There are thousands of books on leadership. There are multiple classes and courses on leadership. Schools and private companies have leadership development programs. Leadership is important. We all have experienced the results of good leadership and bad leadership. If we are looking for a biblically based way of leading in the world, Jesus shows us one.
In the tenth chapter, it says that while on their way to Jerusalem, James and John, two of Jesus’ disciples, went up to Jesus and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Then Jesus tells them, “You don’t know what you’re asking. But I can tell you will drink the same cup and receive the same baptism, as for the rest, that’s for those for whom it has been prepared.” (Mark 10:38)
Instead of getting angry at these two disciples’ arrogance, he uses it as a teaching moment, and teaches all of the disciples about what it means to follow him, saying “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45)
What motivated James and John to make this request? They miss the point of what Jesus had taught them. While on their way to Jerusalem, Jesus had told the disciples what was to happen to him, saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.” (Mark 10:32-34)
The words are still hanging in the air when James and John come up to make their request. Maybe they felt a sense of power due to their relationship with Jesus. They were part of Jesus’ inner circle along with Peter. If Jesus was to go away what was to become of them?
Were they trying to prove something to their father back on the Sea of Galilee? They had left their father back in Galilee and followed Jesus. Were they trying to say him, “Hey, Dad, look at what we’ve become!”
While reflecting on James and John, I thought about the Nate Shelley character from the Apple TV show “Ted Lasso,” which is about an American football coach who goes to England to coach an English soccer club. The character Nate begins the series as the employee who maintains the grounds and cleans the players’ uniforms. He doesn’t get much respect, but in the first episode, Ted Lasso asks him his name, and Nate mentions that no one before had ever asked him his name. Then by the end of the first season, Nate is one of the assistant coaches standing on the sidelines with Ted.
Season 2 of “Ted Lasso” ended recently and through it Nate struggles with his newfound power and authority. In one episode, he tries to use it to acquire a reservation for a prominent table at a fancy restaurant to impress his father.
In regard to power, Jesus says, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first must be slave of all.” (Mark 10:42-44)
Here, Jesus teaches the disciples a new way of living in the world. He and the disciples were creating something new, an alternative to the way the world worked, and how those in positions of power and authority carried out their work. They were to carry out their work as servant-leaders.
The term servant-leader goes back to a 1970 essay “The Servant as Leader” by Robert Greenleaf who ran the leadership development program for IBM. He said in that essay that “The servant-leader is servant first ... then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.” Then when a servant chooses to lead, they don’t focus on themselves.
Greenleaf said, “A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.”
Like Greenleaf’s model of servant-leadership, Jesus upends the pyramid. For those who wish to lead, for those who desire to be great and to be first, it doesn’t come from the exercise of power at the top, from sitting at the left or right of Jesus, it begins with service. The concept of servant-leadership works across all kinds of organizations: soccer teams, football teams, at school, scouts, work, church, government and families. How might these organizations and communities be transformed if more of those who led them were servant-leaders?
If we are looking for a biblically based way of being and leading in the world, Jesus shows us one. Jesus takes the impertinent request of two of his disciples and turns it into a teaching moment about the nature of the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God has no room in it for rulers who lord it over others, nor does it have room for great tyrants. The way of the kingdom is the way of the servant. Whoever wishes to be great, whoever wishes to be first, whoever wishes to lead must first be a servant of all; for the son of man, Jesus, came not to be served, but to serve.
Daryl Hay is the rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Downtown Bryan.