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The race was on. Summer heat encroached and rain was scarce. In fact, it had been many weeks without substantial rainfall in Central Florida. My wilting lawn turned steadily from a pale green to a yellow that grew browner by the day. Adding to the tension was the discovery that my irrigation had not been working properly for several weeks due to my own inattention and the distractions of life. For all of the restorative action I could take to get more water on the parched grass, I knew it would take plentiful rain and the mercy of God to turn this yard from death to life. Were I to lose the lawn, I would be looking at thousands of dollars to replace the sod. Operation S.O.S. (Save Our Sod) was under way, countermeasures were taken, and the crisis was averted.
Though each of us delights to have a place called home, we know that we will likely not be the last resident at our address and that we all steward what has been entrusted to us for a season. As you might imagine, it seems every biblical passage about grass that dries and withers went through my mind for weeks during my race to save the sod. Backyard glances were a daily sermon as this parable of man’s transiency played out before me: “As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more” (Ps. 103:15–16).
This relatively minor episode in my life is a helpful place to begin a discussion of leadership because the pursuit of wisdom in any human endeavor requires us to recognize our finitude. Leadership is not a title. President or plumber, homebuilder or homemaker, leadership is inescapable; the only question is if we will be faithful to our calling.
There is much to glean from the modern study of leadership. In the publishing world, it is one of the most popular nonfiction categories, largely driven by society’s quest to grapple with this fourth major epoch in human enterprise. If the first three human economies were hunter-gather, agrarian, and industrial, we need to think deeply about this postindustrial moment in which we live, this “information age” with emerging virtual, service, and mobile economies. Leadership is inherently risky, and more reflection, not less, is vital.
But beyond the historical, sociological, biological, and methodological counsel that is offered in today’s books and from leadership gurus, there is often a lack of biblical perspective on leadership, and the advice frequently devolves into pragmatism rather than principle. Let’s start at the beginning.
“Leaders have followers.” Not the most profound statement, is it? But I mean “followers” in the sense that every leader will eventually give way to another who will come after. No leader stays in his position forever. Leaders run their race only to hand the baton to someone else. This successive pattern is woven into creation (see Ps. 90). The Lord directed mankind to tend and keep the garden of Eden (Gen. 2:15) and even to expand its borders throughout the entire world (1:26–28) so that all of creation would be a sanctuary of worship. It was a task Adam could not do alone or quickly, hence the gracious creation of a suitable helper in Eve and a multigenerational vision for subduing the earth for the glory of God. That is a cosmic vision. “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:36).
Jesus taught that His Father had been working from the beginning (John 5:17), reminding us that the only enduring work is the Lord’s work (15:5; 1 Cor. 3:12–13). Just as Adam could only prosper in dependence on the Lord, so our works will only endure if they are done in dependence on the Lord. While we are justified by trusting in the work of Jesus Christ on our behalf, we are then graciously allowed to enter the greater mission of God in this world through the building up of His church, the dwelling place of God (Eph. 2:20–22). This is true for every Christian, regardless of our calling to serve the church, our families, or other human enterprises for the common good. Each of us must respond to the unique calling put upon our lives by the providence of God. Going far beyond particular roles or gifting, we must steward our very lives, not for our sake, but for the Lord and the good of His people.
Man’s transiency is why we need a bigger vision of God-glorifying leadership—so that leaders do not overstate their own importance. Leaders who seek to glorify God in their callings prepare for the day when others take up the mantle.
“First principle thinking” is a buzzphrase among the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. These titans of industry talk a lot about building a company culture consisting of employees who understand a big vision and are motivated to have a massive effect on how technology shapes our lives. Getting “first principle thinkers” on the team allows the organization’s leader to articulate the mission in such a way that strategic alignment happens in every tier. Pulling big-cause, low-ego team members into any enterprise allows us to engage our tasks with a fruitful Christ-centered vision, considering others as more important than ourselves (Phil. 2:1–11).
John Knox, the Scottish Reformer, prayed, “Give me Scotland, or I die.” Jonathan Edwards, America’s philosopher-theologian, resolved “never to do anything, which I should be afraid to do, if it were the last hour of my life.” Thomas Chalmers, the nineteenth-century Scottish Presbyterian pastor, remarked, “No matter how large, your vision is too small.”
What is your true north statement? What principle drives your calling and allows you to test your daily, weekly, or yearly activity to ensure you are on course? It is much easier to correct a ship’s heading early in the voyage.
For instance, it would be incredibly inefficient for Dr. Sproul to meet every day with every team member at Ligonier Ministries to review that day’s to-do list. Instead, Dr. Sproul has given us a charge to proclaim, teach, and defend the holiness of God in all its fullness, depending on the Spirit to awaken as many people as possible to a biblical understanding of God’s character. Dr. Sproul does not look over each of our shoulders, making little course corrections as we go along. It’s better stewardship for each member of the organization to ask hard questions about each day’s to-do list in light of our true north statement, allowing us to correct our course to something bigger than ourselves.
Early on in the history of Ligonier Ministries, a consultant came to Dr. Sproul and asked what it was that people in the world and the church needed to hear. His answer: “They need to know who God is.” So as we approach fifty years of ministry in 2021, it is Dr. Sproul’s true north statement that provides clarity and perpetual motion in our mission to flood the culture with knowledgeable and articulate Christians.
A true north statement, however, can accomplish nothing in a vacuum. It likely would not surprise the readers of Tabletalk magazine to discover that I have found Dr. Sproul to be one of the most omnicompetent men I have ever known. Beyond his expert grasp of the Bible, he has led this ministry to ever-improving organizational efficiency and effectiveness. Wise leadership properly oriented toward a true north statement helps an organization of any size to stay on course. Dr. Sproul has created Ligonier Ministries to be such an organization, which allows us to offer something unique in the field of equipping Christian disciples around the world.
Why is greater than what, which is greater than how. Why we do something is far more important than what we do or how we do it. Teams animated by the why seldom stray off course for long. Petty disagreements disintegrate. Gossip ceases. Preening diminishes. Cynicism evaporates. They learn to say no to the good in order to pursue the best. This is where big-cause or “first principle” thinking translates to the daily grind of developing goals. We’ll typically overestimate what we can accomplish in one year and underestimate what can be accomplished in five. Aim for the objective with quantifiable measures. Execute, evaluate, repeat.
Others-mindedness fuels the servant leader. Nothing energizes leaders more than seeing their colleagues live up to their full potential—personally, professionally, spiritually. An ax can be used to hammer a nail, but it will only be efficiently and effectively used when it is properly whetted and wielded to inflict crisp, penetrating blows onto the wood.
We can do far more together than apart, each contributing to a productivity equation that is 1+1=3 or more. Fruitful organizations are more than the sum of their parts. Leaders look for opportunities to celebrate the unique gifts of every team member. Leaders prepare others around them for when they themselves will no longer be leading.
Leadership is not arrival. We lead best when Jesus Christ leads us. The Lord is the leader and we must follow Him as He builds His church (Matt. 16:18; Heb. 2:9–10; 12:2). Trusting the Lord leads us away from trusting ourselves. He increases, we decrease. So it will be until the end of the age as the Great Commission is carried forward, generation to generation. Until then, let us lead to the glory of God.