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The incarnational leader

March 11, 2016 | by Steve Lawson

Matthew 1:23 (ESV) says, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). Jesus was God in the flesh; thus, God was literally “with us.” Jesus is the one who mediates God’s presence to God’s people. This is important in how each of us leads. Part of the miracle of God’s grace is that He pursued us. He did not sit on his throne in heaven and demand that we come to Him. He came to us.  He pursued us.

So what does that have to do with leadership and emotional intelligence? This is the epitome of servant leadership. One might even say that this is the ultimate cross-cultural engagement. When it comes to social awareness and relationship management, this concept is key. Rather than insisting that we become like Him, God became like us. Not only is the incarnation a miraculous event, it is a demonstration of supernatural servanthood.

Therefore, the incarnational leader will immerse himself into the culture he or she is leading. There may be times when leaders have to change their behavior in a variety of ways; including learning to be careful of what is said, acting in line with others’ expectations, changing management and communication style to fit the new situation, and learning to value other ways of thinking – all of which require in-depth knowledge of the local culture. Paul was a great example of incarnational leadership.

In 1 Corinthians 9:19–23, Paul writes:

“For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings (ESV).

Despite his impressive education, Roman citizenship and status as an apostle in the early church, Paul served the church rather than impose his authority. He chose to lay aside his rights as an apostle so that nothing would hinder the reception of the gospel. He was compelled by his calling – he couldn’t not preach the gospel. Not only would he do it for free, he would pay for the privilege. In a further demonstration of servanthood, Paul was willing to adapt his lifestyle and “become as” those he was trying to reach.

By being a slave to all, Paul was communicating the heart of his mission strategy. He had a willingness to accommodate and adjust to different settings. When with Jews, he ate kosher food; when with Gentiles, he ate regular food. In Philippi, he accepted support; in other places, he did not.  He wanted people of all cultures and backgrounds to listen to the gospel.[1]

Paul sees himself as free of obligations from all persons, yet he has made himself a slave to all in order to win over more of them. He accommodates his style of living, not his theological or ethical principles, to whomever he is with so as better to win that person to Christ. 

Paul lived for others.  He gave up his rights so that others would hear the truth.  He served so that he could preach. He was willing to modify his lifestyle and adapt himself to those he was with so that he might be more effective. 

Once we begin to understand God’s grace, once we realize the amazing transformation that is ours even though we do not deserve it, we cannot help but give it away and treat others with the same grace.


[1] Barton, B. B., & Osborne, G. R. (1999). 1 & 2 Corinthians. Life application Bible commentary (128). Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House.

Steve Lawson

A former business owner and church planter, Steve is now writing, speaking and conducting emotional intelligence and leadership seminars. Steve holds a Doctor of Strategic Leadership, an MDiv and an MBA. Steve and his wife Karen live in Greenville, Texas.

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