As Iron Sharpens Iron

By Tom King

Some time ago in Seattle, Washington, nine finalists were poised at the starting line of a 400- meter race. Their hard work had paid off and each planned to do his best and hoped to win the medal for first place.  As the gun fired, the racers sprinted toward the finish line, but one of the runners fell down.  He quickly got up and gave his all to catch up with the others, but once again fell.  His frustration totally overcame him, and he burst into tears and began to sob loudly.  Then, a strange thing happened. The rest of the runners, hearing his cries, turned to see that he was lying on the track. They slowed their pace and one by one, they stopped, turned around, and went back to the fallen runner.  They picked him up, consoled him, and then together, all nine of them finished the race.  In a race made for individual glory, the racers had made themselves into a team.  This took place at the Special Olympics.  Perhaps that is why it is called “special”!1

As a team leader, is it possible to encourage competition amongst team members and still maintain the big picture focus exemplified by the story above? The benefits of leadership that encourages competition instead of squelching it far outweigh the bad. Moreover, leadership such as this can actually inspire an overarching theme of humility within the team.  What kind of team are we talking about here? I believe this form of leadership can work with any team, including families, people within the workplace, and most definitely the church. God speaks to us in Proverbs 27:17 saying, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.”

A closer look at this passage suggests much more than just a word to the wise for blacksmiths.  This simile refers specifically to the molding and shaping of the character of a person.  Just as iron can shape, mold and sharpen another piece of iron to a fine degree, so a person can shape and mold those within his reach to their betterment.  This is clearly seen on athletic teams. The optimum number of players on a basketball team is around twelve people, yet when we watch college or NBA games, we rarely see all twelve get in the game. This in mind, what need is there for so many players on the team? They are needed to sharpen the iron in practice and for team support during the competition.  Would Kobe Bryant be as good as he is today without good competition against which to practice daily?  The American culture has a way of idolizing those who score the points, but where did those point-scorers refine that God-given ability?

In 1 Corinthians 12, we see Paul writing about teams, specifically the need a team has for all of its members:

“On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor.  And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment.  But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.  If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.”2

Team leaders should honor those who make the team stronger, even if they aren’t the star players. In the case of Kobe Bryant, even the janitor, who keeps the crowd enthusiastic by his service of the facilities, should receive praise! (Who would want to go to a game and sit among loads of trash?) Would the absence of fans ruin home court advantage for Kobe? Although this mentality probably will not manifest itself in our culture soon, we can begin the process within our own teams.

The author of Proverbs would delight in a little competition, so long as the bottom line vision and mission is kept in the team’s foresight.  In keeping the ‘main thing the main thing,’ a few boundaries should be considered:

1. Perception of teammates as collaborators, not competitors when the mission is on the line. 3

The overall team attitude should be to support each other without suspicion (which only leads to distrust within the team).  A team must focus on the whole body, not just the individual (reminder of 1 Cor. 12).  All of these qualities lead to a results orientation.  Becoming mission conscious helps teams evaluate clearly and choose wisely when it comes to job placement (Would you want your eye serving the job of the foot?)4

2. Put others first.

Putting others first is always a struggle and can be especially difficult when in a leadership position.5 Yet, our Lord shows His servant heart continually throughout Scripture and today as He deals graciously with us.  Resist the temptation to control all issues, but through careful evaluation and preparedness, empower your teammates at the right time for unequivocal success and growth.

3. Share the load.

Be prepared to receive comments from team members regarding any issue. Shared thinking has a much greater impact than flying it solo.6 When the leadership accepts and utilizes suggestions from other team members, the team is empowered by shared ownership of the mission, which also keeps the members free of a killer virus among teams: jealousy.  Who can be jealous when their influence has changed the course of events for the better of the mission?  Give your people that opportunity and compliment, even celebrate, whenever there is occasion to do so.

Be tenacious with your team while you keep in mind the collaborative effort towards the goal and mission. Sharpen yourselves and accept the thoughts and suggestions of others for discernment and review. As Ken Blanchard said, “None of us is as smart as all of us.”  This mindset can be indispensable to God’s people “who are blessed to be a blessing to the nations” (Gen. 12).  With the Spirit’s help, turn your team into a group of competent individuals, passionately engaged in the execution of a plan designed to solve a clearly defined problem.  May God grant you His discerning Spirit as you work together for the good of the Kingdom!



1. Maxwell, John C., “Teamwork Makes the Dream Work” (J. Countryman,

TN, 2002), 44.

2. The Holy Bible, 1 Cor. 12:22-26.

3. Notice the word collaborator used, which means working together aggressively, rather than cooperation, which only refers to working together agreeably.

4. Again, please confer with 1 Cor. 12.

5. Please see Bill Hybels treatment of a 360 degree Leader in chapter nine of his book “Courageous Leadership.”  His model provides good thought for leading those in our care, but also for leading colleagues as well as those in leadership above.

6. Please see “Skill 9” (207-222) of John Maxwell’s “Thinking For a Change” regarding shared thinking and a more complete treatment of its capabilities.

Tom King is a second-year seminarian and Concordia Seminary,

St. Louis,

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