Incarnate Leadership: 5 Leadership Lessons from the Life of Jesus

Incarnate Leadership: 5 Leadership Lessons from the Life of Jesus


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780310530879
Publisher: Zondervan
Publication date: 02/09/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 128
Sales rank: 493,298
Product dimensions: 4.90(w) x 6.80(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Bill Robinson is president of Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington. He holds degrees from the University of Northern Iowa, Wheaton Graduate School and a PhD from the University of Pittsburgh. He also studied at Moody Bible Institute and Princeton Theological Seminary. His books include "Leading People from the Middle." He has distinguished himself as a teacher, speaker, and community leader.

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Incarnate Leadership

Five Leadership Lessons from the Life of Jesus

By Bill Robinson


Copyright © 2009 Bill Robinson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-310-53087-9


Minding the Gap

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

John 1:14

"Mind the gap, please."

If you've ever traveled on the London Underground, you're familiar with those words. Ignore them, and you can fall headlong into the space between the platform and train. As leaders, we face a different sort of gap — the gap between the positions we occupy and the needs of those we lead. Some of us ignore the gap. Others of us stumble trying to cross the gap. But in Jesus we find a leader who stepped across the gap. His incarnation bridged the unfathomable chasm between God and sinful humanity. It's no wonder that as we look at the way Jesus led, we see a leader who was never too distant from his followers.

I've heard a lot of Christian leaders describe their leadership style as incarnational. You've got to admire their nerve. I think I know what they mean, but it's hard not to picture them snapping their suspenders as they respond to the question, "What's your leadership style?"

"Incarnational, of course."

"You mean like God becoming man?"

"Yeah, that's how I lead. I lead like God."

We all do a lot of big talking about how close we are to our people. But are we? As much as we try to mind the gap between our positions and the people we lead, the antigravitational pull upward is powerful. Christian leaders are not exempt from the tug.


Incarnation. Humility. Access. Other-centeredness. John loved these qualities in Jesus. They are at the core of Christlike leadership. But they do not represent the natural curvature of our fallen human condition. Martin Luther was fond of quoting St. Augustine's description of the human condition as "curved in on ourselves." I'm pretty sure the aver-age leader's inward curvature well exceeds that of the general population. Mine does. I do the kind of work that attracts a lot of attention. People are interested in me. My wife says I am especially interested in me. Ouch. I want to be curved outward. I love the people I have been entrusted to lead, but my needs often blind me to their needs. I forget how good it is to be in the midst of my coworkers.

Those of us in leadership positions should give our positions back to the God who chose to stoop, to the God who chose to dwell with his followers. We should do this not only because it is Christlike but because it empowers those we lead. When my board chair steps out of his busy life simply to be with me, it inspires me because I realize he cares about me, not just my job performance. We are image descendants of a God who valued incarnation above all other redemption strategies. Our spiritual DNA moves us toward the magnetic force of leaders who dwell among us.

Recently, I encountered a faculty member who had just returned with twenty-five students from a life-changing experience in Africa. Somehow I failed to remember to ask about his poignant experience. I did not, however, fail to remember to talk about my stuff and how I was doing. The grace with which he accepted my apology the next day reminded me that the people we lead are often too kind to tell us which way we are curved. If our focus keeps curving in on ourselves, then even when we are in the presence of those we lead, we will not really know them.

We need to ask ourselves the questions that curve toward our people. How much time do we spend with them? Are we eager to be in their presence? Do we make warm inquiries about their lives? What does our "me-them" conversational balance sheet look like? What opportunities are we missing simply to be in the presence of those whom we hope will have confidence in our leadership? I fear too often we fail to look very far beyond ourselves and our to-do lists.


Like many ministry leaders, I am in a line of work that encourages "being above" more than "being with." When I became a college president in 1986, I went to a conference for new presidents. The leadership guru at the event explained how excessive democratization in higher education had rendered presidential authority impotent. He then urged us to stand tall on the pedestal of our position and stave off the efforts of all who would remove us. Interesting advice. I start a job where I have the highest salary, a free car, a free house, the biggest office, a sizeable travel and entertainment budget, and our employees' respect for the office I hold. And my instructions for leading? Climb on a pedestal; create more distance from those I'm supposed to lead. In other words, I should grab more of what I already have at the expense of the one thing I don't have — authentic peer-to-peer relationships.

