What Characteristics Make a Religious Leader?
I had a good discussion with a dear man the other night who has had me reflecting upon the characteristics of a good religious priesthood leader. In pondering upon the subject this article written long ago kept coming to my mind, and I felt I would share it with you all that it might be of benefit to others in some way.
The following article is taken from the church periodical The Instructor, Volume 99 Issue 2 and was written by Brother Neal A. Maxwell in 1964. The truths still hold firm today.
What Characteristics Make a Religious Leader?
Jesus was not only the perfect man, but also the perfect leader. We see some individuals in life who are good, but they are not good leaders. We see others who are good leaders, but who are not good. Jesus was perfect in both respects. In many ways, both Jesus and His situation were so special that we cannot repeat His performance; in other ways, many of the things He did can serve as a model for us.
1. Jesus loved the people he led. If one does not really love those he seeks to lead, he will soon disappoint or betray them. If followers know the leader loves them, they can trust him. This means the leader can teach his followers as a friend. Our friends are often our teachers.
2. Jesus’ leadership had a purpose which His followers came to appreciate and to share. Without a good purpose, a leader cannot find nor keep good disciples.
3. A good leader realizes that each of his followers is different, and he shows his followers how they can help the leader in their own way.
4. A good leader frees his followers from any sense of being forced to follow. He is also very honest in describing the problems they may face together.
5. Jesus gave His disciples meaningful tasks, not just busy work. This helps followers to build their own storehouse of good experiences so that they do not need to rely only on the leader. A leader is responsible, not only to his purposes, but to his people. He will teach them correct principles and give the group as much freedom to govern itself as possible. His followers can use this freedom to grow.
6. A good leader is a good listener. He creates an atmosphere in which his followers may talk to him frankly about their concerns or criticisms. This is called, by some, “feedback.” This helps the leader to know how the follower really feels. Jesus, of course, with His divine discernment, could read hearts and minds accurately, but other leaders should seek “feedback” so that they can become better leaders.
7. Jesus applied his teachings to the “here-and now” world as well as to the next world. Jesus’ miracles were power used in doing good now, the kind of service that followers can see.
8. A good leader must help members of his group “invest” their ideas and feelings in the goals and workings of the group. If group members have been involved in the plans, they will usually perform better than if the leader merely announces his decision or tries to sell the group on his own plan. Members may really try to follow when a decision is simply announced or sold to them, but soon it becomes clear that they have no feeling for the project. For instance, a class party announced by the teacher can be seen as the teacher’s party, not the class members’ party.
9. Jesus often put questions to his followers to help them think through their own ideas and to understand better what he was trying to teach them. A good leader will also put problems before the group for another reason—to help the group actually make a real contribution by its ideas and actions. No leader is so wise that he has all the answers all the time.
10. A good leader is consistent in his life; he is not like the chameleon, a lizard-like animal which changes the color of its skin so that it is the same as its surroundings. A good leader should not try to blend into social surroundings which are not consistent with his way of life and still expect to have his followers respect him.
The first two disciples impressed by Jesus wanted to learn more about Him. Jesus told them, “Come and see.” A good leader must always be willing to have his followers see clearly what he is like. If a leader ever tries to trick his followers, or to use them for his selfish ends, he destroys the trust that binds them.
In His appearance to the Nephites, Jesus told His followers, “… I am the light; I have set an example for you. . . . Behold I am the light which ye shall hold up—that which ye have seen me do.. . .” (3 Nephi 18: 16, 24) Jesus urged His followers to live as He lived, to do the things He did, so that people might “feel and see.” In order for people to “feel and see,” the religious leader must have characteristics which permit people to feel his spirit and see his example.
Some authorities have written about two kinds of leaders. The first is the “Big L,” or big leader, who makes all the decisions and tries to do all the work. “Big L” grows, but he is surrounded by “little l’s,” or little leaders, who follow him, but who are not sharing in the growth or experiences. The best type of leader shares with his followers so that they, too, become bigger “L’s”; and, surprisingly enough, the leader himself still continues to grow.
In a revealed religion, of course, we do not establish doctrine or Gospel truths by group decisions; but we can do much more sharing of ideas on how best to reach Gospel goals. In a group, we can share what we believe and our reasons for believing, and this will strengthen all members of the group.
Shared leadership is in keeping with the whole purpose of life. We have come to earth in order to grow. We cannot grow without good experiences. We cannot have experiences unless we participate and learn to use our free agency. Just as Jesus prepared His disciples to lead after He had gone, so any good leader will bless his followers by sharing burdens with them.