The most difficult thing Jesus taught about leadership

The task of leadership

Leadership is one of the most widely discussed topics today, but also remains one of the least understood. We have entire degrees orientated around the concept of leadership. Seminaries have Doctor of Ministry degrees focused entirely on leadership. Harvard Business School has a Leadership Initiative dedicated to developing leaders. Leadership is sought after all around us but it does seem to be an elusive search at times.

Failure in leadership is seen in the news constantly. It happens with political leaders who embezzle money, abuse their power or have an affair. We see it in the corporate world as companies fail to successfully transition from one leader to the next. And unfortunately, it is commonly seen within the church as well - leaders within the church have had some very public and brutal failures.

We research leadership and try to understand what makes it work. But sometimes it feels like we are trying to close our hands around a vapor of air. It can be seen. It can be observed. But we cannot seem to get our hands around it and grab on.

Well, I don't promise to have all the answers. I am sometimes the one who is squeezing my fists around the vapor of air that is leadership, while failing to truly grasp anything. But Jesus did have a thing or two to say about leadership. One of the most difficult things Jesus taught us is that true leadership is primarily about serving.

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Greatness in the kingdom is about serving

"And Jesus called them to him and said to them, 'You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. (Mark 10:42-44 ESV)'"

Immediately before Jesus spoke these words, he was approached by two of his disciples with a request. James and John asked if they could sit at Jesus' right and left hand when he came into his glory. James and John wanted the privileged seats. They wanted to be made much of in the kingdom. But Jesus uses this as a teaching moment.

He explains that greatness in the kingdom of God is not about having a place of position or authority. It is not about exercising that authority like the rulers of the Gentiles, but it is about serving. It is about getting beneath someone else and placing their needs above our own. Do you prioritize the needs of God and others above your own? That is what good leaders do. They care more about the fame of God's name than their own. And they care more about the needs of others than their own.

In the end, your leadership isn't about you. It never was. And it never should be.

Jesus is our example

As Jesus explains this essential quality of what it means to lead in God's Kingdom, he uses himself as the chief example. Jesus says, "For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and give his life as a ransom for many (Mk 10:45)." If there was anyone in all of history who had the right to demand the service of others, it was Jesus. But that was not his way. He came in humility and gave up his own life to pay the ransom that we owed. Jesus has canceled the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. He nailed them to the cross (Col 3:14). Even though Jesus could have demanded much from the world, he did the exact opposite. Jesus could have demanded everything the world had to give, but instead he gave everything the world lacked. Jesus did not come to be served, but to serve. And his humble sacrifice is our greatest example of servant leadership.

In the end, your leadership isn’t about you. It never was. And it never should be.

God's economy is different than the worlds

Servant-leadership stands in opposition to the natural ways of the world. I have often heard about the concept of servant-leadership, but it is a hard concept to truly embrace. It does not reconcile with the natural way of thinking. When James and John approached Jesus about having the privileged seats in the interest of securing their own greatness, Jesus did not tell them they were wrong for seeking greatness, only that they were looking for it in the wrong place. He goes on to tell them that greatness comes from serving. Greatness equals Serving!?!? These two concepts do not reconcile well with conventional wisdom. But the ways of God are not the ways of man. His ways are other.

I have been challenged personally to focus more on the concept of servant-leadership. I want to be diligent to reorient my mind so that I see leadership through the lens of Jesus. In my pursuit of leadership, I am seeking to be more of a servant. To be more interested in the desires of God and the goodness of others than I am in my own self-seeking pursuits.

A recommended resource

I mentioned above that there is a lot of research and thinking being done in the area of leadership. Overall, this is a good thing. It just hasn't always yielded the results we hope.

I do want to recommend the resources of at least one individual though. Dr. Justin Irving is a professor at Bethel Seminary, and I had the privilege of taking some courses from him. I have heard it said by John Piper that you don't pick a seminary for its location or its library. You pick a seminary for its professors. One of the reasons Bethel Seminary is worth choosing is because of Dr. Irving. He helps to lead a D.Min program at Bethel Seminary focused on Servant Leadership, which would we worth checking out. Or you can just head to his website at and read some of his resources on leadership. Many of them are written in an academic way, but still very accessible and worth reading.

[Please note: I did not receive anything from Dr. Irving or Bethel Seminary for recommending them, I just genuinely believe that Dr. Irving is the real deal. He loves Jesus. He is passionate about servant-leadership. And from what I have observed, he lives it out in his life.]

I would love to hear from you

In the comments below:

  • Share one example of servant leadership you have seen in the life of someone else


  • Share any recommended resources that have helped you grow as a servant leader

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