The One Essential Leadership Quality No One Ever Taught You

People loved Jesus and were drawn to Him. (Photo by Gabrielle Henderson on Unsplash)

I remember it as if it were last week.

It was the mid-1970s, and we were living in Columbus, Mississippi, where I'd gone to pastor First Baptist Church. A seminary professor who had taught some of us was in town for a few days, bringing a series of Bible studies in a local church. On Monday morning, we had gathered in my church and were sitting around drinking coffee and visiting.

The professor told us that Dr. Landrum Leavell had just been announced as the new president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He was currently pastoring First Baptist Church of Wichita Falls, Texas. I knew him slightly, having met him a couple of times in the company of his college-age son Lan, whom I taught in Sunday School.

It seemed like a good choice to me. The professor had his reservations.

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One comment he made about Leavell lingers to this day: "I was in seminary with Landrum. We go a long way back. With that great shock of white hair and that imposing presence of his, the rest of us have to put twice as much content into our preaching to get half the hearing he receives."

Catty? Unkind? Maybe. But we'll cut him a little slack and say it was an off-the-cuff remark the way most of us sometimes talk with friends and assume we will not be quoted.

So, why do I recall that comment to this day? Because it completely misses the mark.

What the professor failed to realize is that Leavell had one more quality that went a long way to account for his popularity as a preacher and his desirability as a seminary president: He was so cotton-picking likeable.

I can see him smiling down from heaven at that.

Leavell met you and learned your name and remembered you. If he believed in you—and for reasons known only to the heavenly Father, he seemed to believe in me—then you had an advocate of serious dimensions and influence.

He loved people, and they adored him. He was a straight shooter who would tell you what he thought, and you still liked him, even if you disagreed. It's a rare quality to be highly desired.

I have not perused the shelves of books on leadership from the guru himself, John Maxwell, but I'm going to venture that this is the one quality no one mentions as making a whale of a difference for those who go forth to lead: "likeability."

Jesus had it, in spades.

People were drawn to the Lord Jesus. Children loved Him. The lowly and outcast felt they could come to Him and not be turned away. Crowds flocked to Him.

A leper went against the social customs and religious taboos of that day and came toward Jesus instead of away from Him and asked for healing. The Lord reached out and touched the leprous man, known as an untouchable. He was, that is, until he met the Man of Galilee (see Mark 1).

I've read where studies have been done on presidential elections in this country. Citizens were polled for their opinions on the candidates—not their political views but for their likeability. "Which do you think is friendlier? Which would you rather have as a next-door neighbor?"

Invariably, as I recall, the winner of those polls has always won the elections. This would mean the American people found Ronald Reagan more likeable than Jimmy Carter, George Bush more likeable than Walter Mondale, Bill Clinton more likeable than Bob Dole and George W. Bush more than John Kerry and Al Gore.

This is not saying a thing about character or convictions or suitability for office. But if one were looking for a more genial personality, each of those elections decided accurately.

I'll be drawing people—I sketch people wherever I go, particularly for church gatherings, banquets and such—and am frequently stunned to hear grownups say things like, "I don't smile" or "I don't like my smile." I've even heard pastors say, "I don't smile. My teeth are crooked." Or stained or gapped.

I want to scream, "What? You are an adult, and you still have this adolescent hangup on the mirror? You are a pastor, and you don't smile? What is wrong with you? Get over this! Forget your image, how you are coming across! There is not a person on the planet who doesn't look better with a huge smile plastered across his face, including you!"

Sometimes I actually say those things, or a lighter version of them.

Truly amazing.

"Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted in me? Hope in God, for I will yet thank Him for the help of His presence" (Ps. 42:5).

And this one, same psalm, verse 11 ...

"Why, my soul, are you cast down? Why do you groan within me? Wait for God; I will yet thank Him, For He is my deliverance and my God."

Get that? In the first instance, David rejoices for the Lord's smiling face upon him. And in the second, the Lord has put a smile on his face too.

That's the idea. As the old tired joke puts it, "If you're happy, tell your face."

The Lord is the source of our joy. He is the "helper of our countenance."

I have no secret formula for getting a pastor to like people. But if he doesn't care for them, I'd suggest he needs to go back and check his original call into the ministry. Before Jesus instructed Peter to "feed my sheep," He had the apostle declare his love for Himself.

It would seem one flows from the other. It's impossible to love the Lord without treasuring His people who are variously called His body and His bride in Scripture.

And if we love them, it seems to be a short step to concluding that we should be showing it. That means learning their names, enjoying their presence, wanting to do whatever we can to bless them.

In no way, shape or fashion am I suggesting that a would-be pastor enroll in the used-car-salesmen charm school in order to bowl people over by his personality. A fake likeability is worse than none at all.

Pastor Frank Pollard used to say facetiously, "The first requirement for success is sincerity. If you can fake that, you've got it made."

For a time, one can fake sincerity and likeability. But not for long. Under the stress of living and working, the veneer soon drops away, the facade dissolves and we are seen to be who we are.

"Christ receiveth sinful men, even me with all my sin."

People loved Jesus and were drawn to Him. And for us pastors, He is our eternal role model. "Lord, make me like Jesus."

Joe McKeever is retired from the pastorate but still active in preaching, writing and cartooning for Christian publications. He lives in Ridgeland, Mississippi.

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