God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission… I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for nothing. – Cardinal John Henry Newman
We know that Christ is the form of the Christian life – the “pioneer and perfecter of our Faith” (Hebrews 12:2). This means that He is the source and exemplar of true leadership as well. If we want to learn to better lead others in the workplace, our own family, or our area of ministry, Christ’s leadership should be the compass we use to find our directions for how to lead. So, what lessons can be drawn from Christ, the King of hearts and wills? How can we lead like Jesus Christ?
Definition of a Leader
Well, first we need to understand what it means to be a leader. When broken down to the basics, a leader has often been described as one who successfully moves others through a desired course of action. While we might think of Christ first as a redeemer, sacrificial lamb, or a teacher, Christ’s identity is also that of a king and leader. Christ fulfills even the generic secular definition of leadership because He successfully gathered the apostles and moved them through a formation course, empowering them to go out and convert all nations to the Gospel message.
Christ is Leader of All People
While most leaders guide a few hundred or perhaps a few thousand, Christ is the leader not just of all Catholics but in fact of all people, which is expressed in his title, Christ the King. In Quas Primas, Pope Pius XI quotes Cyril of Alexandria, a fifth-century Church Father, who wrote, “Christ has dominion over all creatures, a dominion not seized by violence nor usurped, but by His essence and by His nature.” Christ’s kingship and leadership, Cyril is saying, is rooted in His very nature. Since Christ is our paradigm of what it means to be a leader, let’s start reflecting on the lessons we can draw from His example.
Christ’s Leadership and the Call of the Disciples
As a leader, Christ’s method of forming and teaching his disciples was grounded in vision, knowledge, and a person-centered ethos.
Christ’s vision, which He oriented the disciples to, was the reality that there is a spiritual kingdom that all souls are called to. “My kingdom does not belong to this world,” He said (John 18:36). This was a difficult, sometimes confusing vision for the disciples to accept, but the persuasion of Christ’s goodness and the power of his pure witness opened their hearts to be guided by this vision.
Christ’s vision had specific implications for His time and place; for instance, it commanded His apostles to look at the Gentiles in a new way, as people also called to Christ’s spiritual kingdom. At the same time, the vision extended into the future; indeed, the Kingdom of Heaven is what we live for today! So, from Christ’s perfect vision for us we can already draw this leadership lesson: A great leader shares a vision with his followers, and that vision not only has consequences for the time it is introduced, but has something lasting about it. A compelling vision— one that can be used to successfully lead others— includes something that reverberates into the ages.
Christ’s leadership formation of his disciples was also grounded in knowledge. He knew what the disciples could absorb and taught them through methods suited to them: parables, simple words, question and answers sessions, etc. His in-depth knowledge of His followers prompted him to give them practical teachings, connecting interior grace with visible outward signs, such as in the sacrament of Baptism. Many of his teachings were simple enough for children to understand, yet a higher, more complex level pervaded his teachings when He knew that intricacy was appropriate.
As the ideal leader, Christ had perfect knowledge of how to teach, but also when to teach: what moments to use for challenging lessons and what moments called for reassurance instead. As just one instance of this, consider Matthew’s account of how, when the apostles were terrified by a storm at sea, Christ calmed the waters, cultivating His apostles’ trust while restoring their peace of mind (Matthew 8: 23-27).
If we seek to lead like Jesus Christ, we must cultivate in-depth knowledge of our “apostles,” those we are empowered to guide. We can choose the right methods for teaching— ones best suited to our followers— and we can learn to evaluate situations, determining which are ripe for challenge and which call for comfort instead.
Christ’s leadership was grounded not just in vision and knowledge, but also in a personal, loving gaze. Through the perfect, personal gaze with which He saw His followers, Christ recognized the various gifts of the disciples and guided them to roles in the Church accordingly. John’s contemplative personality became a vessel for recording the mysticism of the Gospel message, for instance. Meanwhile, Peter’s practical leadership made him an appropriate choice for Pope.
Christ’s empowerment of each of His disciples began in love: “This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Besides specific conversations and moments of encounter— such as Christ asking Peter if he loved Him— Christ revealed his love by simply living daily life with His followers: fishing with them, eating with them, and resting with them. His leadership was eminently personal.
This gives us a clear model to follow, calling us to take a personal approach— rooted in love for the dignity and sacredness of each human life— as we strive to lead like Jesus Christ. Practically speaking, maybe this means taking more time for one-on-one conversations with those we guide, or praying about ways to match each of our followers’ unique gifts with functions suited to them. At heart, leading like Christ means receiving other people as gifts and joyfully affirming that it is good that they exist, that they are in the world. To follow Christ’s person-centered witness, we must live out for our followers this beautiful phrase attributed to St. Augustine: “Amo: volo ut sis: I love you: I want you to be.”
A final lesson to reflect on about Christ’s leadership is that good leadership looks like sourdough. If you’ve ever made sourdough bread, you’ll know that it is nicely resilient; as you feed it a little more flour and water, the dough grows and expands on the counter before your amazed eyes. Effective leadership causes amazing growth too, expanding ministries by empowering new leader after new leader.
Christ empowered his disciples to call, form, and empower other disciples. Paul, Peter, Thomas, Mark… these men formed new disciples who took their personal encounters with the Gospel seriously, then shared the fruits of that encounter with others. The Church’s sourdough-esque growth in the first centuries is explained by Christ’s empowerment of the disciples through the Holy Spirit. This doesn’t mean that Christ’s commission to His apostles sent them on a helter-skelter stampede about the earth. Rather, going forth and empowering others often required His disciples to intentionally remain in a mission for an extended period of time, letting the fullness of an experience of God’s merciful love deeply affect others. Taking the necessary time to invest in new converts to the Catholic Faith allowed for the Gospel message to remain as clear and pure as possible as it spread to more and more locations.
Leaders of successful ministries and business today also experience growth because their leaders call and empower other leaders. As just one example of this, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) began with two missionaries at Benedictine College in 1998. About twenty years after its founding, FOCUS had expanded to 137 campuses and 660 missionaries! Certainly, if we want to lead like Jesus Christ, we need to empower those we serve to become leaders themselves.
Go Forth and Lead Like Jesus
While Christ’s vision is ultimately not for a worldly kingdom, the laity are still called to lead like Jesus Christ in a special way in this world. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says,
By reason of their special vocation it belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will. . . .It pertains to them in a special way so to illuminate and order all temporal things with which they are closely associated that these may always be affected and grow according to Christ and may be to the glory of the Creator and Redeemer (898, see also 899).
From Christ’s leadership, the truest leadership, we see the centrality of vision, relationship, and empowerment in leadership. Let us be not afraid to be today’s Catholic leaders, inspiring and forming those we mentor to rise up and spread the good news of Christ’s kingship. Speaking of Christ’s kingship, let’s conclude by turning to the beautiful words of St. John Paul II, spoken in a homily on the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe:
As we pray that Your kingdom come, we see that Your promise is becoming a reality: after following You, we come to You in Your kingdom, drawn by You when You were lifted up on the Cross (cf. Jn 12:32); to You, lifted up over history and its centre, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end (cf. Rv 22:13), the Lord of time and the ages!