I’d like to propose a controversial idea: becoming a Christian might make you a better leader.

Well-known leadership guru Jim Collins writes that the most successful leader is an individual “who blends extreme personal humility with intense professional will”. Over several years Collins researched 1,450 Fortune500 companies, identifying the factors common to those companies that have undergone remarkable good-to-great transformations (see Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t – Jim Collins). A consistent feature of the leaders involved in good-to-great transitions is what he calls ‘Level 5 Leadership’. This is the top of a hierarchy of leadership capabilities:

Level 5: Demonstrates a combination of personal humility and professional will

Level 4: Catalyses commitment to and vigorous pursuit of a clear and compelling   vision

Level 3: Organises people and resources to achieve predetermined objectives

Level 2: Contributes to the achievement of group objectives

Level 1: Makes productive contributions through talent, knowledge, skills and good work habits

For a successful good-to-great transition, the leader needs the capabilities of levels 1 to 4, but levels 1 to 4 alone are not enough. Humility and fierce determination are needed too. A level 5 leaders shows striking modesty, is never boastful and acts with calm determination. Her ambition is channelled into those around her, not herself. She sets high standards, works hard, and attributes the success to external factors.

If this research is right, shouldn’t the gospel make you a better leader?

After all, the gospel ought to make us humble. It tells us that we’re sinners in desperate need of a saviour and that we can claim no merit for our salvation.

And the gospel ought to make us people of strong will. Forget about worshipping money, power, sex, fame, control, knowledge, relationships and success, the gospel shows us these are petty compared to one thing worth living for: the Servant King. We ought to run to the race set before us, fixing our eyes on the goal. Part of that means honouring Jesus in our professional lives. This includes working hard for material, spiritual and emotional flourishing of everyone we work with. The gospel causes us to grit our teeth and clench our fists, determined to run this spiritual race.

In short, the gospel helps us grow in humility and professional determination. Perhaps that’s not surprising; of course the gospel is life-transforming and not merely the route to personal salvation. In fact, Collins acknowledges that “A strong religious belief or conversion might also nurture the seed [of Level 5 leadership]”.

So why don’t Christians gravitate to the top jobs?

For many reasons no doubt. But firstly, the gospel generally doesn’t help us grow in the capabilities of levels 1 to 4. Managerial talent, knowledge and strategic thinking are not godliness issues. The gospel will only help you be a better leader if you’ve got levels 1 to 4 sorted. That’s no mean feat. And secondly, we’re sinful. The gospel should have these positive effects, but too often the shackles of sin hold us back. We don’t take personal holiness seriously enough. Far from being humble and determined, we’re proud and half-hearted in our attempts to honour Christ.


(Photo: Sebastiaan ter Burg)