Leadership Lessons from the Temptation of Christ
Become a better leader by adopting lessons learned from one of the all-time greatest battles of will.
A Leader Like No Other, Yet Still Relatable
Of all the leaders who have been born among mankind, none have left a legacy as powerful as the legacy of Jesus of Nazareth.
Not only do non-Christians, including Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and others, acknowledge Jesus as a prophet, rabbi, teacher, guru, buddha, philosopher, or charismatic influencer, but even the most cynical atheists cannot fail to acknowledge the unparalleled impact Jesus has had on humanity. British humorist, and stalwart atheist, Douglas Adams referred to the 20th century as a period, “nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change.” For centuries, the Western calendar has been measured by counting the years from the life of Jesus.
Jesus was a leader like no other man who came before or has been born since he walked among us… and not just because he was both God and man, although that’s precisely the claim his followers make.
In its exclusive apostolic authority, the Holy Roman Catholic Church, at the Council of Chalcedon (451), declared that in Christ the two natures — Divine and human, each retaining its own properties — are united in one subsistence and one person (eis en prosopon kai mian upostasin) (Denzinger, ed. Bannwart, 148). This is referred to as the Hypostatic Union, a theological term used with reference to the Incarnation to express the revealed truth that in Christ one person subsists in two natures, the Divine and the human.
Because Jesus was fully man, he was subject to all the natural and supernatural forces to which we are subject, in our physical lives, including temptation by evil; feelings of grief and anger; and even death. While the existential experience of Jesus is a topic ripe for deep exploration, in the rest of this article, I want to draw attention to a few leadership lessons that can be learned from the Temptation of Christ.
Examining the Temptation of Christ
Three of the Four Gospels in the New Testament record the Temptation of Jesus, who his followers acknowledge as the Christ. Only the Gospel According to St. John, the latest gospel account written, omits mention of this event, and the Gospel According to St. Mark, the earliest gospel account, devotes only a few lines to it: “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him.” (Mark 1:12–13)
The two other gospels, Matthew and Luke, each provide extensive and extremely similar (although not identical) accounts of the Temptation of Christ by the devil, Satan. While the Gospel According to St. Matthew, chapter 4, verses 1–11 is excellent, I find the account in St. Luke’s gospel to be slightly more detailed in most respects.
For that reason, I have herein reproduced St. Luke’s account of the Temptation of Christ: The Gospel According to St. Luke, Chapter 4, verses 1–13:
“And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan, and was led by the Spirit for forty days in the wilderness, tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing in those days; and when they were ended, he was hungry. The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “Man shall not live by bread alone.”’
And the devil took him up, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, ‘To you I will give all this authority and their glory; for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it shall all be yours.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.”’
And he took him to Jerusalem, and set him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here; for it is written, “He will give his angels charge of you, to guard you,” and “On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.”’”
And Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “You shall not tempt the Lord your God.”’ And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time.”
From this text, one can readily observe three types of temptation:
- Temptation of the physical body,
- Temptation of the mind, and
- Temptation of the spirit.
Each type of temptation corresponds to an aspect of human nature. Therefore, for every person, the Temptation of Christ is relevant and relatable, because each of us are similarly tempted.
Leadership Lessons from the Temptation of Christ
In the New Testament book of Hebrews, chapter 4, verses 14–16, the author writes:
“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
As the author says, Jesus “has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning.” Because Jesus opened the way for us, we can confidently “draw near to the throne of grace,” “receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
Leaders, especially, ought to frequently draw near to the throne of grace where the mercy and grace they need to guide others through difficult times may be found in abundance. In that spirit, I share the following lessons I have learned about leadership from the Temptation of Christ.
Lesson One: A Leader is driven by more than physical needs and desires.
St. Luke writes that Jesus was in the wilderness for 40 days, and he ate nothing in those days. He experienced hunger in a way that few of us have. He had the power to miraculously transmute stone to bread. All he had to do was speak a word and his physical hunger would have ended. The devil tempted him with pride, appealing to his power. “You could … so you should …”
Jesus had a deeper drive, though, a deeper desire that eclipsed even his body’s excruciating demand for physical sustenance. St. Matthew writes that Jesus responded to the devil’s temptation to use his Divine power to satisfy his human hunger, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’” Jesus understood that only God can create standards for what we should do. Imperatives never arise from our capabilities, alone.
The desire to act in a way that is consistent with the nature and will of God, as revealed to mankind in Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition, are the quintessential driving force of the greatest leaders. That is, the greatest leaders are those who are driven to lead others towards greater virtue, not merely towards pleasure and away from pain.