I didn't take the pedestal advice. I wish I could say my desire to be Christlike kept my feet on the ground, but my reasons for avoiding the pedestal were more social than spiritual. I just love college students and I admired our faculty and staff. I didn't feel my role should exempt me from their friendship. I'm sure most pastors and most of us in ministry enter our positions with a deep desire to befriend our congregations and our staffs. But somehow we feel the need to maintain distance. Our people elevate us. We let them do it. And then one day we hear we're out of touch. We begin to wonder if we got put on the pedestal to make us easier targets.

I've come to the conclusion that people try to park us in high places because they think that's where we belong. It's a way of expressing respect. But that's not what they really want. I'm still waiting for a student or staff person to criticize me for being insufficiently aloof. People love to see leaders on their turf. John was no exception. The introduction to his gospel account speaks volumes. If he were doing a newspaper story on Jesus, he would likely open it with the biggest, most ostentatious miracle he could find. Maybe that's what he did. Maybe to John, Jesus' biggest miracle was the first one he saw: God walking around in Galilee. Immanuel. God with us. Astonishing! Miraculous! The best thing imaginable.

Not long ago I talked my wife into renting the movie Lawrence of Arabia. (I didn't tell her this epic took an epoch to watch.) My favorite scene in this entire, interminable film is the point at which the Bedouin ruler fully accepts the leadership of an interloping British soldier, T. E. Lawrence. After Lawrence removes his British uniform, wet from an act of heroism, the sharif throws it into the fire and presents Lawrence with full Arab regalia. Through this act, the Bedouin ruler ushered Lawrence across the divide of race, culture, and colonialism. Lawrence took on the likeness of the Bedouins he sought to lead — he became Lawrence of Arabia. At a very primal level, we hear incarnation echoing from our imago deo as the ultimate means of reducing the gap. Ironically, we want to follow our leaders when they come alongside of us more than when they are out in front of us.


But "crossing over" doesn't just happen. We have to make a deliberate choice. We have to be intentional in resisting the forces that create gaps etween ourselves and those we have been called to lead. As I began my career in higher education, a colleague's sudden departure made me a good choice (actually, the only choice) to fill his leadership role. I did pretty well in the role, so it wasn't too long before I got bumped again. I was, as they say, moving up. There is nothing unhealthy or insidious about this. You are given an assignment, you do your best, and you get promoted. So far, so good. Except the higher you go, the harder it is to stay connected with those you have been called to lead. At first, this troubles you, but you are comforted by a new set of peers at your elevated level who help you accept the inevitability of distance. Then at some point — who can say exactly when — you lose touch. This is insidious.

For some leaders the upward drift is quiet and incremental. I spoke recently at a retreat for business and church leaders from Houston, home to the former Enron Corporation. To a person, those who knew Ken Lay, the late, shamed Enron CEO, considered him a fine human being who allowed himself to get insulated high above his people. He ended up with a gap he never would have imagined, but ultimately it did him in.

Some leaders get stuck on the pedestal by the glue of their own egos. They listen to their sycophants. (King Darius ended up tossing Daniel in the lions' den when he got suckered into making himself a god.) I'm not suggesting that we relinquish all the perks and privileges that come with leadership. But I do feel our best bet for being Christlike leaders is to bridge the gap, evacuate every pedestal. Would Jesus have a special parking space, a plexiglass pulpit, a cavernous office? Would he refer to himself as "Jesus S.O.G" as readily as we call ourselves "Rev. Dr. Jones"? Those of us in leadership need to ask ourselves a few pedestal questions:

• What are the pedestals or positions in my life and work that distance me from those I have been called to lead?

•When are the times that being in the midst of my coworkers comes most naturally?

• How can I use my leadership position to get closer to my people?

• What pulls me above or away from those I lead?

• Who can help me narrow the gap?


Recently I was reading F. Dale Bruner's masterpiece commentary on Matthew (Matthew, a Commentary: The Christbook, Matthew 1 – 12 [Erdmans, 2004]). I'm not sure which of my demons had been teasing me, but for some reason I was studying the temptations of Christ in Matthew 4, so I decided to check out what Professor Bruner had to say about that wilderness battle. As usual, he made a fascinating observation. In each of the three temptations, Satan leads Jesus to higher ground. They go from the "wilderness" up to the "top of the temple," and then up again to a "very high mountain." Satan knows the intoxicating air of exaltation deepens our thirst for the pride of life. The Spirit, on the other hand, is more of a down-and-outer. The Spirit led Jesus down to the Jordan, down into its muddy baptismal waters, and out to the wilderness to be tempted. This is scary stuff. Satan points us up. God points us down. And what we discover is that what culture deems low, God considers high.

