Leading by Example

The following is an adaptation of the sermon ‘Leading by Example’ preached by Pastor Michael White on Sunday, 5/26/2019, at CityLight Church. To listen to the full podcast please click


Leadership Matters

If you want to fulfill your destiny, you have to learn to lead. Whether or not you feel like you’re a natural leader is irrelevant. If you want to step into the calling God has over your life, you will need other people; and motivating other people to work together to accomplish something is called leadership.

Do you consider yourself a leader? If you’re a parent, you have an opportunity every single day to lead your children. If you work in an office with other people, you have the unique chance to lead the people God has put around you towards a common goal. If you volunteer in your church, eventually God will surround you with other people so you can teach them what God has taught you. All of us should be leaders. After all, isn’t our ultimate mandate to lead people into relationship with Jesus Christ?

The way you lead the people God has around you now, will show Him whether or not He can trust you with other people down the road. Leading is all about stewardship. There’s more at stake than just your personal skill set. God has filled you with something that He wants to use to bless the people around you; and you will need the leading and guidance of the Holy Spirit to get it out.

Leadership is hard. Managing people has its challenges! But that’s why we’re here: to look to God’s Word to show us something we might never find on our own.

What Is Your Leadership Style?

Different people lead different ways. What kind of leader are you?

Kurt Lewin is often considered the founder of social psychology, and the originator of the sensitivity training modules we now see in many successful organizations. Lewin and a group of researchers first identified three basic variations in leadership style in 1939[1]:

1) Autocratic

The autocratic leader is task-oriented. The most important goal of leadership is getting the job done, and little time and attention are devoted to the people doing the job. Autocratic leaders command, and they expect you to do what they say. They like to control tasks, in lieu of providing autonomy. They provide specific directions to employees, and clearly communicate their expectations for success. Autocratic leaders typically make decisions independently based on what they perceive is best for them or the organization, without soliciting input from employees.

There are benefits and drawbacks to this style of leadership. This style works well when you need urgent, specific results. Over the long term, however, this style can be stifling for employee creativity and morale. Autocratic leadership does not produce a team of self-starters; it often breeds a small group of yes-men and women who just want to make the boss happy.

Entrepreneurs are often autocratic leaders. When you found a company, you often think you always know best because you have the most personal experience with your business. You want things done your way. Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, is a perfect example of this type of leader: he communicates production goals and productivity milestones and asks his employees to do whatever is necessary to get it done. Saul, the first king over Israel, also led this way. After Saul became king, he commanded all of Israel to come and fight, or face the consequences.[2] The result was a good one: victory over the Philistines! But over time, morale under his leadership crumbled.

2) Delegative

Delegative leaders are people-oriented. At the opposite end of the spectrum from autocratic leadership, delegative leaders are often hands off (liassez-faire or “let it be”). Instead of one strong leader making decisions, the delegative leader often passes on decision-making authority to the group.

There are strengths to delegative leadership. Long-term, this style of leadership takes the emphasis off of one person. The needs of the community are more important than just getting results. Highly motivated people who are self-starters often thrive in delegative environments.

However, the delegative framework has weaknesses as well. Employees who are new or need training often find delegative leadership to be too hands-off. There can be little top-down direction, and performance expectations can be muddy and obscure.

Moses started out as a delegative leader. When God called him to speak in front of Pharaoh, he was afraid; so he immediately delegated that task to Aaron.[3] When Moses went up on Mount Sinai to meet with God, he couldn’t be physically present to lead the people, so he delegated authority to Aaron. God’s people didn’t know what was best for them, so when they decided they wanted an idol, they were without a leader who would tell them “no” for their own good. The results were disastrous,[4] and the gold calf was born.

