By Larry Osborne
In one sense, every leader leads by example, even those who don’t realize it. That’s because at the end of the day, every follower is a boss watcher. They take their cues from what we do, not what we say. It doesn’t matter if they’re a volunteer, a member of a congregation, a part of a small group, or one of our kids.
As a former youth pastor, I learned this the hard way. I had the privilege of leading two youth ministries that appeared on the surface to be very successful. They were dynamic, filled with lots of kids, and life changing. At the time, I thought we were making a huge long-term impact for the kingdom. But ten years later I realized the impact of my ministry was a lot less than I had thought. The majority of the kids who had been in my youth groups had grown up to become far more like their parents than the students they were in high school or college. They adopted the values, standards, and priorities of their parents. Fortunately there were many cases where the biblical values, standards, and priorities I’d taught them as high schoolers and collegians aligned with what was modeled in their homes. There were also some outliers who permanently broke free of the family mold. But in most cases, it was the gravitational pull of their parents’ example that won the day.
While I was thrilled that a large number continued to walk with God, I came to realize my role was a lot smaller than I’d thought. My example and teaching nudged them along the way. But it was the example set by the authority figures and leaders they spent the majority of their time with that had the most influence upon the kind of men and women they would become. I shouldn’t have been surprised.
JESUS SAID IT WOULD BE THIS WAY
Jesus said, “Everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher” (Luke 6:40). Notice what he didn’t say. He didn’t say that a fully trained disciple will become like what his teacher teaches. He said a fully trained disciple will become like his teacher. One of the most important lessons every leader needs to learn is summed up in the old saying, “What you are is what you’ll get.” It’s not what we say. It’s not what we teach. It’s who we are that matters most. The majority of people we lead will be far more impacted by our character and behavior than by the content of our curriculum.
One of the reasons Jesus so harshly condemned the Pharisees was the toxic and contagious nature of their character.
Many of the things they taught were actually spot on. At one point, Jesus even told his disciples to do what they said to do—but not what they did.1 A few extra rules never killed anybody, but a harsh, judgmental, arrogant, and merciless character is a deadly spiritual cancer that spreads quickly.
SMALL THINGS MATTER
The key question every leader has to ask isn’t, am I leading by example? It’s, what kind of example am I setting? Most of us evaluate the example we’re setting by the general pattern of our lives. We look at the big picture. But those who are watching us daily don’t pay attention to the big picture as much as the exceptions. We tend to judge ourselves by our best moments. They tend to judge us by our worst moments.
If you’re generally a laid-back, easygoing, let-it-slide leader, you’ll probably see yourself as not easily angered. You’ll think you’re setting a stellar example of patience, turning the other cheek, bearing with others, and not taking offense. But all it takes is one road-rage incident while I’m in your car, and I’ll never forget it. It’s the same with issues of honesty and integrity. Small things matter. For instance, we expect smart people to occasionally do dumb things. But we expect honest people to alwaysbe honest. One lie and the honest label is gone for good. That’s why half-truths, disingenuous public praise, and euphemisms used to obscure uncomfortable facts have a far more negative impact than most of us realize. They erode trust, create cynicism, and model deceit in ways most of us miss.
THERE ARE NO SECRETS
As spiritual leaders we also need to understand that there are no secrets. If every follower is a boss watcher, a corollary is that they’re well aware of lots of things we don’t think they can see. The things we think no one knows about are often widely known and discussed in hushed tones when we’re not around. And the things we think we’ve hidden well inevitably come to light when we least expect it. Whether it’s our congregation, staff members, volunteers, a coworker, or our own children, they see and know far more than we realize. I first learned this principle when our church was small and I was able to do some counseling. Whenever I met with a struggling couple, I would ask them to tell me about their families of origin. Without fail, they would tell me lots of things their parents had no idea they knew about. This was true even in households where the parents worked hard to hide stuff. Whether it was a porn stash, a secret habit, debt collectors, closed-door arguments, infidelity, or any other carefully concealed secret or vice, the kids always knew. They just never let on they knew. And more often than not, the things their parents thought they had hidden well ended up being a major contributor to the mess their kids were in years later. Even our best-kept secrets seldom remain secrets for long. People talk.
The old axiom that three people can keep a secret as long as two of them are dead is true. Eventually, almost everything will come to light. Which is one reason I try to live my life by the newspaper rule: if I can’t live with something being on the front page of the local newspaper, I just don’t do it.
Larry Osborne is a teaching pastor at North Coast Church in northern San Diego County. North Coast is widely recognized as one of the most influential and innovative churches in America. Osborne speaks extensively on the subjects of leadership and spiritual formation. His books include Sticky Teams, Sticky Church, 10 Dumb Things Smart Christians Believe, and Spirituality for the Rest of Us. He and his wife, Nancy, live in Oceanside, California.