I’ll never forget that meeting. We sat in a circle to discuss strategy, or perhaps better stated—my strategy. The tension was palpable; in fact, you could have cut it with a knife. They were my team and I was running point. There was one slight problem however; you see, from my leadership point of view, I believed that they were there to carry out my vision according to my plan.
Years later my leadership mentor would invite me to a Lead Like Jesus Encounter with a group of Wycliffe associates. Assembled at the conference table were linguists—brilliant men with degrees out to wazoo—and then this young inexperienced kid that was trying to lead a budding organization. That day I was introduced to a new paradigm of leadership.
Jesus as Savior—check, Jesus as Lord—check, but what about Jesus as the greatest Leadership role model ever? I’m not sure that this thought had ever crossed my mind. And perhaps for some simple reasoning. Just consider for a minute, His greatest moment on the planet—when the reason for His earthly existence culminated at the cross. The guys He had led for three years all turned tail and ran; in fact, one from his inner circle “cussed Him out” (Mark 14:71) after denying twice even the slightest acquaintance to Him. Yet it was this motley crew, minus one, that went out just a short time later and turned the world upside down…that started the greatest organization in the world.
What was it about Jesus’ leadership that transformed unlearned, ignorant men into passionate followers and thus leaders of the early church? What was the DNA of His leadership methodology—the nuts and bolts of equipping these men who would ultimately do greater works than Him?
Servant leadership. Jesus called a group of men together from various backgrounds to embrace the vision of His Father—they were to become “fishers of men” among all peoples of the world. And after casting a powerful vision, Jesus didn’t lean back in His armchair expecting His people to get out there and do it. Rather, He modeled what He taught. He gave them authority and power to do what He did. His servant leadership approach was firmly explained—“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45).
Yet, one might be hard pressed to see how well that model has caught. Many traditional leadership paradigms continue to reflect top-down structures, power and control; some even to the point of manipulation.
Either we fear losing control or our misunderstanding of responsibility results in micromanagement. Just the other day, my friend told me about his idea to empower groups within his church to launch out on their collective visions. The Pastor’s response? “We have enough pastors to run each group!” In other words, “Here’s how we can maintain control.” Perhaps this response is due to our default thinking that generally imagines the worst case scenario possible. “Everyone will do what is right in their own eyes” or “People will get carried away with their own ideas.”
Sure that might happen. But then good leadership—in the context of Christ’s—would cast a powerful vision and then equip each member/group with the tools to accomplish it. Jesus kept the traditional paradigm very much alive by casting vision from the top and then flipping the pyramid upside down in order to serve from the bottom. It’s called empowerment and deals a death blow to control and fear-based leadership.
Consider just a few verses in the beginning of John chapter four. Jesus didn’t baptize—His disciples did. How many pastors do you know that believe in that level of empowerment?
Or think about how hard Jesus worked on deflecting all praise to His Father. He kept sneaking off into the desert when the crowds wanted to make Him King. He was there to fulfill His role in His Father’s vision…He was there to equip men and women to carry it out. He served, He taught, He led.
In fact, Jesus stated that His disciples might do greater works than they had seen Him do (John 14:12). Leadership was not about Him. It was about bringing glory to His Father. Jesus served His people because He served His Father’s vision.
Was Jesus a control freak? I think the answer is clear. With a basin and towel Jesus got down and washed His disciples’ feet leaving us with one of the most powerful images for servant leadership—one based on empowerment vs. control, one based on vision rather than on the leader.