3) Participative (mix of task and people oriented)

The third and final type of leadership Lewin identifies is participative. This style is a mix of task- and people-oriented. The goal is to get the job done, but never at the expense of the people doing the job. The participative leader provides top-down instruction and guidance needed for the members of an organization, but also creates an environment where feedback is both expected and encouraged. The participative leader makes the final decisions, but employees and/or volunteers feel included in the process. You are always present as a leader, but never overbearing.

Given the shortcomings of both autocratic and delegative leadership, participative leadership can seem like the best of both worlds. However, this type of leadership can put strain on a leader. It requires constant commitment on the part of management to meet with employees and incorporate feedback into business decisions. It can be difficult for this type of leader to bridge the gap between what is best for an organization, versus what is optimal for the people who make up that organization.

A contemporary example of a participative leader is Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft. While CEO, Gates gave his management team autonomy and listened to their insights; but at the end of the day, he made the final decisions. The result is that Microsoft is still a viable and impactful organization, even though Gates is no longer involved in day-to-day operations.[5] The prime benefit of participative leadership is that an organization will continue to thrive long after a former leader is no longer directly involved.

David, the second over Israel, was a participative leader. David always made the final decision as king; but he led in such a way that his servants felt valued and utilized.

The goal of this discussion on leadership styles is not to convince you that one style of leadership is “better” than another, but rather to challenge the common perception that there is only one “best” way to lead. The best leaders often switch their leadership style based on what their organization needs at that moment. And this is key to our discussion: Biblical leadership is not about doing what’s best for you; it’s about doing what God says is best for the people you lead.

A Man of the People

David was a man with an agenda. God had spoken a very specific calling over his life, and everyone around him knew it. Even Abner the Son of Ner, commander of Saul’s armies (Saul was David’s predecessor and attempted murderer), knew David was to become king.[6] David would be king; and he would rule as God told him to rule, regardless of what other people expected. David was never afraid to take charge and make difficult decisions.

However, David also cared deeply about his people. We see this in the way he led. He didn’t lead in a purely autocratic style as a dictator. Whenever David asked God’s people to do something, David participated. This is empowering, participative leadership at is finest. Everybody knew David was in charge; but David took great pains to remind everyone under his leadership that he was a servant of God, just like them.

The people of Israel accepted and adored David long before he was king:

So David went out wherever Saul sent him, and behaved wisely. And Saul set him over the men of war, and he was accepted in the sight of all the people and also in the sight of Saul’s servants. – 1 Sam 18:5

“Accepted” is the Hebrew word yatab (Strong’s H3190), which means to be pleasing, and to cause gladness and rejoicing. To watch David lead was an act that inspired joy! And do you know what David did so well that made people love him?

But all Israel and Judah loved David, because he went out and came in before them. – 1 Sam 18:16

David “went out and came in” before God’s people. He participated! He demonstrated with his actions that he was never “above” service to God’s people. David never asked the people of Israel to do something he wasn’t willing to do himself!

This “principle of participation” was important to David, even into old age. Long after David should have retired from battle, he continued to fight. He insisted on leading his people into battle, instead of sending them out from his presence. Eventually David’s men had to tell David to stay home for his own safety:

When the Philistines were at war again with Israel, David and his servants with him went down and fought against the Philistines; and David grew faint. Then Ishbi-Benob, who was one of the sons of the giant, the weight of whose bronze spear was three hundred shekels, who was bearing a new sword, thought he could kill David. But Abishai the son of Zeruiah came to his aid, and struck the Philistine and killed him. Then the men of David swore to him, saying, “You shall go out no more with us to battle, lest you quench the lamp of Israel.” – 2 Sam 21:15-17

David risked his life to make sure the people had a participative leader. How different is that from the autocratic leaders you know, who just send people out to do the stuff they feel too important to do? How different is that from the self-centered boss who just dumps the stuff he or she doesn’t want to do on you all the time? How different was David from Saul, who was too scared to fight Goliath, so he sent David out instead?

