Let me ask you a question. True or false, the defining characteristic of being a leader is having a title or a position?

False! Of course it’s not. And yet why is it then that the culture that we live in has so disproportionately magnified position, title and status as the be all and end all of leadership? Why is it so often the currency that carries the most weight when thrown around in our organisations and on our resumes?  (Usually when we want others to do what we tell them!)

I believe the key to doing this right lies in understanding the difference between leading from position as opposed to permission.

For many of us, we experience various forms of a leadership “positions” for the first time in university, particularly in a church context. Whether you are the new society treasurer, social secretary, or president, these experiences of a designated role and title can often become foundational in our understanding of what it actually means to be a leader.

Particularly for those new to positional leadership, a title can be the crutch that keeps us from ever truly learning what it means to be a leader. All too often, we confuse title with identity. The converse is similarly true, until we get asked to be on an exec board or be part of the student leadership team, we can often discount ourselves as leaders. Jesus warns us about the dangers of positional leadership and reminds us what example we are to follow:

You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” – Mark 10:42-45.

As leaders we have a choice – we can either lead out of our position, relying on our title or role and getting people to follow us because they have to. Or, we can choose to lead another way. We lead out of permission, or influence, where we commit to serve people and value them relationally. It’s the kind of leadership where we recognise the command of Jesus that we are here to serve those we lead, they are not here to serve us. And people begin to follow us not because they are told, because they want to.

Jesus makes it really clear that we are here to serve those we lead, they are not here to serve us.

This kind of radical servant leadership challenges our culture of entitlement, the belief that an individual is inherently deserving of privileges or special treatment.

Entitlement demands much before it has learned to faithfully steward the little.
Entitlement steps on top of others rather than getting underneath others.
Entitlement prematurely rushes for the mic before being willing to sweep the stage.

However, leadership isn’t a right, it is a privilege. It must be continually earned through building relational capital with and investing in those you lead. It is an action, not a position.

Positional leadership is the lowest and cheapest form of leadership. It costs us nothing as we dump all the unpaid bills on those we are leading. It denies the biblical truth that that people, not position, are a leader’s most valuable asset (Proverbs 27:23). Jesus couldn’t have been any clearer in communicating this than by entrusting us, people, to co-partner with Him in extending His kingdom!

Permissional leaders don’t rely on rights, rules, systems, or authority to lead people. They take time to listen, learn and then lead. 

Establishing healthy relationship where we champion and challenge those we lead must be our first step of leadership. We need to understand who they are, what their story is and what their strengths and weaknesses are so that we can set them up for success when we ask them to do something.

 We need to stop seeing people as a means to get things done, and instead see getting things done as a means of developing people! This requires personal investment and it will cost us our time, energy and intentional effort to build understanding and trust. But regardless of whether we have a natural connection with those we lead or not, this level of engagement is a non-negotiable in developing true influence in leadership.

Success in leadership can be a tricky thing to measure. However, one of the hallmarks of a great leader is investing in the people that will succeed you, leaving a legacy that lasts beyond you. Do you truly desire that others would become greater than you? If we actually want that, then we will realise that serving and investing in people should be our greatest value. It is the true cornerstone, the place from which everything else flows and is measured against.

True success is leaving a legacy that goes beyond you.

So let’s dream kingdom dreams of a new leadership culture on our campuses that is outworked by serving. One that doesn’t depend on titles to remind us of our true authority and leadership potential. One that looks like the omnipotent God, clothed in human flesh. The Anointed Messiah washing the dirty feet of His followers. The King of kings, crucified on a cross. Jesus’ servant leadership wasn’t afraid to look undignified in order to restore the dignity of those He came to save. This is the joy and privilege of leadership in His kingdom.