The best leadership advice I've heard in 25 years

“The first job of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.”

So writes Max de Pree. I heard the first two lines of this quote more than 25 years ago. I have seen them proven true. And now that I know the remaining line, I can say without question that it is true as well.

We find ourselves in a weird time with regard to leadership. On the one hand, business and pastor circles are drowning in a sea of words regarding leadership. On the other hand, sociologists identify Americans as the singularly most independent nation bar none. We want good leaders, but we’re just as quick to attack and abandon them when they don’t dance to our tune.

The emphasis on leadership in pastoral circles at times borders on idolatrous, as though if we just follow this leadership principle or best-seller, then our church will explode with growth. We will have mastered leadership. Sorry, but that’s not Jesus.

DePree goes a different, and I believe better, direction. Leading is a tremendous privilege and responsibility, whether leading yourself (which all of us are called to work on), your kids, a department, or a church.

God loves to come alongside those who aspire to leadership for the right reasons (see 1 Timothy 3:1 in the New Testament for an example). Once you have the title, DePree’s pithy definition comes into play:

  1. Define reality: When others are losing hope, perspective, or their cool, step in. Remind them of where we are, where we’re headed, and Who is guiding us as we seek Him.
  2. Serve: The title is just a set of clothes to grow into. But grow. And the way you grow as a leader is by serving those you lead, not being a tyrant or a pain in the neck (or lower).
  3. Express thanks: In churches especially, almost everything of value gets done by volunteers. The bills are paid and the ministry marches on because of voluntary, generous giving. So let people know you’re thankful for them, and why. Each one is a beautiful part of the beautiful work God is doing, His masterpiece. Remind them!