Great men and women lead by example. Eleanor Roosevelt was the First Lady of the United States from 1933 to 1945, during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s four terms in office. After her term as the longest serving First Lady of the United States, she went on to become the United States Delegate to the United Nations General Assembly from 1945 to 1952. For almost thirty tears, she wrote a newspaper column called My Day. Her predominant leadership principle? “It is not fair to ask of others what you are not willing to do yourself.” [7]

The best boss I’ve ever had is a man named Steve. When I landed a job on the trading floor of a major bank in 2008, Steve was my first boss. This was a cutthroat industry, known for long hours and flaring tempers. My hiring manager had prepared me for success: I had to be the first one at my desk every morning, and the last one to leave at the end of the day.

But no matter how early I got to my desk, Steve always beat me. My first morning on the job, I showed up at 6am for a 6:30am start time. Steve was already there. My second day, I showed up at 5:45am. Steve was there! My third day, I showed up 5:30am. And guess what? Steve was there!

No matter how late I stayed, working on spreadsheets and finalizing trade details, Steve always outlasted me. Eventually he took me aside and said, “Don’t worry about being the first one on the desk or the last one to leave. I’m always going to get here before you, and I’m always going to be here later.” This is a true leader. I was twenty years his junior; yet he stopped at nothing to show me what hard work and dedication look like.

My own mother demonstrated this “principle of participation” for me as well. When I was in middle school, I got a job delivering newspapers. Every single morning, a stack of newspapers would drop with a thud at the end of our driveway. It was my job to stuff the papers with advertising inserts. Then, I would trudge several blocks from our home and distribute the papers to everyone in a radius of several blocks.

But I didn’t have to do it alone. My mom woke up at 5am every morning with me. When I stuffed inserts, she stuffed inserts. Then we would load up the papers, and head over to my route to drop them off. My mom was a successful marketing executive working on an MDiv on nights and weekends; but she stopped at nothing to show me what hard work and dedication look like.

King David did it, too. He wasn’t willing to ask anyone to do something he was unwilling to do himself. And because he led by example, David never had to remind anyone that he was king; his people naturally honored and served him, because they loved him.

Servant Leadership

Ultimately, Biblical leadership is about more than participation; it is about service. I believe the key to successful leadership is the best leaders don’t lead based on what’s best for them; they lead based on what’s best for the people they serve.

Jesus was a Servant Leader:

Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. – Phil 2:5-11

Jesus didn’t die on the Cross for you because it was best for Him! He did it because it was best for you. He did not come to be served, but to serve.[8] Are you willing to lead in the same way?

© Michael D. White, 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Michael D. White with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

[1] Kurt Lewin, “Experiments in Social Space,” Reflections 1, no. 1 (1939): 7-13. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/2L9tR8D


[2] “So he took a yoke of oxen and cut them in pieces, and sent them throughout all the territory of Israel by the hands of messengers, saying, ‘Whoever does not go out with Saul and Samuel to battle, so it shall be done to his oxen.’ And the fear of the Lord fell on the people, and they came out with one consent.” (1 Sam. 11:7)

[3] “So he shall be your spokesman to the people. And he himself shall be as a mouth for you, and you shall be to him as God.” (Ex. 4:16)

[4] “Now when the people saw that Moses delayed coming down from the mountain, the people gathered together to Aaron, and said to him, ‘Come, make us gods that shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’” (Ex. 32:1)

[5] Satya Nadella took the helm as Microsoft CEO in 2014 following Steve Ballmer.

[6] “May God do so to Abner, and more also, if I do not do for David as the Lord has sworn to him— to transfer the kingdom from the house of Saul, and set up the throne of David over Israel and over Judah, from Dan to Beersheba.” (2 Sam. 3:9-10)

[7] Eleanor Roosevelt, “My Day, June 15, 1946,” The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Digital Edition (2017), accessed 6/19/2019, https://www2.gwu.edu/~erpapers/myday/displaydocedits.cfm?_y=1946&_f=md000366.

[8] “…just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Matt. 20:28)