Why Lead at All?

By Tod Bolsinger

November 20, 2020

Scripture – Matthew 22:34-40 (NRSV)

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”


Leadership is hard.  But finding the motivation for enduring when it is particularly challenging is a key to forming resilience.  Having a clear reason for leading—a  “Big Why”—is not only good strategy, but a critical component for forming the kind of tempered resilience that is able to wisely, faithfully, and tenaciously enduring when resistance sets in.

Today’s devotion is part of the series Tempered Resilience: How leaders are Formed in the Crucible of Change.


Simon Sinek has made a name for himself making one point: “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” His TED Talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” has been viewed over 45 million times. Sinek lays out his view that the key to bringing change is to “start with ‘why.’” While his premise has given rise to a chicken-egg debate, what is clear is that inner motivation or purpose is directly linked to motivating others to buy-in to a plan.

In the talk he draws a diagram of three circles; the center circle is labeled “why” and two outer rings are labeled “what” and “how.” “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it,” he says. The motivation for changing behavior and bringing change to the world is not in the strategies (the what) or the tactics (the how) but in the motivation (the why). For Sinek the driver of change is to find those people who share at the center of their being your same central beliefs and motivations and engage them in joining you.

Christian leadership is fundamentally about gathering people together to become a community to grow in order to accomplish something that needs to be done in the name of Christ. That mission is focused on a need or pain point that if addressed would further the redemptive purposes of God in the world. It is the desire to be a tangible, particular, and contextual answer to the prayer of Jesus, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth . . .” And it is that prayer amidst that “pain point” that give us our Big Why.

Each congregation (and indeed every Christian!) is to be both the answer to Jesus’ prayer and the fulfillment of Jesus’ command to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Indeed, for followers of Jesus, who have committed to “Love the Lord your God” as generations of the people of God have going back to Deuteronomy, the command to love neighbor is the most radical and distinctive mark of our faith.  We who believe that the greatest command is to love God with all our being are told by that God to love our neighbors with equal vigor and intention.  The love of neighbor is the motivation for mission and the love of neighbor is the “why” of our leadership.

In this way, leadership is born not of the desire to lead but—at the center of our being—out of a call to service in light of the painful realities of the world. It flows not from a desire to achieve, succeed, or accomplish, but to serve at the point of real need and experiencing that need as one’s own calling.

For most of us this is straightforward enough. Indeed, those of us called to leadership are motivated by words like transformation and mission. We are eager to make a difference, meet a need, and, if we are people of Christian faith, see God’s reign made manifest in our towns, churches, and organizations. Leadership is called into action when there is a problem outside of the organization that needs to be addressed and the organization needs to change in order to take on that challenge.

One of the genuine crises of Christian leadership today is how inward focused it is. A movement founded on the salvation and transformation of the world often becomes consumed with helping a congregation, an organization, or educational institution survive, stay together, or deal with rampant anxiety (often all at the same time). It’s not enough to turn around a declining church, resolve conflict, restore a sense of community, regain a business’s market share, return an organization to sustainability, or even “save the company.” The question before any leader of an organization is to “save the company for what?”

One day sitting with a group of leaders in Silicon Valley who were teaching me how create a “start-up” project for my seminary, one of them challenged me, “Tod nobody cares whether your institution survives.  They only care whether your organization cares about them.”

Resilient leaders endure through resistance because of the deep care they have for people in pain in the world and the deep belief that their organization, institution, or congregation is meant to meet that need. The Big Why is both critical for an effective missional strategy, and vital for forming the resilience to see it through.


How would you describe your personal “Big Why”? What is your deepest reason for life and service? What is your motivation for developing resilience as a leader?

How does your Big Why help you face the challenges that come from leading and serving other people?


Try to write a personal mission statement in 8 words or less.  Make sure that it helps you articulate your “Big Why.”  Put that on a post-it note and put it someplace to motivate you every day.


O Lord, loving and serving you is my most heartfelt motivation for living.  Help me love and serve my neighbor with the same energy and determination.  Help me, O God, to listen deeply enough to my neighbor to know where I can offer my love and service to their need, where I can accompany and befriend, show care and compassion, encourage and help others endure.  Let my deepest motivation be to lead others to find your love, meeting them in their places of pain because your people lived out the love you lavished on us.  Amen.

This devotional was adapted from Tod Bolsinger’s Tempered Resilience: How Leaders are Formed in the Crucible of Change (IVP, 2020).


Today I’m pleased to introduce our guest Life for Leaders writer, Tod Bolsinger. Many of you already know Tod from his contributions to the De Pree Center website, but especially from his bestselling book, Canoeing the Mountains. I’m excited to let you know that Tod has just published a new book, Tempered Resilience: How Leaders Are Formed in the Crucible of Change. Canoeing the Mountains was about helping people lead deep, adaptive change in their churches and other organizations. Tempered Resilience follows up by helping leaders of change grow into greater resilience. Given all that’s happening in our world, especially the challenges related to COVID-19, it’s hard to imagine a more timely and more desperately needed book than Tempered Resilience.

When Tod shared his manuscript with me several months ago, I asked if he might write a few Life for Leaders devotions, drawing from the wisdom of Tempered Resilience. Partly, I want to share this wisdom with you. And, partly, I want you to be aware of Tod’s new book. If you’re a leader in a church, non-profit, or business, I expect you are feeling a great need for resilience these days. Tempered Resilience might be just the right thing for you. Plus, you might also get a copy to give to your pastor for Christmas.

Until recently, Tod was a vice president at Fuller Seminary and the chief of the Leadership Formation Division. But, a couple of months ago, he transitioned into a new role as Senior Congregational Strategist for the Church Leadership Institute (part of the De Pree Center). Tod is thrilled to be focusing more of his energy on training, supporting, resourcing, and encouraging leaders. He continues on as an associate professor of leadership formation at Fuller. Before joining the seminary, Tod was for many years a pastor. He brings to his work a wonderful combination of pastoral experience and academic insight, as well as a mature faith in Jesus Christ.

I commend today’s devotion to you and others from Tod that are coming soon.

Grace and Peace,


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Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. Commentary on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: The Great Commandment is a Great Framework (Matthew 22:34-40)

Tod Bolsinger

Executive Director

Senior Fellow De Pree Center Associate Professor of Leadership Formation Fuller Theological Seminary Tod Bolsinger joined Fuller Seminary in 2014 as vice president for vocation and formation and he now serves as Senior Fellow at the D...

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