The Five Leadership Functions of Jesus

In their outstanding book, The Leadership Challenge, James Kouzes & Barry Posner build their case that leaders are made, more than born. They describe five functions ordinary people use when they bring forth their best efforts in challenging circumstances. I have adapted the five essential functions presented in their book to show how Jesus first modeled them. The source of all great, enduring leadership practices is always God himself. In this case, Jesus models these practices in His last days and nights with the disciples before His crucifixion, as recorded in John 13-17.

  • Jesus Encouraged the Heart 

Jesus connected directly to the soul of His closest followers. He discerned their fear, their bewilderment, and their unspoken questions. They knew something big was up, but they weren’t sure what it was, so He said: “Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in me...I go to prepare a place for you...I will come again to receive you to myself, that where I am, you may be also...” (John 14:1-3).

Jesus encouraged His disciples to do extraordinary things by speaking to their felt need, to what was happening below the surface, at the heart level. He demonstrated that the way to reach people’s wills and minds is through their hearts.

Jesus knew the task He gave His disciples to go, teach, baptize and make disciples would not be accomplished if their hearts were overcome with discouragement. He saw the need to keep hope and determination alive in them. He encouraged them by speaking hope to their hearts, not presenting facts to their minds. He reassured them. He listened to them. He recognized the contributions they had already made and affirmed them for it.

The twelve apostles were men who had already left their families for Jesus. They risked everything for their faith in Him. He did what great leaders do; He celebrated their dedication and sacrifice. Others had left Him, but not these men. He knew Judas would betray Him and Peter would deny Him, but as discouraging as that could be, Jesus still reached out to His disciples with words of comfort and assurance.

Jesus’ words “Let not your hearts be troubled…” have given hope and comfort to multiple generations of disciples the world over since that night when He first spoke them. This is inspirational leadership at its best! Jesus openly disclosed what was before the disciples (14:29-30), yet motivated them onward with a vision for the future.

  • Jesus Inspired a Shared Vision 

Jesus told His disciples He was leaving and going to the Father, but He promised a heaven-sent mentor was coming to help them. He enabled His disciples to see the future possibilities He had in store for them (John 14:1-3, 23-24).

The function of inspirational leadership is to inspire hope. Jesus declared with great passion how His disciples could make a difference after He departed. He envisioned the future for them, creating a unique image of what the future was to become. He told them they would do even greater works than the great works that He had done.

Through His strong appeal and quiet persuasion, He enlisted His disciples in the dream He had for them, and then commissioned them to do the same for others (14:31).

  • Jesus Challenged the Status Quo

Jesus declared to His disciples that He is the way to the Father (14:7-14). Jesus built on the truth embedded in the faith covenant made with Abraham, but avoided the man made structures built around the covenant. He pointed to Himself as the revelation of the Father (14:7-11), and in so doing, He undercut the priestly system that had disempowered the Jewish people from direct access to the Father.

Jesus searched for opportunities to challenge and change the status quo. The Jewish faith-system had become a weight on the shoulders of the people. He didn’t just innovate within the existing way of doing things; He replaced it with something new and fresh. He took enormous risks. Since risk taking involves the potential for mistakes and failure, Jesus gave his disciples freedom to learn from their mistakes.

  • Jesus Empowered Others to Act 

He fostered collaboration among His disciples by sending them out in twos and threes, working as a spiritual family. He knew He was building them together, not just as individuals. Jesus was building them into His people. The carriers of His ongoing presence on earth. His church! In doing so, He gave them authority and power to act. He delegated to them the mission the Father had given to him.

Jesus actively involved the disciples as the founders of His church - and made it clear that they should disciple many others also. He didn’t want to build an exclusive sect but a worldwide movement of people from every tribe and tongue. Jesus came to start a movement that was inclusive to the poor, to women, to the young, and to the marginalized and the broken.

Jesus understood that mutual respect between His followers is what would sustain His extraordinary efforts through them, so He taught them about the value of love, forgiveness and unconditional acceptance.

Jesus modeled for His disciples how to create an atmosphere of trust and dignity among people. He confronted competitiveness in His disciples. He taught them to love each other as He loved them. He strengthened His disciples by sharing inside information with them – information that empowered them to leave Him if they chose to do so. Jesus gave His own power away, making each disciple feel capable and powerful. And then told them that this is how they are to lead the movement He began, “in the same way the father sent me, I am sending you...” (John 20:21-23).

  • Jesus Modeled the Way to Lead Others

Unlike the Pharisees, Jesus gave power away (14:16-21).  He was not concerned with status but with serving. He promised Holy Spirit was coming to them so they would do even greater works than He had done. Jesus broke the poverty of spirit that hierarchy produces in people by giving His disciples a vision for a movement where every person has a valuable role and contribution. Jesus modeled that every person in His movement was a priest, not just an elite few.

This fostered collaboration among the disciples and provided an alternative to the Pharisees model of rigidly tiered leadership. It built spiritual competencies in them: they could talk directly to God, they could hear His voice, they could ask for help, they could pray for the sick, they could seek for the people of peace and announce the kingdom had come. They could cast out demons and heal the sick. They could disciple and send others. They could build spiritual families that multiplied and grew among theirs as well as other cultures and peoples.

Jesus created standards of holiness by setting a personal example for His disciples. He imparted kingdom values about how people should be treated, co-workers should be respected, and broken people should be respected.

Jesus encouraged “small obedience’s” not just spectacular acts because He knew that was the way to enlist many ordinary people in His movement, and it was the best way to spread the good news and build commitment. Jesus set the example each day by behaving in ways that were consistent with the values He taught the disciples.

Summary and Application

Take a few minutes to review the five leadership strengths of Jesus:

  1. Encourage people’s hearts
  2. Inspire people with shared vision
  3. Challenge the status quo
  4. Empower others to act
  5. Model how you want others to live

Take time to evaluate your leadership in light of the five Jesus-style functions of leadership. Perhaps you want to grade yourself from 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest score, in each of the five functions.

Now, ask your spouse and then your fellow leaders to do the same for each other. Talk about these five functions of leadership in your team, church, department or ministry. As a follow up, develop a plan to build on your strengths while giving special attention to improving your weaknesses.

This assessment will give you a practical set of leadership goals to work on. Invite Holy Spirit to lead you in the process, encouraging, challenging, enabling, modeling and inspiring you each step of the journey!