The Incarnational Principle of Leadership

If you are going to be an effective leader, you must be able to enter into your followers’ world. In fact, if you are going to influence anyone for anything—whether it is your boss, your employees, a client, your spouse, or even your kids—you are going to have to get really good at incarnational leadership.

Couple Sitting On a Mountain Top After a Hike - Photo courtesy of ©, Image #8171245

Photo courtesy of ©

This leadership principle is based on the Christian teaching that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14a). Imagine that: God entered into our world in order to bring us back to Himself.

Similarly, when Jesus chose his disciples, he didn’t enroll them in a workshop. He didn’t ask them to read a stack of books. He didn’t even ask them to sit down and listen to him preach. Instead, “He appointed twelve, that they might be with Him” (Mark 3:14a, emphasis mine).

The Apostle Paul employed this same kind of incarnational leadership. He wrote to his followers:

But we were gentle among you, just as a nursing mother cherishes her own children. So, affectionately longing for you, we were well pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God, but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us.” (1 Thessalonians 2:7, 8, emphasis mine)

This leadership principle is very basic, but, sadly, one I forgot in one of my most important relationships.

Several weeks ago, I took my mentoring group on a retreat. In preparation, I had them ask their wives, “What bugs you about me? Specifically, what are the three things that cause you to be uncomfortable or irritated with me?” It is a powerful question, but one that is also potentially dangerous.

Consequently, I gave them four guidelines:

  1. Be sincere and listen.
  2. Don’t be defensive.
  3. Don’t make any promises.
  4. Take detailed notes.

As the leader of the group, I also had to do the exercise. However, since Gail and I had been married for thirty-two years, I was hoping she would have nothing substantive to share with me. Boy, was I wrong.

I first asked her the question about two weeks before the retreat. She didn’t respond, but promised to think about it. After a few days, I asked again. She said that still wasn’t sure. A few days later, I emailed her. Still, nothing.

I begin to think, Maybe I’m such a good husband that there’s just nothing I do to annoy her. I patted myself on the back and then, as a final effort, text-messaged her the day of the retreat. A few hours before I left the office for the retreat, she finally emailed me.

She shared three things that annoyed her about me:

  1. You tend to nag me. You ask for something to be done—like provide the answer to this exercise!—and then you keep asking if I’m done yet. You are important to me, but I have other items on my to-do list.
  2. Your recreational activities tend to be solo. You love to write, tinker with your blog, run, etc. But I can’t participate in any of these activities. In order for me to join you, I have to engage in a solo activity next to you. But this isn’t the same as being with you. It is unfulfilling to me because I don’t work or play like you do.
  3. You usually decide what we do together. Because I tend to be the more deliberate and you tend to be more decisive, your decisions usually win out. You beat me to the punch. As a result, I end up deferring to what you want to do. I feel that I am losing myself in the process. Sometimes I wish that you would just slow down and enter into my world, considering what I might want to do for a change.

Ouch. Here three points really hit home. It was a sober reminder that loving someone well—leading someone well—means entering into their world. Sadly, I had completely missed this with Gail. I had completely forgotten the incarnational principle of leadership.

Since that time, I have been deliberate about entering into her world and doing the things she enjoys. I still have a long way to go, but I am learning (I think).

During our vacation, for example, we spent time hiking. This is not something I ordinarily would have chosen, but it something that is important to Gail. The really interesting thing is that I have loved doing this with her. It has taken our relationship to another level.

I am so grateful that Gail had the courage to tell me the truth. Because of it, I am beginning to understand that incarnational leadership—entering into someone else’s world—is the first and most important aspect of leadership. It can make a huge difference: for your followers, for your relationship to them, and even for your own growth and development.

Question: Where do you need to enter into someone else’s world? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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  • Benjamin Lichtenwalner

    On Going Solo: I do some work with the Worldwide Marriage Encounter program. This is one of the key areas they focus on – how to avoid falling into the “married singles” trap so prevalent in today’s society. In extreme cases, over time, many marriages drift a part by doing just this – doing different solo activities rather than focusing on each other. I strongly recommend these weekend retreats for all marriages. There are “expressions” (versions) for many religions.

  • Jaded Baby

    Powerful article.
    I left the house for the entire summer in preparation for divorcing, and by labor day I realized that I needed to open up my world and allow my wife to be an active part of it; likewise, I need to take a bigger interest in hers.

    It’s a tough lesson for someone who wants to remain married but also wants his independence and privacy. Marriage in a day-to-day lesson in compromise and acceptance.

    Thanks for sharing.

