As anyone who is a manager or leader of people knows, leadership is HARD. It can be incredibly rewarding, heartbreaking, frustrating, or tedious depending on the day. It often has more in common with parenting than people would realize.
And there are a lot of bad bosses in the world…though no one ever wants to believe that they’re one of them.
For God’s people who are also leaders within their work environment, we have a significant responsibility to not only care for and grow our employees, but also be a reflection of God’s way while we do so. The old adage comes to mind that “with great power comes great responsibility”.
The bible is packed with passages to help guide God’s people through the joys and trials of people leadership. For instance, there’s so much in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes alone that we can learn from, not to mention all of the “red text” instructions from Jesus’s own mouth.
But as the wisest people know, studying the examples and actions of others can sometimes be just as instructive, or even more so—whether good or bad examples, they provide context and specific tangible details that can help a leader with practical application.
For as long as I can remember, if you’d asked me what biblical figure I really looked up to or who was my “hero”, I would have answered Daniel. He stayed faithful while navigating the politics of Babylonian and Persian governments, and managed to be consistently promoted while acting as an example of God’s way to even the rulers of the realm.
So this study looks at specific examples of leaders in the bible, and specifically leadership qualities that they modeled. My goal here isn’t to go really in-depth on each (because they could honestly each be their own study), but rather provide illustrations and inspiration for biblical examples of leadership—and then each of you can take it from here. Here’s what we’ll cover:
- Abraham: Stepping out in faith, navigating uncertainty
- Daniel: Refusal to compromise regardless of consequences
- Esther: Risking herself to “go to bat” for her people
- Joseph: Perseverance, trust in God’s timing, and planning through adversity
- Job: Perspective through loss
- Moses: Motivation, intercession, and delegation to avoid burnout
- David: Passion, patience, and penitence
- Abigail: Showing tact and discretion to de-escalate a situation
- Nehemiah: Pursuing a vision and inspiring others to follow
What do we know about leadership qualities in the bible overall?
First, let’s briefly look at a few of the overarching principles of leadership qualities found in the bible…these truly are only a few of the probably hundreds, but a good starting place before we dive into specific people examples.
- We should try to be skilled and proficient in our work endeavors (Prov. 22:29; Eccl. 9:10)
- Integrity and honesty are critical in everything we do (Prov. 28:6; Luke 16:10)
- We should be discerning, not gullible (Prov. 14:15)
- God does not intend for us to totally remove ourselves from the world; we have to know how to function in the (sinful, carnal) society, and require God’s protection to do so according to His way (John 17:15)
- We should think carefully about what comes out of our mouths, and be effective, thoughtful communicators (Prov. 21:3)
- We aren’t intended to be pushovers, but should be shrewd in our dealings (Matt. 10:16)
- We should seek counsel and guidance from people we trust (Prov. 20:18)
- Leading and managing people is a responsibility, and we are required to rise to the occasion (Luke 12:48)
What we can learn from specific examples of leaders in the bible
Abraham: Stepping out in faith, navigating uncertainty
Long before he became known as Abraham or was called the “father of the faithful”, Abram took a huge risk based on his faith in God. The beginning of his (recorded) story has God telling him to pack up his entire little empire—uproot his whole life—and leave for a place he’d never been.
God promised to bless him beyond what he could even imagine, but He required Abram to embrace the unknown and trust that God’s promises were sure, and that He would care for him and his family.
We’re told that “by faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going” (Heb. 11:8). His approach to navigating risk and uncertainty and leading the people under his care into the unknown is one that all leaders should study.
Daniel: Refusal to compromise regardless of consequences
Daniel 1 and 6 in particular
As I mentioned at the outset, Daniel is always someone I’ve looked to in my career. Despite consistently standing up for his beliefs and living according to what he believed God wanted, he managed to garner the attention and respect of multiple heavy-hitter rulers through different empires.
Daniel was continually promoted and rose to great prominence in these empires BY trusting in God and steadfastly living His way. The famous King Nebuchadnezzar found “none like Daniel” and his three friends because God rewarded them for their faithfulness.
His success attracted enemies, though, which is common among great leaders. When those enemies manipulated King Darius into signing a decree against worshipping or petitioning anyone but him, Daniel didn’t panic—and he didn’t back down.
He wasn’t “in your face” about it, but when challenged and persecuted, he didn’t hide in the closet instead of praying to God in front of the window “as was his custom”. He refused to compromise and maintained his faith steadfastly even when thrown in the lion’s den. Daniel constantly models an opposite example as Lot, who became tainted by the society he lived in and allowed his idea of right and wrong to be shaped by it.