Lesson Two: A Leader understands and only responds to the true source of authority.
The devil took Jesus up to a high mountain, and, in a single moment of time, showed him all the kingdoms of the world, offering them to him in exchange for his worship, citing the authority over this world that had been given to him. Again, the devil tempted Jesus with pride, appealing to his mind’s desire for prestige without having to endure suffering. The devil offered a “shortcut,” so to speak, to “saving the world.”
Jesus recognized that authority given can be taken away. So, the devil has never been the true master of this world, for neither did he create it nor can he destroy it. The devil has only whatever power God, in His infinite wisdom, has deigned to permit him to exercise for a period of time. Jesus recognized that true power comes only from God.
Bonus Lesson: Jesus stayed mission-focused, and recognized that the devil’s “shortcut” would have led to disaster, not victory.
Likewise, great leaders recognize the source of the authority they have and respond only to those who truly can exercise power over them in a meaningful way.
Of course, for human leaders, the context of the exercise of power is going to differ from the context of the Temptation of Christ. For us, all the kingdoms of the world are not at stake, and outright devil-worship probably isn’t on the menu of temptations. Instead, we are tempted to choose to worship ourselves, to pursue our own ego and vanity, or to devote ourselves to something other than the pursuit of a holy life and the grace of a holy death in the context of each daily decision.
Great leaders are able to discern how each of their decisions corresponds to the nature and will of God, and make a decent effort to ensure such decisions are consistent with God’s nature and will.
Lesson Three: A Leader’s confidence is rooted in deep, powerful self-awareness.
The devil tried to trap Jesus with the most alluring of all sources of pride: Identity. “If you are the Son of God…,” the devil said. “If you really are who you claim to be…,” the devil likes to say, twisting and worming his way inside one’s mind to try to pervert the truth and distort our vision of reality. Satan is the ultimate master of gaslighting.
Of course, like anyone who gaslights others, the devil is just exploiting insecurity when he employs this tactic. All Jesus had to do was confidently assert his Divine nature: “You shall not tempt the Lord your God.” Jesus was essentially saying, “I AM. Do you really think you can make Me feel insecure? Stop embarrassing yourself, fool.”
Through Jesus, we also can lay claim to Divine identity, as sons of the living God. (See Rom. 9:25–27. Cf. Hose’a 1:10.) When our identity is so secured, all insecurity is driven out. When you are threatened with feelings of insecurity, you can counter them a response as simple and true as: “I am a son of the living God. Jesus Christ is my Brother and my LORD. Do you really think you can make me feel insecure? Stop embarrassing yourself, fool.” (See Heb. 2:11; Rom. 8:29; Mark 3:34–35.)
There is no great source of confidence than an identity rooted in a relationship with Jesus Christ. Therefore, the leaders with the most unshakeable confidence are those whose relationships with Christ are equally resolute.
Other Tools for Triumphing over Temptation
Find someone to mentor and coach you to greater success or a success partner to hold you accountable. Engaging with someone who you invite to participate in confidential, constructive, and non-judgmental discussions about your personal temptations is a powerful tool for helping you build better habits and consistently resist temptation more effectively.
Through Lead Again™, I offer such accountability coaching. See below for how to connect with this leadership resiliency resource.
Leadership Lifestyle Design
Designing, or redesigning, your lifestyle around an intentional desire to be the best leader you can be is a monumental undertaking. Such efforts require project management, goal-setting, and holistic support skills that few people possess. Getting support from someone who can help you systematically transform your life is essential if you want to lead — pardon the pun — your best life as a leader.
Through Lead Again™, I offer leadership lifestyle design services. See below for how to connect with this leadership excellence resource.
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Leaders who have suffered a cataclysmic loss or serious personal or professional setback need unique, holistic support to resolve issues related to resolving grief, substantiating competence, restoring confidence, and mending trust. Delivering this specific type of holistic support is the core mission of Lead Again™.
If you’re a leader whose leadership ability has been compromised, please use the information below to connect with me. I’m here for you!
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About the Author
Noel Bagwell is an author, leadership consultant and business attorney. In 2014, he converted to the Catholic faith, having been baptized, as a Southern Baptist, in 1989. In 2016, he was certified as catechist by the Diocese of Nashville. At the time when this article was written, he was in the process of writing Lead Again, his second non-fiction book and his first book on leadership, with plans to release it in late 2022 or early 2023. His first non-fiction book, How to Structure Your Business for Success, is available from Amazon, Aer.io, and other fine booksellers.