Leadership is perhaps the most commonly written about subject on planet earth, and yet it is likely the least understood and most difficult skill to master. What’s more, the vast majority of leadership literature is framed in purely secular terms, which not only starves the soul, but also robs future leaders of the greatest example of leadership the world has ever known—Jesus Christ himself.
As Christians, Christ commands us to follow his example, but he also promises to send us an advocate, the Holy Spirit, to help us on our way. Therefore, visionary leaders must be both practical and prophetic.
In other words, they must be able to pragmatically work within the realm of reality, maximizing the resources and personnel at hand, but they must also be able to see beyond present circumstances, to a place and destination that others often cannot.
In this way, visionary leaders are both horizontal and vertical. They are able to build up the people and platforms around them (horizontal)—often making them even better than themselves—while demonstrating the attributes of Christ and building the Kingdom of God (vertical) at the same time.
If Christ is our perfect example of visionary leadership, we must turn to Scripture in order to discover the attributes of his leadership.
1. Visionary leaders are authentic.
When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)
If you are going to lead and influence others in powerful, healthy, and life-giving ways, you must be full of light, not walking in darkness. In other words, you must live your life authentically.
The way you are in public must be a true representation and outflowing of how you behave in private. Do you tell others to do one thing, but are secretly doing that very thing behind their backs? “Do as I say and not as I do” is not only the worst parental advice in human history, it’s also the mark of a bad leader.
Authenticity is something that others can see on and in you. Authenticity is one of life’s most distinct aromas. Try as they may to hide it, the poser and the fraud are eventually found out and the truth is almost always revealed. The first and most important step in visionary leadership is cultivating an authentic self, because authenticity inspires respect and belief from those who follow you.
2. Visionary leaders are accountable.
“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.” (Mark 8:29)
Leadership certainly can be a lonely place, but it should never be isolated. True visionary leadership requires accountability to others. This may mean that you are forced to sift through voices and opinions that are both productive and destructive, but you must listen with an open heart to change when necessary.
Dictators and autocrats have been much maligned throughout history, and rightly so. Unadulterated power corrupts even those with the best of intentions. The same is true in the church, at the office, and in the home.
Christ said that the greatest among you will be the servant to all (Matt. 23:11). How can you serve others if you are unaccountable to what they have to say about your leadership? When you are accountable to others, our true friends and allies are empowered to call out the highest and noblest truths about who and what we are.
3. Visionary leaders are anointed.
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.” (Luke 4:18)
Visionary leadership is always the result of an anointing from God. This can be the greatest question many leaders will ever ask themselves—since we all want to believe that we are anointed for the task we feel called to—but in times of struggle, it’s easy to question if we truly are.
This is why the second part of this verse is so important. Scripture tells us that you will know them by their fruits (Matt. 7:16). Visionary leaders must observe the products of their actions and measure them against the goals set out for us by Jesus.
Are we proclaiming the good news in whatever sphere of influence we find ourselves? And in whatever way is appropriate in that setting? Are we setting people free from what is holding them back?
I have seen many corporate executives who are legally prohibited from overtly preaching the gospel in their place of work, but constantly find ways to set their employees and direct reports ‘free,’ both personally and professionally. If this is you, it’s evidence that God’s anointing is on your leadership.
If, after reading this, you’ve become convinced you’re in the wrong place, be encouraged, God has prepared good works for us all to do. Gather the confidence to take a step back and ask God where he wants you. It could be the beginning of an amazing, God-anointed adventure. If you’re convinced that you’re in the right place, ask God for even more anointing.
4. Visionary leaders are affirming.
“Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14:12)
Remember that visionary leaders live horizontally. They are obsessed with helping those around them achieve their best. It’s been said that the best leaders are those who work themselves out of a job. Visionary leaders do not give into the insecurities common to so many, worrying others might take their place or surpass them in some way.
Instead, they benefit from the fully empowered talents and abilities of those they lead. Jesus’ mission wasn’t limited to only his own life, death, and resurrection; he wanted also to build a movement of people that could spread his message and make disciples of all nations. He saw that Peter could become the leader of the Church. He saw that Mary Magdalene would leave her old life and inspire others to do the same.
Visionary leaders see beyond current job titles and skill levels and see what that person can become. By doing so, they might just grow into larger and more consequential roles themselves, and create opportunities for those around them along the way. This process always begins with affirming the gifts God has given to those you lead so that when the time comes, they are ready to take the next step—and so are you.
5. Visionary leaders are accredited.
“For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.” (John 6:38)
Visionary leaders must resist the temptation to rely on their own abilities, making it all about them, their goals, causes, and ego. They must be about their Father’s business, for his glory and because it is his will.
For church planters, that might mean that a reputable church planting organization or leader has ‘sent you out’ after much prayer and planning. For the entrepreneur, that might mean that someone who has ‘been there and done that’ has invested in you and your business and believes they will receive a positive return. In the organizational setting, it might mean that you receive a promotion or mandate from leaders who are above you on the org chart.
This can take a thousand different forms and shapes, but it’s important that someone else has accredited your mission, vouching for and endorsing your pursuit. When troubles comes—and they surely will if you’re doing something worthwhile—this covering and support can make all the difference in the world.
If someone has told you to “keep your head out of the clouds,” forget that advice. Visionary leaders should always look heavenward to see prophetically ahead and around the next bend in the road. The key is to also keep your feet planted on solid ground, dealing practically with the realities of the world and people around you.
If you’re authentic, accountable, anointed, affirming, and accredited, you are the embodiment of visionary leadership and God will help guide you across the finish line.
Rev. Samuel Rodriguez is president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, executive producer of The Impossible with 20th Century Fox, and bestselling author of “Be Light.” He has been named by CNN and Fox News as “the leader of the Hispanic Evangelical movement” and TIME Magazine nominated him among the 100 most influential leaders in America.