Sometimes we're surprised to find out the people we lead are more impressed by down than up. Two weeks ago I got an email from an alumnus:

Hey Bill,

I was just talking to my friend who was ragging about how her college president drives a massive SUV and her professors drive gaudy convertibles and I was recalling how you would bike to campus every day.

Whether it was for simplicity or environmentalism, or just convenience, I really appreciate now the message you chose to NOT send to me and other students by not driving the latest and sexiest sports car. I am really growing in my understanding of God as the creator/ re-creator as well as [in] my understanding of what it means to be a godly and compassionate world citizen, and it is a huge joy to see examples in people for how to creatively pursue that.

As recorded in Matthew, Jesus book-ends his public ministry with a counterintuitive message. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 – 7) he begins his lessons with the announcement that the scorecard is backwards. Last place is really first place. Then he wraps up his teaching in Matthew 25 by identifying himself with the poor and the hungry and the imprisoned. These passages can be haunting as we scramble up to the top. Leading like Christ requires us to find the holy ground of down and out. When we see it, we almost don't recognize it.

After fortifying my resolve with Bruner's treatment of the temptations, I decided to skip all the guilt and shame I can count on when the Sermon on the Mount reminds me that many of my values are upside down. So I hurdled Matthew 5 – 7 and went straight to chapter 8. The opening words delivered a metaphor I had never noticed — words of incarnation, words of leadership. Matthew 8:1 says, "When he came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him."

The leaders we love to follow don't get too comfortable on the mountain. When they're out of touch, they can feel it; and they don't like it. But many leaders get seduced by up. They lie to themselves — or they believe somebody else's lies — that distance breeds respect. So they hover. They guard the gap rather than narrow it. They become accustomed to the mountain, and the strong sense of privilege with which they enter their positions gets replaced by a stronger sense of enjoyment and entitlement.

All industries foster implicit and explicit forces that separate leaders from their people, though few with the shamelessness of higher education and the church. We always have a good excuse for staying on the mountain. But the crowds followed Jesus when he came down.


After Jesus comes down from the mountain he wastes no time getting himself into the middle of things. A leper kneels before Jesus and asks to be healed. Now, we know from the next miracle in this passage (the healing of the centurion's paralyzed servant back home) that Jesus can do long-distance healing, so who could have blamed him for lobbing a miracle across the unclean zone? Further, lepers need their space. Not even Jesus should violate that. But the first act of the Great Physician came as he "reached out his hand and touched the man" (Matthew 8:3). He broke the rules. He healed the broken.

Asking the wrist bracelet question, "What would Jesus do?" can be unsettling. In this case, we know what Jesus did. The really unsettling question is "What would Bill do?" How do I respond to the unlovely person who needs me? I cannot read of Jesus healing the leper without thinking about one person who really can lay claim to incarnational leadership. In 1873 a strong, healthy thirty-three-year-old Belgian priest went to Molokai, Hawai'i with a longing to minister to a colony of lepers. Damien de Veuster heard God's call to the least of these. With astounding energy and effectiveness, he went about improving the conditions of these hopeless outcasts. Father Damien did everything he could do ... everything except reach out his hand and touch them. Choosing to do that, he was told, meant choosing to become one of them. But ultimately, that is the choice he made. He plunged headfirst into a physical, moral, and spiritual cesspool. A slow, wasting disease that would lead to an early and disfigured death was his certain sentence. And the sentence was not commuted. He died at age forty-nine.

Father Damien built buildings, improved health conditions, attracted funding, and raised awareness for this colony of outcasts. But the single greatest act credited with burning the gospel of Christ into the hearts of his people came when Father Damien gathered together the whole colony, stood up to speak, and said, "We lepers...."

With Jesus, Father Damien literally took on the likeness of sinful flesh. He neither died on the cross nor redeemed the lepers' souls, but he heard God's call to sacrifice. To him, he could not be among his people without suffering with his people.

