Although the life of Jesus cannot be reduced merely to a model of good leadership, he exhibits a style of leadership that transcends the power-mongering of society’s elite. He had already told his followers that they must not “lord it over” others like many of the rulers described as “those in high positions [who] act as tyrants over them,” (Matthew 20:25). Totalitarians and political thugs everywhere applaud the actions of such tyrants. Jesus challenges them.

In John 10, Jesus describes himself as a different kind of leader. The shepherd image was common in that day, and shepherds figured in many of the Bible’s narratives: leaders in Israel were compared to shepherds, King David was the forerunner of the shepherd to come, and shepherds attended the birth of Christ. Not all shepherds were good as Jesus recognizes, but the characteristics of his shepherding leadership provide insights into what a good leader will demonstrate.

Three Characteristics

The first characteristic has something intuitive about it: the sheep recognize the voice of the shepherd. When integrity characterizes a leader, those under his authority often sense something different about him. Even if they can’t identify the exact source of his influence, they hear and will follow. Because a phony can usually be spotted quickly– especially by children–integrity is the first characteristic of a good leader. No big surprise perhaps, but Jesus’ contrast to the shepherd who only wants to steal, kill, and destroy sets the person of integrity apart.

Another leadership quality is mentioned in verse fourteen: the good leader knows his followers and his followers know him. A good relationship between leaders and followers stems directly from intimacy. Rather than hinder the leader’s ability to ask difficult things of those under his authority, a caring leader will not need to cajole people to carry out his wishes. In any leadership environment, admittedly inappropriate intimacy causes unseen difficulties on leaders and followers alike. Yet caring, appropriate relationships breed a cohesion that cements a willingness to follow.

Finally, a good leader will sacrifice himself for the sake of the sheep. “The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” John 10:11. Leaders can do this in any number of ways, but the most important characteristic here is that leaders demonstrate their willingness to put the needs of their followers first. A retired Air Force pilot once told me that they were trained to be the first one up and the last one to bed. Such actions demonstrated to his men an oversight of caring and willingness to make sure their leader was leading by example.

More to the Story

Leaders always open themselves up to criticism. For example, Jesus’ claim of a close connection with his Father in heaven often evoked puzzlement and derision from those who didn’t agree. His statements drew criticism of the worst kind, the ad hominem attack, an attack against him rather than his statements. Jesus was attacked as being demon possessed and crazy, John 10:20. Yet more thoughtful individuals recognized these weren’t the words of a demon; such claims were substantiated by recognizing that a demon could never open the eyes of the blind (as recorded in the previous chapter). Jesus’ actions legitimized his leadership claims. A good leader overcomes criticism in the same way, not necessarily by miracles but by actions consistent with good leadership.

Some leaders may get by with a different style of leadership. Some offer rewards to keep followers in line; some force their authority down the throats of others; some simply love power for power’s sake. But I defy anyone to provide better characteristics of leadership that demonstrate genuine concern. Considering all the contemporary appeal for youth to change the world, Jesus models the only right kind of change. If you want to genuinely change things, emulate the good shepherd style of leadership that elevates those under your care.

See the Conversation on John 10 here.