How To Get Ahead as a Leader: Effort or Grace

Leaders are usually at the front of a line, movement, or organization. How they get there is the topic of this blog post. My focus through this short series will be biblical characters who either sought to lead or someone or something outside their control launched them into leadership. 

Jacob, the son of Isaac and Rebekah, sought to get in front by gathering as much power and influence as he could gain from his family. He bargained with his brother for his elder’s birthright, and his mother mentored him to cheat his father out of the family blessing. Early on in the Jacob saga, the covenant bearer got ahead as leader of the clan by his own efforts, seizing the opportunity for advancement at every chance. His leadership career was founded on deceit and outwitting those who possessed the power he wanted.

As we all know from experience, if one lives by deceit and power grabs, those who he or she stole from become enemies. That is exactly what happened between Jacob and Esau. When the older sibling swore to kill his cheating brother, Jacob headed out of town as quickly as possible. On his way to Haran to hide among his uncle’s people, the heel-grabber stopped for the night. The family blessings were in his back pocket, but his safety and future were uncertain. The cost of gaining advantage destroyed any relationship with his family—except with his mother who masterminded ‘operation stolen blessing.’

When he came to a resting place, Jacob pulled up a stone for a pillow, and in the night he had a vision. You may remember the image as “Jacob’s ladder,” but it actually was a staircase to God that revealed to Jacob the Almighty’s presence and promise for his life. When the deceiver awoke from the stairway-to-heaven dream, he confessed, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it…How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” (Genesis 28:16, 17) He turned his stone pillow into an altar and named the place Bethel, the house of God.

From that encounter with God on, Jacob began to realize who he was and the role he played in the mission of God. He learned he did not become God’s covenant bearer by his own doing but by the presence and purposes of God. Grace, not personal effort, made him who he was. Yes, Jacob remained shrewd in his dealings with his employer, who deceived him, but his leadership stance moved from self-effort and power grabs to walking in the promises of God. 

This is a supreme display of divine grace, unsought and unstinted. Unsought, for Jacob was no pilgrim or returning prodigal, yet God came out to meet him, angelic retinue and all, taking him wholly by surprise. Unstinted, for there was no word of reproach or demand, only a stream of assurances flowing from the central ‘I am the Lord’, (Derek Kidner, Genesis, Tyndale Commentary, 1967)

I believe biblical servant leaders often have a Bethel experience when running from the mess they made by gaining advantage on their own. Their deceit and power grabs created havoc in their relationships and brought danger into their lives. Yet, God comes to them and reveals to them that where they are is where God is—even if they did not know it. Such a place is not necessarily in a physical location or position but a relational position of trust that God is present and aiding them along the way. God’s promises become the source of their confidence more than their efforts to get ahead. 

Jacob will return to this site toward the end of his journey. Until he does, he will encounter God more than once and will find that getting ahead is not by his efforts but by God’s grace. 

Where are you on the journey?

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