  • Carrie Eason

    My husband just asked me for my three things… so I gave them to him. He’s currently writing them down… Now I’m waiting for mine. Thank you for the courage to be honest and expect honesty in return.

  • John Gallagher


    Wow….thanks for sharing. What a great question to ask your spouse. I will try this exercise with Chris. Thanks to you and Gail for sharing. UNLESS, her #4 thing that annoyed her was that you shared things with your followers without her permission ;) – Just kidding, of course!

  • Benedicta Forson

    Reading this has really sparked off some interesting ideas in my mind right now. God bless you for sharing these thought-provoking issues with us. I need to enter into my friend’s world. Most of them complain about how I relate to them and i guess they have been right all along.Thanks again.

  • Uma Maheswaran S

    Good thought provoking idea from a different perspective.

  • Brett

    I really needed this today. My tendency as a leader is to think that if hand out the right resources (Books, DVDs, etc.) then a leader will be equipped and ready to go. But the truth is I must walk with them also. Good word. Thanks.

    This also reminds me I need to catch up on some “dates with Daddy” with the four little souls I’m shepherding.

  • Mark McKeen

    It’s so easy to forget about the ones that are closest to us. I can get so caught up in ministry that I forget that my wife and daughter are my primary ministry.

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  • PM Hut

    Hi Michael,

    I’m afraid I’m guilty with #1 (You tend to nag me) with everyone I know – I remember when I used to be a project manager in my last company, I used to nag even the owner of the company on getting things done!

    I think the reason why I did this is because I didn’t trust the other person to do the job on time, and I was mostly right. I wanted the task I’m giving to others to take the highest priority.

  • Don McBride

    This is probably one of the best of your blogs..for me.

  • Isaac

    Great post. I had just written one on the same topic! Great leadership reminder to enter the world of another person… 

  • Dr Mari

    Love your transparency; thank you! Leadership is so much about relationships, integrity, and being genuine. I love this piece–great reminders!

  • Jihoon

    “What bugs you about me? Specifically, what are the three things that cause you to be uncomfortable or irritated with me?”Indeed, this question is crucial for me. I gotta ask my wife this, am I whether an incarnational leader or not to my family?

  • John Reinagel

    Thanks for pulling this post out of the archives. It is very timely for me. I’m write a series of close to this topic. I think as leaders of groups and/or enterprise we forget too often the lessons of the Bible that we should simply just love others.

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  • Deborah H. Bateman

    Thanks for sharing this post. So often we think people are supposed to come to us or enter into our world when in reality as you point out we need to enter into their world. I too fail at this in a lot of ways. It is something I need to be more conscience about. Thanks for reminding me.
    Deborah H. Bateman – Author

  • JamesDenman

    Our children, often times they are operating in a different world. Simple, somewhat boring things on the surface. But take time to get on their level and you will start to understand them and maybe even learn a thing or two. I had a dear friend that would engage children in this way. He would ask them “If you could be any bug what would it be?” The kids loved it and all kinds of conversations would erupt. My followers often grow me into the person I am to become.

  • Ricardo Butler

    Ouch from the wife, but GREAT because it needed to be said. Not having that kind of feedback in a marriage is like putting a ship on autopilot without it’s compass. You will eventually run into an iceberg size heart and wonder what happened! My wife could probably tear through me with questions like these. In 2014 my number one resolution is to be a better father, husband, and leader in the home.

  • Tina Mollie Fisher

    Ouch AND Awww. I expected a publicly approved list but, no. You posted something so personal, something so genuine and I loved it! Real is good, really, really good!

    • Michael Hyatt

      Thanks, Tina.

  • Lori Schumaker

    We have a young daughter with emotional special needs and some severe behavioral issues. Entering her world is crucial to successfully parenting her, but it is also often the most difficult thing to force this exhausted and overwhelmed mama brain to do!

  • Matt Loewen

    Not sure why I haven’t been reading your posts lately as they appear on my Facebook news feed…but I’m glad I read this one. Probably the most transparent post I’ve read of yours – timely – and I could hear my wife saying something very similar to Gail’s 3 points.

  • Michael Robert Moore

    This is a great article. The first part reminds me of book I read a long time ago, “Jesus, CEO”. My wife and I have been working on communicating more openly like this. I must say, it has made a huge difference. Whether you’re leading your family, your business, or your peers, this type of communication is so important. Thanks, Michael!

  • Lisa Murfin

    Thank you for the courage to share this. Please thank Gail for letting you share. Willingness to listen, learn, be honest, and grow together are crucial to good relationships. You are both leading us well! I am encouraged and challenged.