by Whaid Rose

Essentials of Spiritual Leadership

On January 13, 2012, the Italian cruise ship, Costa Concordia, ran aground in shallow waters near Isola del Giglio, off the coast of Tuscany. A total of 32 lives were lost, and hundreds of passengers had to be rescued from the capsized vessel.

The incident drew much attention, most of which focused on what was obvious to the most casual observer: this accident could have been easily avoided.

The Costa Concordia, which was on its first leg of a cruise around the Mediterranean Sea, deviated from its planned route and sailed close to shore near the Tuscany Island where it struck a rock formation and overturned.

To make matters worse, the captain abandoned the ship while rescue efforts were still in progress. Later he confessed to rather negligent reasons for taking the unplanned route.

The Ability to Steer a Boat

This incident speaks directly to the subject of this article. One of the words used for leadership in the New Testament is “kubernesis,” from the Latin, which literally means “the ability to steer a boat.” Notice how this definition is highlighted in the construction of the English word itself – lead-er-ship.

We derive from this that a leader is someone who is able to give direction, to guide others on a given path or journey, leading them safely to a desired destination.

But it involves more than just leading a group of people from one place to the next. It is also about acting in their best interest, making wise decisions, and creating an atmosphere of stability and reassurance, especially when navigating unfamiliar waters.

In Search of a Leader

This underscores the critical importance of leadership. Whether in government, business, church, home, etc., so much depends on it. For that reason, God is always in search of a leader: “Run up and down through the streets of Jerusalem; see if you can find at least one man who executes justice and loves equity” (Jeremiah 5:1, paraphrased), and “I searched for a man…who would stand in the gap before me” (Ezekiel 22:30, paraphrased).

Having a comprehensive view of biblical leadership is therefore very important, which is what I’ll attempt to offer here. So let’s begin by answering one of the most common questions about leadership: Are leaders born or made? In other words, are leaders born with the gift of leadership? Or can they develop and grow into leadership over time?

The answer is that leaders are both born and made. Some start out with a keen sense of calling, while others are recruited, and sometimes assume that role reluctantly. Either way, leadership has to be developed. People born with a sense of calling to be a musician, doctor, pilot or sculptor still have to diligently study their craft and develop their skills – and so must “born leaders.”

The point is that leadership is both a gift and an art that can be learned. Diligent leaders give attention to both.

Lead from a Deep Sense of Vocation

The goal is to lead from a deep sense of vocation. We mostly think of vocation in relation to particular careers or occupations, but the Latin word “vocare” actually means “to call.” Therefore, to lead from a deep sense of vocation is to lead from one’s deep sense of calling.

Dr. Os Guinness helps us clarify this in his helpful book, The Call: Finding and Fulling the Central Purpose of Your Life. He reminds us that we are called, first and foremost, to God Himself, through Christ. Only then can we truly give ourselves to our secondary calling, which is to live and serve out of the gifts which God has given us, wherever we find ourselves, in response to His directive.

In so doing, leadership becomes much more than a job or career. Despite its challenges, leadership is a sacred and joyous endeavor. And the leader serves with an increasing awareness of the importance of right motives, character development, servanthood, Christ-centeredness, and vision.

Right Motives

According to Pastor John Ortberg, we were created by God with a particular purpose and mission. If we don’t pursue our true mission, we will end up pursuing our “shadow mission.” Our lives become centered on something selfish, dark, and unworthy of genuine leadership. This is powerfully illustrated in the story of Esther. In contrast to Mordecai, the Persian King and Haman live out their shadow mission to the peril of others.

Character Development

This underscores the critical importance of ongoing character formation. Character is what a person is deep down on the inside, good or bad. According to Pastor Andy Stanley, it is the “internal script” that determines our response to what happens to us.

Stanley makes this observation in his book, Louder Than Words: The Power of Uncompromised Living. He asserts that character is far more important than education, talent, background, or even one’s network of friends. Those things can earn you a leadership position, but character will determine how well you do in that position.

That’s why most catastrophic failures in leadership have more to do with character than competence. It is why, if it ever boils down to a choice between the two, one should always choose character.


Character is foundational to true leadership, and nothing more clearly reveals a person’s character – good or bad – than their servant-spirit – or the lack thereof.

The difference between Saul and David is that David had the heart of a servant and Saul did not. It’s been said that the heart of a genuine servant is revealed in how he reacts when his enemy meets calamity. David’s reaction to the news that Saul was killed in battle passes that test (see 2 Samuel 1).

But the greatest example of servanthood is Jesus. He declared to His disciples, “I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:27), and “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve” (Mark 10:45). And during His final supper with His disciples, Jesus knelt and washed His disciples’ feet (see John 13:5).

This is instructive for those who seek to model their ministry after the life of our Lord. To begin with, Jesus was into towels, not titles. He was driven, not by success, but by significance. Success is about climbing the corporate ladder; significance is about investing ourselves in people, just like Jesus did.


This provides the perfect opportunity to highlight the importance of Christ-centered leadership. Ultimately, our model for leadership is Jesus. Seeing Him not only as Savior but as the full expression of the Father (Hebrews 1:3) and the embodiment of grace and truth (John 1:14), we follow His example. In the process, His immense love for those around Him, especially the lost and the least, and the core values of the kingdom taught in the Sermon on the Mount, become the leader’s chief aim.


Leading from this perspective, vision becomes an essential element of leadership. For leadership and vision go hand in hand, as the story of Nehemiah underscores.

What is vision? It is the tension between the way things are and the way they could be. Often, the art of leadership includes the responsibility of convincing others that “there” is better than “here.” A visionary leader constantly points his people beyond average and mediocrity to what Paul describes in Ephesians 3:20-21, “Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above and beyond all that we can ask or even imagine, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”

In Summary

So much more could be said, including the leader’s commitment to personal growth and development, administration and time management, accountability, and the uniqueness of leadership that is empowered by the Holy Spirit.

But hopefully enough has been said to underscore the weight of the subject before us, captured by John Maxwell’s popular quote, “Everything rises and falls on the basis of leadership.” The truth of this statement is becoming more apparent as we navigate the uncharted waters of the global pandemic and the multi-layered crises which accompany it.

These events point us back to the Costa Concordia story. It is a stark reminder of the tragic consequences which are possible when a leader loses focus. And in a reverse kind of way, it points us to the kind of leadership for which the world waits – that which is committed to selflessly guiding others, all for the joy of service to Him “who daily loads us with benefits, the God of our salvation” (Psalm 68:19).