Life Lessons for Leaders: Echoes from History

Cyrus the Great. 18th Century Tapestry.

Leadership, especially in our Lord’s vineyard, is a challenging call. The same is true of Christian leaders who serve in society, secular work, government work, the military, etc. At first glance, leadership looks like it would be fun. You speak, people do things. The reality is much different. God-honoring leadership is servant-minded influence, empowered by the Holy Spirit, where the leader encourages those who serve with him toward the completion of a unified goal—a goal typically broken up into smaller strategic and then tactical objectives. Biblical Leadership demands that the journey towards completing the goal is just as important (maybe even more important) than the completion of the goal itself.

So much of what Jesus tells us in the Gospels impacts a healthy view of leadership. On top of the red-ink sections of the Gospels, we have equally inspired teachings from the Old and New Testament. Powerful applications can be made for leaders from Moses, Daniel, King David, Noah, Joseph, Deborah, Rahab, and more. As we transition into the New Testament we learn much about leadership from the likes of John the Baptist, Peter, the Apostle Paul, the Apostle Barnabas (my favorite leader in the early church), Epaphroditus, Aquilla, and Priscilla (to name just a few).

The Scriptures not only give us examples of good leadership but they also describe cases of deplorable leadership. A clear example is found in 3 John. The Apostle John starts off his small epistle commending Gaius for his balance of truth and love for both “brethren” and “strangers.” In stark contrast was the vicious and tyrannical mafia-like pseudo-leadership of Diotrephes. As the saying goes, “we often learn from history that we don’t learn from history.”

Secular Leadership Theories

Use of secular theories of leadership requires a Christian leader to follow biblical leadership patterns, except when they can’t. Secular leadership is usually guided by pragmatism. Biblical leadership is guided by principle-ism. It’s not to say biblical leadership is not practical. It’s to say that it must first be “Christian.” Demonstrating this powerfully is a quote from George Bernard Shaw, who noted that leaders are unlike “reasonable people.” Normal people, says Shaw, “adapt themselves to the world.” Leaders are often unreasonable who “adapt the world to themselves.”

Simon Sebag Montefiore in his work, “Titans of History: The Giants Who Made Our World” notes that

Greatness needs courage (above all) and willpower, charisma, intelligence, and creativity, but it also demands characteristics that we often associate with the least admirable people: reckless risk-taking, brutal determination, sexual thrill-seeking, brazen showmanship, obsession close to fixation and something approaching insanity. In other words, the gap between evil and goodness is a thin one… (Montefiore, xvii).

Montefiore has described well the over-arching view of strong leadership from a non-Christian worldview. Actually, some of these characteristics do find themselves within a biblical template in leadership. Too many are clearly outside the pale of Christ-like servant-leadership. Montefiore’s statement partially explains why the American electorate keeps putting certain kinds of leadership to political office (in both parties).

Leadership Lessons from History

What can we learn about leadership from history? (Much of the following comes from Montefiore.)

It’s always the pioneers who take the greatest risks in leadership. They are usually also the ones who get shot at the most, and often are the ones who are most likely to lose much, because they risk much. In 1633 a Turk by the name of Lagari Hasan Celebi launched himself from the grounds of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul on a seven-winged rocker. Dan Hampton notes, “Using 140 pounds of gunpowder to get airborne, he fell into the sea, survived and swam ashore. No one ever recorded how high he ascended” (Dan Hampton, Lords of the Sky, 10).

A few centuries later, Diego Marin Aguilera jumped from a Spanish castle and flapped his mechanical wings and actually flew about 360 meters (according to the American Institute of Aeronautics). This early version of superman apparently crashed when one of his wings cracked under the stress of flight. The town in which he landed thought he was a heretic, so they burned his glider. They took the whole contraption as an offense to God. The point is that even prior to the work of Orville and Wilbur Wright, there were leaders who showed courage (if not even a bit of recklessness).

Nebuchadnezzar II (“The Lion of Babylon”) ruled the neo-Babylonian empire from 605 until 562 BC. He was the eldest son of King Nabopolassar who founded the Chaldean dynasty in Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar won impressive victories both in the name of his father and in his own name. In 605 BC he defeated the Egyptian forces at Carchemish. He also constructed amazing physical projects not the least of which were one of the ancient wonders of the world, “the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.” History records he worshiped a god named Marduk. After suffering from a season of animal-like mental illness as a direct result of his bosting in the face of Jehovah, and after watching the God of Israel show up time and time again for His people, Nebuchadnezzar declared the God of Daniel to be God of the Universe. That’s impressive for a leader who was anything but monotheistic.

Not long after Nebuchadnezzar’s death, Babylon was defeated by the Persian empire. The Persians took Babylon initially by digging a canal to divert the Euphrates making it relatively easy to take the ancient city. Cyrus the Great, King of Persia not only liberated the Jews from strict Babylonian captivity by allowing them to return to Jerusalem and encouraging the re-building of their city and temple, he largely funded the project.