Esther: Risking herself to “go to bat” for her people
Entire book of Esther (but especially chapters 4-7)
Not all leaders end up there on purpose, and Queen Esther is a good example of one such reluctant leader. When her uncle Mordecai told her of the decree to murder the entire Jewish people and told her she had to petition the king, she was scared.
We don’t have any indication that she wanted to be in her position and marriage in the first place, and she certainly didn’t want to be responsible for the life and death of an entire ethnic group. Mordecai had to push her, reminding her that if she abdicated responsibility then God still could find another way to save the Jews—but might she have been placed in this role for exactly this reason?
Leaders have to consider the same…throughout our lives, God places us in different places and situations based on what we need, and what others need from us. Sometimes those situations compel us to stand up and “go to bat” for the people we are responsible for. Those places are not always comfortable, and sometimes they require us to “stand in the gap” (Ezek. 22:30). As any great leader would, Queen Esther ultimately put herself at risk and stepped forward to try and save her people.
Joseph: Perseverance, trust in God’s timing, and planning through adversity
Genesis 37-48 (especially chapters 39-41)
Boy, talk about a life of great highs and lows. God gave him visions of greatness in his youth, then his brothers sold him into slavery. Then his good gig as Potiphar’s #1 servant went down the drain because Joseph refused to sin by sleeping with Potiphar’s wife. So he spent over 10 years in prison (eventually being in charge of all the prisoners), to then instantaneously become Pharaoh’s second-in-command and guide Egypt through seven years of terrible famine.
Throughout all these trials and victories, Joseph maintained his faith in God and refused to surrender to a victim mentality. He was definitely not perfect and had a lot of maturing to do, laboring in obscurity for many years to emerge as someone qualified to lead people at the right time.
I really loved the points that John C. Maxwell makes in his book “Leadership Promises for Every Day” (March 7th). One of the big lessons for leaders that we can take from Joseph is about timing, and how “self-promotion can never replace divine promotion.”
Joseph knew that God had a plan for him, and he stayed patient and faithful through ups and downs. When his brothers were afraid that Joseph would retaliate for their actions, he tells them, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20).
Something else that Joseph models for us is how critical it is to have a long-term vision and to develop a plan of action. Yes, God gave him the information about the coming seven years of plenty and then seven years of famine. But Joseph listened, considered, and put a plan into action himself—one that required some tough choices for the long-term good.
Job: Perspective through loss
Job (chapters 1-2 especially)
I sometimes think Job gets a bad rap. It seems like every message you hear on Job is trying to make a point about how he lacked humility, needed to learn lessons, may have brought his troubles on himself.
There’s a ton we can try and glean from the book of Job, but most of those aren’t my point here. I want to hone in on the early events and how Job reacted. He experienced tremendous loss in the span of a few minutes…all of his possessions and wealth, and every single one of his children were destroyed. Think of the shock and grief of a parent losing one, let alone ten, children.
Job lost everything and he didn’t know why. Put yourself in his shoes—would your faith have been shaken? But Job maintained an appropriate perspective. His first response is one of humility and worship, saying “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).
Later when his health is taken and he’s sitting in ashes, wracked with pain, he pointedly asks his wife, “Shall we indeed accept good from God, and not adversity?” (Job 2:10). Job models for leaders the perspective we should have on trials, loss, and God’s role in our lives.
Moses: Motivation, intercession, and delegation to avoid burnout
Exodus 14-18, 32-34; Numbers 11-14
Moses gives us so many specific lessons on leading people, that it’s hard to choose which to highlight. He constantly used a blend of encouraging, instructing, and rebuking to get the Israelites where they need to go, showing an understanding of how to perceive what is needed to motivate people in different situations to achieve results.
In Exodus 18 his father-in-law gives him some constructive criticism and advice on taking care of himself by learning to delegate. Jethro told him that he had to let go of some of his power to avoid wearing himself out. Numbers 11:14 gives us a slightly different perspective on this event, showing that Moses was struggling under the burdens and had asked God to relieve him. This is a real challenge for many leaders, and Moses reacted with humility and raised up others to help him.
And though he often complained about the Israelites, he also stuck up for them and made intercession for them with God quite frequently. When God was going to destroy them after the Golden Calf incident and start over with Moses, Moses fought for the Israelites and pleaded with God to be merciful despite their failings. He stood in the gap for the Israelites time and again, acknowledging their failings but always trying to push them to be better.
