Experience is often cited as the greatest qualifier for leadership; this is probably why so many young professionals feel timid about leading those who are older (and presumably more experienced). However, the Bible suggests that being a wise leader is more important than being an experienced one. And thankfully, we can begin seeking wisdom at any age.
Several stories from the Bible show us that wisdom is gained through a relationship with God and an awareness of self (in that order). When we get to know the creator, we get to know creation and our place in it.
Googling the title of this article, “How to Lead up” will yield 1.98 billion results. Many are listicles in business publications and management blogs, citing specific tactics for leading up: consistently over-deliver, be a curious listener and learner, be a master of the right approach, pay the price others are unwilling to pay, and so on. And while these strategies will likely increase a young leader’s reputation and prowess in his or her workplace, correctly applying and consistently following countless directives is complicated, exhausting work, and produces limited results.
Young leaders may feel that their lack of experience discounts them, and they may grab for any tactical, situationally specific playbook to guide them while they lead those older than themselves. Yet, the best young Christian leaders will gain and use wisdom, an ever available and endlessly helpful mindset, to make decisions.
Tim Keller writes in Every Good Endeavor, “According to the Bible, wisdom is more than just obeying God’s ethical norms; it is knowing the right thing to do in 80 percent of life’s situations in which the moral rules don’t provide the clear answer.” He goes on to list numerous examples of seemingly worldly choices but cautions that each wrong decision could “blow up” our lives. The pressure is multiplied for leaders; the person at the helm’s choices affects the entire crew.
Because their decisions are so weighty, leaders ought to seek out all possible counsel when making them. Wise young leaders don’t scorn experience, they certainly learn from and use any relevant experiences they may have and look to learn from others. However, there are times when even a whole team’s combined experience is not enough to intelligibly guide them forward. Then they must find a source for guidance.
Knowing God First
Continuing from Every Good Endeavor, Tim Keller writes that wisdom first comes from knowing God personally: “When God’s gracious love becomes not an abstract doctrine but a living reality, it means our heart is less controlled by anxiety and pride, two powerful forces that constantly lead us to over- or under-react to situations.” Spending time with God, regularly and intentionally, helps us gain a healthy understanding of our surroundings.
The Israelites’ story takes a turn when Moses dies. He had led them for decades and they were just about to cross the Jordan River and enter the Promised Land when the servant of the LORD tells Moses’ nephew, Joshua, to take charge. Biblical scholars estimate that Joshua was middle-aged at the time, meaning he was half the age of his predecessor and younger than half of the people he led. A complicated, specific series of tasks lay before him and the Israelites had been anticipating this transition for forty years.
Despite the specificity and unfamiliarity of what lay ahead, the bulk of the LORD’s servant’s message is about God’s constant presence and provision, instead of specific instructions. He encourages, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” (1:9) When Joshua is aware of God’s presence and provision, his anxiety about the future tasks and potential pride that he will be the one accomplishing them, both dissipate. Joshua’s otherwise impossible successes in the next twenty-three came from his recognition that God was faithful to him, his choice to be faithful to God, and the resulting close, consistent communication between them.
It’s easy to imagine ourselves being (marginally or majorly) insecure about leading up, especially when tasked with something mammoth or particularly complicated. Before the task, anxiety begins to creep in, closer and closer and becomes almost debilitating the day of. Yet we still manage to succeed. After the task, pride creeps in as I reminisce on how I, in the face of adversity, strategically led my team and ultimately conquered the situation. However, regularly seeking God and his wisdom, as Joshua did while leading, will lessen and eventually eliminate our pre-task anxiety and post-task pride.
Knowing Yourself Second
Keller’s second source of wisdom is knowing ourselves. He writes, “Many bad decisions stem from an inability to know what we are and are not capable of accomplishing. The Gospel keeps us from over- or underestimating our own abilities because it shows us both our sin and God’s love for us in Christ.” Having a proper sense of self helps keep young Christian leaders confident and humble.
Something stands out in the fourth chapter of Paul’s letter to Timothy. The well-known verse reads: “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity.” This informs us that Timothy was leading up. And one verse later, we learn more about the greenhorn minister, “Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through prophecy when the body of elders laid their hands on you.” The Scripture isn’t clear on what Timothy’s gift or giftings were, but Paul clearly believed that this specific ability Timothy had was an untapped resource that could further his ministry.
There are plenty of books, online tests, and courses jumping at the chance to quiz you and determine which leadership qualities you possess or lack. And, the results of such professional assessments can be hugely beneficial in work life. Additionally, having a proper understanding of each team member’s strengths and weaknesses will enhance the group’s productivity.
Yet, the most important thing we need to know about ourselves is that we’re both deeply loved and deeply flawed. When we reflect on God’s love for humanity and the attention he pays to each of our lives and well-being, even our tedious tasks are infused with meaning. And when we see our heap of shortcomings, we’re more likely to offer grace to others.
As the Chinese Proverb puts it: “Experience is a comb that life gives to men when they are bald.” But young professionals ought not to sit around discouraged, waiting and thinning. Budding leaders can prepare and better themselves by seeking wisdom. This wisdom comes from familiarity with the character and ways of God and a proper understanding of self. This combination decreases a leader’s anxiety and pride and increases his or her confidence and humility. Once confident and humble, he or she is ready to lead his or her group of any age.