servant leaders demonstrate competence in knowledge, skills, and leadership practices. When they lack in one of the areas, they find ways to educate themselves to correct the weakness.


Jesus demonstrated compassion toward people. He knew them (John 10:14, 15). He touched them (Luke 4:40). He healed them (Matthew 15:30). He taught them (Luke 6:40). He mentored them (John 13:15-17). The compassion of the servant leader is manifested in two ways.

He listens, understands, and cares. In Why Leaders Can't Lead, Warren Bennis tells of a woman who accosted the Roman emperor Hadrian. He brushed her aside, saying that we was too busy. She replied, "Then you're too busy to be emperor," whereupon he stopped and heard her out (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1990, p. 140). Servant leaders are also supportive and understanding. The more they listen, the more developed these attributes become.

They accept and empathize with people. In his book, Servant Leadership, Robert K. Greenleaf, said, "Great leaders, including "little" people, may have gruff, demanding, uncompromising exteriors. But deep down inside, the great ones have empathy and an unqualified acceptance of people.

"People grow taller when those who lead them empathize and when they are accepted for what they are. Leaders who empathize and who fully accept those who go with them are more likely to be trusted" (New York: Paulist Press, 1977, pp. 20, 21).


The servant leader must be dependable and stable. He regularly withdraws to be renewed. Any leader that does not take time to be personally renewed will run out of creativity, character and compassion. The vision will be lost, frustration will increase, and patience will fail.

As Robert Greenleaf said, "The ability to withdraw and reorient oneself, if only for a moment, presumes that one has learned the art of systematic neglect, to sort out the more important from the less important--and the important from the urgent--and attend to the more important.

"Pacing oneself by appropriate withdrawal is one of the best approaches to making optimal use of one's resources. The servant leader must constantly ask: How can I use myself to serve best?" (19).

Dependability, maturity, and effectiveness come to the leader who takes time to be renewed physically, spiritually, and emotionally.

Servant leaders are most effective when they are credible, called, communicators, competent, compassionate, and consistent.


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