“A true leader does not search for followers.”
These words penned by the late Dr. Myles Munroe, a globally recognized Evangelical Christian who tragically died last year in a plane crash, initially struck me as odd.
Of course the best leaders look for followers, I thought. How else do you expand your reach? How else do you measure success? How else do you become great? Just take a look at Oprah Winfrey—over 26 million followers on Twitter. Or how about Will Smith—over 75 million fans on Facebook.
Social media reminds us daily that the most influential leaders are those with the greatest number of followers. And in a world greatly influenced by social media, it makes sense why an emerging leader would be interested in leveraging social media platforms to spread their message. Indeed, marketing gurus like Seth Godin urge us to “find our tribe,” our fanbase of people who care about what we have to say and will help spread our message.
Yet, a problem arises when emerging leaders believe that their effectiveness is defined by their public following and social prestige. This might explain why so many blogs are abandoned after writers are unable to build a sizable subscriber base, or why so many artists give up after failing to amass dedicated fans. We have been confusing the true essence of leadership. Maybe Dr. Munroe was on to something.
In fact, the Bible teaches us that leadership has nothing to do with power or influence. One of my favorite biblical stories is about an influential teacher who did something unexpected: During a meeting with his closest students, he removed the flowing robe that denoted his status as a teacher and wrapped himself instead with the towel of a servant. Then, the teacher humbled himself before his students and, one by one, began to wash their feet.
That teacher’s name, of course, was Jesus.
The narrative of Jesus washing the feet of His disciples during the Last Supper, recorded in John 13:3-4, is a familiar story. But after reading Ministry of the Towel: Serving God by Serving Others by Bishop T. Cedric Brown, the Associate Pastor of Greater Mt. Calvary Holy Church in Washington D.C., this account of Jesus’s ministry took on a new meaning for me.
What if the key to great leadership is more about serving than influencing?
As I reflect on how I can better exemplify the example of Jesus in my daily life, I find myself asking three questions:
Are You Willing to Rethink Your Idea of Success?
Too often, society glorifies an image of success defined by the amount of money we have in our bank accounts or the title in front of our job description. Even more, as emerging leaders, we compare social media followings and reach. But Jesus teaches us that true leadership is measured by the amount of people we are able to serve, not by the amount of people that serve us and honor our leadership through likes and follows.
Indeed, the people throughout history that we respect and value the most—the people who were unafraid to speak out against injustice in the face of grave danger—are the men and women who created something of value with their unique talents, not the people who simply accumulated great wealth or huge followings.
By constantly searching for others to validate our self-worth, we are choosing to focus less on who we are serving with our gifts and more on how the opinion of others can service our insecurities.
I believe that when we center our self-worth on a relationship with God, it becomes easier to stop seeking validation from others and start searching for new opportunities to serve.
Are You Willing to Get Dirty and Do the Hard Work?
There is a saying: If you are full of yourself, you will have little room left to give something to others.
While it is important to love yourself, I believe we should “empty ourselves” from time to time and cast away our “me-first” mentality. How else will we make space for our hearts to be filled with a desire to serve others in unexpected ways?
As growing leaders, it is easy to get bogged down with our busy schedules. Ambition clouds our mind with career plans and future goals.
But the Bible says, “Do not say to your neighbor, ‘Come back tomorrow and I’ll give it to you’—when you already have it with you” (Proverbs 3:28).
Being a true servant means giving up the desire to control our path toward living in our purpose. By embracing divine interventions that place us where we are needed most, we position ourselves to help those most in need. And great opportunities often disguise themselves in small, “dirty” tasks.
If Jesus, the master teacher, could submit Himself to washing the feet of His students, surely we, as emerging leaders, can find value in humble roles too.
Are You Willing to Take the First Steps?
The funny thing about emerging leaders is that we are usually experts in identifying everything we cannot do. We are the experts of “not good enough” and “not ready yet.” I know, because I did it too.
“I will give back to my community once I become established.”
“I will become an advocate for justice after paying off my loans.”
“I am too young.”
“I do not have the time.”
And sure, you may not yet have the kind of experience you’d need to speak in front of huge crowds or take on a job as a CEO. But the truth is, you are always qualified to serve. You have been endowed with unique gifts and talents to benefit others. The Bible says that “greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4). You will never become the leader God destined you to be until you commit to serving others with the gifts you already have.
That’s where it starts. You will not become a great leader until you serve.
Only then will you free yourself from the expectations of others and begin to ground yourself in the expectations of faith. In John 13: 15, Jesus makes it clear.
“I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you.”
An earlier version of this article appeared on etiennetoussaint.com
Etienne Toussaint is a legal advocate, small business coach and mentor living in Washington D.C. He helps ambitious young professionals learn how to break bad habits, boost creativity, and craft a beautiful life story that will inspire others. Follow him on Twitter.