All of us should ask what it means and what it does not mean to stand with those we lead. When Christ became a man, he did not cease to be God. And when we come alongside those we lead, we do not relinquish the roles and responsibilities of our positions. To do so would be wrong and ineffective. Bridging a gap forcibly or inauthentically ends up creating a toll bridge with little traffic. If I think coming down from the mountain to be with our students means getting a nose ring and sagging my pants halfway down my butt, I'm an idiot. Not only will I tire of the charade, but when the game is over the students are left with a different person than the one they followed — and that's costly to the leader and followers alike.


Excerpted from Incarnate Leadership by Bill Robinson. Copyright © 2009 Bill Robinson. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Foreword by Eugene Peterson and Eric Peterson, 9,
Acknowledgments, 13,
Introduction: Never Stop Learning from Him, 15,
Chapter 1 Minding the Gap, 21,
Chapter 2 Leading Openly, 39,
Chapter 3 Bending the Light, 59,
Chapter 4 Living in Grace and Truth, 79,
Chapter 5 Sacrificing, 103,

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“This is the kind of book that could only be the fruit of long, honest, and self-critical experience. Bill Robinson looks at Jesus’ style of leadership: that Jesus dwelt with those he led, that he was seen by (transparent to) those he led, that he reflected his Father’s glory rather than hugged it to himself, that he spoke with both grace and truth. This is a truly Christian discernment of what might be wise action, gleaned always from within earshot of the cries of those in most need of help.” -- Iain Torrance

I experienced Bill Robinson’s inspirational leadership, ‘up close and personal,’ for about a decade at Whitworth. In this delightful and example-filled book, I learn how he does it: he is a deeply committed and very happy follower of Jesus of Nazareth---in the most remarkable and creative ways. May his kind multiply!” -- F. Dale Bruner

“Incarnate Leadership is written by one who knows about leadership from a depth of experience. It rings with authenticity as does Bill Robinson himself. Frankly, I have not seen a book that challenges the reader quite like this one. The call to be transparent, real, and even authentic should speak to any who dares to lead.” -- Andrew K. Benton

Every follower of Jesus who is in a leadership position can benefit from this book. Bill Robinson captures the basic leadership practices and attitudes of Jesus that can undergird everything else we learn from the latest management literature. I just wish I could have read Incarnate Leadership forty years ago! -- John Huffman

This book offers a unique blending of Christological truth with dust and grit reality about leadership. Clearly, it was written by a leader who takes Jesus Christ more seriously than either our drive to succeed or our failings. Best of all, Robinson's relentless honesty demonstrates how the incarnate truth of Christ really does make the leader more effective. -- M. Craig Barnes

“Bill Robinson’s Incarnate Leadership is insightful, practical, and even inspiring. First, I am convinced that Bill has discerned correctly the central leadership priorities Jesus demonstrated in the Bible’s Gospels. I love Bill’s ‘plain talk.’ It helps me know that though this book is rooted in biblical truth and is set within well-developed leadership theory, it is also a down-to-earth guide toward how to lead in a way that honors God and genuinely helps people. The book will teach me how to go about my service in that very Jesus-like way.” -- Greg Waybright

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Incarnate Leadership: 5 Leadership Lessons from the Life of Jesus 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
darlingtrk on LibraryThing 8 months ago
Robinson has brief, and largely well established, leadership advice. He speaks of openness, sacrifice, accessibility, and grace. He uses the model of Jesus to demonstrate the closeness of these principles to His heart. He also uses many personal illustrations of the principles. His illustrations draw on politics, business and sports to show their practicability. The grace he espouses goes down easy in a Christian culture that deplores the images of power.People of power, fame and wealth are subjectively blind to their own judgement. I am inclined to think that the best leadership books have yet to be written, by great followers who recogngnize and understand leaders better than those who believe their own personalities are possible to anyone. It may be true, but if it is transferable, it has to be explained by someone who can objectively quantify it. Although, Robinson's analysis is true, I get the impression that it will only partially work for others.The leader is well advised to follow Robinson's advice on openness. A culture of disclosure at least has the capacity to breed trust. Such an environment is also more likely to value honesty. Good virtues at any level.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Whether a corporate leader, team leader or hourly employee, this book helps people understand people. I would consider it a common sense foundation to living life. When you live your life like this, the title of your job doesn't matter, it's who you are that matters. Excellent perspective, and very easy read.