Leadership Principles by Roy Peterson
The Leadership Principles that Set Me Free
I began learning leadership principles at an early age. When I was 19 years old, I was thrust into a nightmare when I was arrested and thrown into a cold, dank and dirty jail cell in Mexico with nothing but the clothes on my back. I was certain I would be there for the rest of my life after being charged as a gang leader and convicted of theft, following a reckless joyride across the border with several so-called friends.
Now, each day I dress in a suit and tie and make my way to my Philadelphia office where I serve as president and CEO of one of America’s first nonprofit organizations, American Bible Society. My life’s trajectory changed completely in that jail when two longhaired American hippies walked in and presented me with an English Bible. I was surrounded by Spanish, a language I did not understand, and I was desperate to recognize something. I could not stop reading that English Bible.
Through that Bible, God was in the process of rescuing me in more ways than one.
Writing my autobiography, Set Free (American Bible Society, May 2017), forced me to relive so much of my past. I am reminded why Bible ministry became my life’s work. After experiencing firsthand the hope and life-change that can come from reading God’s Word, particularly in one’s own language, my mission in life became to offer others the same hope. Along the way, I’ve learned so much about life, love and leadership.
When I was in prison, wondering if I would ever step foot on American soil again, I never imagined the Bible would become my greatest earthly treasure. Nor would I have predicted it would inspire me to lead hundreds of staff on a mission to increase Bible access and life changing engagement. Yet, here I am.
I continue to lean on the principles found in the pages of Scripture to guide my life—especially in the area of leadership. As I watch the news and observe the leaders in our world us, I am reminded that we are all capable of slipping into the pursuit of self-glory and power. While I am not a perfect leader, there are a few things Jesus—the one perfect leader—has taught me:
We all need rescuing.
Despite the pervasive American ideal of self-sufficiency, we all absolutely need to be rescued from a whole host of traps and dead ends. I am reminded of the story of King Asa from 2 Chronicles. He began his rule completely aware of his own incompetence and dependence on God. It was impossible to deny God’s hand in his early victories, but as he became comfortable in his role as king, he forgot God deserved the credit. Sadly, he died in misalignment with his creator and rescuer. I remember my Mexican jail cell regularly, lest I lose sight of how far the Lord has brought me.
God is glorified when we follow him.
I was terrified when I began full-time ministry. I had just spent 15 years building a successful career, yet I knew God wanted me on the mission field. How could I resign from a job I had worked so hard to get and move my family out of the comfort and safety of our U.S. home? How could I look at my boss and friend, and tell him I would be leaving? I imagine Joshua felt similarly when he was walking across a river. My actions, like Joshua’s, could not possibly make sense. And yet, we both stepped outside our comfort zones, risked failure and embarrassment, and did what God asked us to do.
Our priorities are important.
The Bible is clear on the priorities of a Christian. Moses received the Ten Commandments directly from the Lord, and it was a guide to God’s people in his time and ours. In reviewing the Ten Commandments, I know that I am to love the Lord above all else, honor my family, and others. There was a time when I put work ahead of my family, and the burden on my wife was unfair and unhealthy. A godly leader keeps his priorities in order, remembering what the Bible says in Luke 12:34—“For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
It takes a team.
Providing every person in the world with a Bible in their own native language is an intimidating goal, one that neither I, nor American Bible Society, can ever achieve without lots of partnership. And, it is not impossible. As I wrote in Set Free, “When the various parts of the Body of Christ work together, the result is greater than anything they can achieve alone.” Jesus understood this, as evidenced by his selection of 12 very different men as disciples. He taught these men to work together, and they continued his ministry after he died, bringing thousands of people to Christ.
Leadership and focus.
Leaders will not be able to achieve their goals or accomplish anything of importance without focus. Noah is a great example of a leader with focus—he trusted the Lord and remained steadfast on his assigned task. Noah was 600 years old and had never previously seen a drop of rain. This did not stop him from building a big old boat as God commanded. Because of his obedience to the Lord and his focus on his mission, Noah was blessed, and God did great things through him.
I have now been studying God’s Word for over four decades, and I am continually challenged and refined by it. Inevitably, every leader encounters hard times, but through the pages of Scripture, we can be encouraged to press onward. May you and I continue to be strengthened as we seek to lead in a way that brings glory to God.
Roy Peterson is the president and CEO of American Bible Society and the author of Set Free, an autobiography about his pathway to Christianity.
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