David: Passion, patience, and penitence
I Samuel and II Samuel
Similar to Moses, it’s hard to know where to start since there are MANY things we could talk about where David is concerned. God calls him “a man after His own heart”, which is something every leader should aspire to (I Sam. 13:14).
David instilled great love of him in other people, inspiring devotion and loyalty from Jonathan, his mighty men, and many others. His mighty men would have followed him to the ends of the earth (II Sam. 23), and this was partly because he was down there in the trenches with them rather than just sitting up and directing from an ivory tower.
Of course he was also far from perfect, and we have more examples recorded of David’s missteps than for most people in the bible. But David also was a good example of a leader owning up to his own failures (e.g. II Sam. 24, after the census). David made mistakes, but he (eventually) took responsibility for them and tried to take the consequences on himself. Leadership doesn’t mean not making mistakes, but rather quickly acknowledging them, seeking forgiveness, and working to right wrongs or do better next time.
David also modeled a huge amount of patience. He didn’t have the full picture at any point in time, but trusted in God to bring things about in His time. He was anointed king as a teenager, but didn’t actually become king until the age of 30…but he refused to undermine King Saul or do him any harm.
David was a passionate defender of the little guy (usually), and was quick to act in the face of wrong (like when he confronted Goliath). He tried to do the right thing in most cases. He didn’t try to force God’s timing or jump at every opportunity, but rather looked to God to direct his paths.
Abigail: Showing tact and discretion to de-escalate a situation
We know Abigail had beauty and intelligence, and found herself married to a cruel, stupid, self-important man. Unbeknownst to her, he had hurled insults at the future King David’s men and refused them food and water despite the service David’s men had rendered them. Outraged, David vowed to kill every man of Nabal’s household.
Enter Abigail. She finds out what’s happening and quickly puts together a huge gift of food, racing toward David’s entourage. Without his knowledge and against her husband’s wishes, she asks for David’s mercy and explains the situation, showing humility though she herself had done nothing wrong.
As a result of Abigail’s thoughtful decision making under pressure, grace, and tact, she saved her entire household and (as a widow) eventually became David’s wife. David praised her sensibleness and thanked her for averting bloodshed.
Leaders have to know when to act quickly, and sometimes have to humble themselves to heal a relationship or calm a situation. Tactfulness and grace of speech are critical qualities in a leader’s arsenal.
Nehemiah: Pursuing a vision and inspiring others to follow
Entire book of Nehemiah
Nehemiah seems to have had a good life, with a pretty plum position as the king’s cupbearer. But he didn’t ignore his call when it came, and then leveraged his position with the king to send help to the Israelites who had returned to Jerusalem.
His story is one of focus and vision, but in particular how he continually energized and inspired others to work toward the same vision with him. But he wasn’t all talk and inspiration—he also led by example, devised a plan for building the wall, and was down there in the trenches doing the hard work alongside the people.
Nehemiah also teaches leaders the importance prioritization as well as perceiving people’s intent. When enemies seek to harm him under the guise of setting up a meeting to chat, he simply says “I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down” (Neh. 6:3).
To achieve his vision he knew that for a time he had to say “no” to some things, and also that not everyone would help him along the way. That whole chapter of Nehemiah 6 shows a few different examples where people were trying to distract him or get him to compromise, but he repeatedly perceived their intentions and “stayed the course”. He models several leadership qualities that we should learn from.
Godly leadership requires a lot of practice
James tells us, “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27). While this was written to God’s people at-large, it rings very true for leaders.
This verse is interesting because it—intentionally, I believe—addresses both our external actions and our internal condition. Understanding how to be godly leaders (or substitute the word you want…bosses, managers, etc.) requires us to be focused on both the conditions of our hearts and minds, as well as the impact of our behaviors on others.
See, if James had just written that pure religion was keeping ourselves unspotted from the world, that might be easier. We could choose to just avoid everyone, not engage or interact. Focus on ourselves, our thoughts and feelings. And we do need to do that.
But James first tells us a specific action that we’re required to take. We’re to proactively take care of those in need. It’s impossible to completely remove yourself from the world and go live as a hermit if you’re focused on caring for others. Being a manager requires us to think about others’ needs and aspirations, and often prioritize them above our own.
Our calling is not only to care for God’s people…if we live and work in society and are in a position of leadership, we have a responsibility to be godly leaders as well. And he’s given us so many examples of leaders in the bible to learn from and model.
If you’re looking for some additional reminders of leadership qualities from the bible, this article has a lot of different verses for you as well.