Leadership Begins on the Inside

Leadership Begins on the Inside

Leadership is about relationships more than structure – much more. So it may seem counter-intuitive that leadership begins on the inside. But effective leadership, especially Jesus-like leadership, does begin on the inside. It starts with the leader’s motivation.

If we don’t get the heart right, not much else can turn out good either. 

When we talk about all four domains of Lead Like Jesus – the Heart, the Head, the Hands and the Habits – we should notice that the first two of these dimensions deal with interior matters – what we value (heart) and what we know (head).

The first and most important consideration is what we value – what really matters to us.

For way too many of us – and for all of us at least some of the time – what matters most to us is ourselves. As soon as we each develop a little self-awareness, we start to wonder who will look out for us. As we move beyond the warm cocoon of a loving caregiver, we start to take matters into our own hands to make sure we are getting what we need or think we need.

In this frame of mind, we are very much inclined to be self-serving.

But Jesus came to teach us another, better way. When asked what our guiding principles should be – our motivations – he replied: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  (Matthew 22:37-39)

For all its seeming simplicity, it turns out that is a very tall order.

At the same time, when it comes to being an effective leader, Jesus’ admonition makes absolute sense.

When we give into the natural inclination to put ourselves first, we set the stage for disaster as leaders – especially if we have a formal leadership position. The problem is that as soon as our followers conclude that we are leading primarily to look after our own interests, to protect themselves they decide their best option is to look out for their own interests. Then nobody is looking out for the organization’s mission.

Under those circumstances it’s no wonder that both individual and group performances suffer, especially in comparison with groups led by people who put the group’s mission first, ahead of their own selfish drives and desires .

This dynamic has been verified in countless studies of effective leadership and organizational excellence, whether we are talking about families or multinational corporations. The fact of the matter is that the challenge of becoming a good, effective leader is a heart problem.  Great leaders need serving hearts.

The challenge of becoming a good, effective leader is a heart problem.

What matters most?

Not all amazing leaders are consciously trying to lead like Jesus. Some don’t even believe in God, much less aspire to be guided by the Son of God. It’s possible to be a good, effective servant leader by staying focused on the organization’s mission and developing a set of behaviors that consistently conforms to that commitment.

It’s possible, but it’s difficult.

Why? Because nature hates a vacuum. And if there is no one who matters more to you than yourself, it’s all too easy to lapse into self-serving perspectives and behaviors.

Of course, there are substitutes to which we can offer our devotion. For some it is a spouse. For others it’s a child or children, maybe a parent or parents, perhaps even a friend. In some instances, it isn’t another person but a thing: riches, status, fame.

Working miracles

When our hearts are in the right place, we can work miracles. In fact, we often do.

But sometimes getting our heart to that place is a struggle. And keeping it there always involves more struggles -- many more.

As we consider who or what should matter most to us, we should also consider who or what is not only willing but able to play that role in our lives.

  • A spouse may appear able to do it. But what if you outlive that spouse, or your spouse rejects you, explaining perhaps that they “just fell out of love?”
  • A child may serve as your center for a while too. But children grow into adults with lives of their own. If they are wise, they won’t want to be your “be all and end all” for very long.
  • Perhaps a title, a prominent address or possessions can be your reason for living. But the world is full of people who “got it all” and then realized that none of it really mattered.

If we are looking for someone who is not only willing but able to serve as the center of our lives – in good times and bad, at our very worst as well as at our best, for as long as we live and then even beyond that – there really is no other option but the one proposed by Jesus: God our Father.

Putting God first and foremost in our lives is not an easy thing to do. Keeping Him there is at least as difficult. But we can do it. With God’s help -- with grace -- we can do it.

In Jesus’ own day

In the Gospel of John we’re told of a time in Jesus’ ministry when followers were abandoning him. They must have been doing so in significant numbers because it reached a point where Jesus turns to his chosen 12 and asks them: “Do you also want to leave?” (John 6:67)

Peter answers him: “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68)

Developing a loving, intimate, trusting relationship in which we, like Jesus, make doing His Father’s will the very point of our lives is not easy. But that’s where our heart belongs. And that’s where our most profound leadership leverage resides.

I’m reminded of St. Augustine, and how he came to that conclusion the hard way – after years of hard living. For many years his life was a succession of desperate, often hedonistic searches for fulfillment. He tried excessive pleasures, false religions, philosophies, whatever he could find. It was all in vain.

Finally, after paying a great toll on body, mind and spirit, he addressed God with this hard-won conclusion: “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they can find rest in you.”

Our path to leading like Jesus begins on the inside – in the deepest recesses of our hearts. There, with God first, we can find peace and purpose.

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Owen Phelps

Dr. Owen Phelps is Director of the Yeshua Catholic International Leadership Institute and author of the book, The Catholic Vision for Leading Like Jesus: Introducing S3 Leadership — Servant, Steward, and Shepherd. He has presented Lead Like Jesus Encounters in Canada, Uganda and India, as well as all across the U.S.


He formerly served on the faculty of the College of Business & Management at Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee, and was a consultant on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Communications Committee for about a decade. He has served as a consultant to church organizations from Vermont to Texas. 


Dr. Phelps was an award-winning writer, columnist, editor and publisher with a multi-state publishing company before he began work in ministry. He has written several articles and contributed chapters to two books devoted to issues of faith-based organizational performance.


He and his wife Jane, a CPA, have been married for 49 years. They live in Durand, Illinois, and Lac du Flambeau, Wisconsin, and they have five grown children and 17 growing grandchildren.