When John the Baptist saw Jesus walking in his presence, he made the declaration, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Most Christian leaders would say that in their hearts they would wish that Jesus would increase and they would decrease. But it is hard to decrease in a leadership position. There are natural trappings that distinguish those in leadership such as salary, title, prestige, priority, power, influence, honor and advancement. And in each area there are tempting opportunities for increase. There are also pressures to increase and motivations to build a kingdom in which we house our growing collection of leadership trappings. This desire for the fame and fortune of leadership must be met not only by resistance, but, according to John Adams, we must have “a habitual contempt of them.” Nouwen is even more direct,
The way of the Christian leader is not the way of upward mobility in which our world has invested so much, but the way of downward mobility ending on the cross… Here we touch the most important quality of Christian leadership in the future. It is not a leadership of power and control, but a leadership of powerlessness and humility in which the suffering servant of God, Jesus Christ, is made manifest.
Perhaps the hardest place to decrease is in the influence and the power we hold over people and decisions. For this reason we find Christian leaders who are overly directive at best, and autocratic at worst. And as a result we produce churches and ministries that are rife with ‘learned helplessness’. By overestimating our own worth, we help our people depend on us for everything. And that dependence feeds into our need to be needed, to be the “idea person” and visionary, and to be in control. We tell ourselves that the more we lead in this way, the more our leadership is valued and our presence desired.
Of course, this is not real leadership, but a counterfeit that contributes to our increase and expands our kingdom. I’ll call this type of leader the ‘owner-leader’. This type of leadership does a terrible disservice to our people, leaving them uninvolved and under-developed. It wastes resources and limits our ministry, all under the guise of strong leadership and the use of our God-given talents for ‘getting things done.’
Steward leaders are stewards over the people they serve. They cultivate people. Leadership bent on self-increase lacks integrity. Integrity is the personal attribute of honesty, moral behavior and a value-centered life. Integrity bears witness externally all that we are internally. It does not derive from or depend upon what is external to us-upon an external increase. And for that reason, godly integrity begins with our inner life in God. Stephen Covey sees integrity as, “the value we place on ourselves.” By that he means that we first must keep faith with ourselves if we are to be trusted and trustworthy to those around us.
We must keep the promises we make to our own value system. We will see that for the steward leader this means that our self-confidence must be founded in our faith in Christ and our desire to be like him, and in fact be indwelt by him, in every way. We must seek to be Christ-like in our inner being and be confident that “He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it.” (Philippians 1:6) If Christ is truly living in us, as Paul reminds us, then we can in turn live for others in our work with integrity.
As steward leaders we will have no need to seek to increase in our positions of power. We will have no desire to build our own kingdoms and advance our own reputations. Our lives are hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3) and therefore it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us (Galatians 2:20). It is only with this kind of godly integrity that we can seek to decrease as we look away from ourselves to see the notice of Christ increase in and through our work as leaders.
Steward leaders empower their people, give away authority, value and involve others, seek the best in and from their people, and constantly lift others up, push others into the limelight, and reward those they lead. All so that God’s will may be done in a more powerful way. They seek no glory for themselves, but find great joy in seeing others prosper. They take no account of their reputation, but desire that Jesus’ face be seen in all they do. Max De Pree’s famous definition is worth repeating, “The first responsibility of the leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the leader is a servant.”
I have come to understand that the call of the steward leader is a call to a lifestyle of an ever-decreasing thirst for authority, power and influence, where our quest for reputation is replaced by confidence in the power of God’s anointing. (Excerpted from ‘The Steward Leader’, IVPress, 2010).
 John Adams, in David McCullough’s John Adams (Simon and Schuster: New York, 2001), p. 19.
 Henri Nouwen, The Spirituality of Fundraising,(Nouwen Foundation), pp. 62-63.
 Stephen R. Covey, Principle-Centered Leadership (Fireside: New York, 1990), p. 61.
 James O’Toole, Leading Change (Ballantine Books: New York, 1995), p. 44.