Cyrus came to understand that instead of micro-managing by imposing Persian ways in his empire, he would get further by granting as much religious and cultural freedom he could, thus bringing in a new approach to keeping a diverse empire together. The discovery of the “Cyrus Cylinder” in the nineteenth century provides remarkable details as to his personal hatred for tyranny and demonstrates his commitment to religious toleration and even opposition to slavery.

These Babylonian and Persian leaders could be brutal killers. They do, however, demonstrate some wisdom in leadership. One of the clearest examples was their use of solid leaders with whom they ruled. Leader after Leader, regime after regime, found Daniel in the inner circle of empire authority—Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, Darius the Mede (son of Xerxes), probably Nabonidus, and eventually Cyrus the Persian. Why was that? He was sharp, had institutional memory, and clearly, he had the ear of the God of Israel. You keep a guy like that on the payroll! I’ve seen some modern-day evangelical leaders remove the best people from their leadership team because they were intimidated by their ability. Many pagan leaders had more sense!

In the course of the fight Leonidas fell, having fought like a man indeed. Many distinguished Spartans were killed at his side – their names, like the names of all the three hundred… deserve to be remembered. (Herodotus, The Histories, Book VII)

Xerxes, the Persian King, intended to add Greece to his empire. In his way was Sparta. The ancient world knew very few warrior-communities that compared to this city-state. If you were born a Spartan male, you were expected to be a warrior. If you were a Spartan female you were expected to produce Spartan males. Slaves did the work. Spartan men went to war. History records that to fend off the attacking hoards of Persians, Leonidas choose 300 men who had sons old enough to take over leadership of their families. The 300 knew they would not be coming back, but they did not hesitate. Generally, Greeks did not fear death if it was for a cause greater than themselves. Plato once said, “Courage is knowing what not to fear.”

The Spartan King told his wife going out the door, “marry a good man and have good children.” The eventual deaths of the Spartan King and his men inspired the Greeks’ victory over the Persians at sea (Salamis) and on land (Plataea). Xerxes was the last Persian leader to ever set foot in Greece. The following epitaph is inscribed at Thermopylae, “Go tell it to Sparta, stranger passing by, that here, obedient to their laws, we lie.”

I grow tired of seeing leaders in all spheres of life trade off conviction for convenience. If someone isn’t willing to live out his convictions he certainly won’t die for them! Those unwilling to have convictions aren’t leaders.

The Middle Ages

“Richard the Lionheart” led in the context of the Holy Crusades (which probably weren’t really that holy). The idea was to have European leaders and warriors take up arms to rid the Holy Land of the Islamic Infidels. In 1095, Pope Urban II offered “remission of sins” for those answering the call to fight. Such a deal! You can be wicked, kill others who live equally horribly, and both religions will give you an immediate pass into the heavenly abode.

80,000 answered the call and set off for Jerusalem. So inept was the planning and the working out of the first crusade, that most who died, did so on the way to Jerusalem. Led by five princes, the Christians took Jerusalem and massacred both the Jewish and Islamic citizens—all supposedly for the sake of Christ! This resulted in a line of European-Palestinian kings who ruled Jerusalem.

Richard is a clear example of how not to hand off your leadership to the next leader. Even after his brother John betrayed him, Richard declared John as his successor, then left to make war with Philip of France. Richard died just as he had lived, in the thick of battle. As Steven Runciman put it, “Richard was a bad son, a bad husband and a bad king, but a gallant and splendid soldier.”

John was something else. Montefiore in summing up the inept-character of King John notes that he,

lost most of his empire; broke every promise he ever made; dropped his royal seal in the sea; impoverished England; murdered his nephew; seduced the wives of his friends; betrayed his father, brothers and country; foamed at the mouth when angry; starved and tortured his enemies to death; lost virtually every battle he fought; fled any responsibility whenever possible and died of eating to many peaches. Treacherous, lecherous, malicious, avaricious, cruel and murderous, he earned the nick names Softsword for military cowardice and incompetence, and Lackland for losing most of his inheritance.

It’s one thing to have an inept and unqualified leader who succeeds your leadership; it’s something else to set up such a successor yourself, as Richard did in appointing John.


Both the Scriptures and History tell us that those who “live by the sword die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). It is exhausting to claw for more and more power, especially when you must destroy others to move yourself up. I see it all too often, even in ministry. History is replete with leaders who abused their power: Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran, Heinrich Himmler, Lavrentiy Beria, Nikolai Ivanovich Yezhov and Isaac Babel of the Soviet secret police. In the nineteenth century, Leopold II (King of Belgium) oversaw the killing of roughly ten million in the Congo, almost half of its native population. In 1909, Arthur Conan Doyle called it the “greatest crime in history.”

In Luke 9, Jesus tells his disciples that if you are not welcomed in one corner of the vineyard, you shake the dust off your feet and move on. Nowhere does Jesus tell His leaders to “take no prisoners.” Servant, Christ-like leadership is nothing like the power-based leadership of the World.

One leads to life. The other leads to death.

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