3 Leadership Truths according to Jesus

Written by Alpha Asia Pacific together with Reverend Abel Cheah, Leadership Development Director, Alpha Asia Pacific and pastor at Holy Trinity Bukit Bintang.

We were created to live lives of influence. The call to leadership is, in fact, one of God’s calls to humanity. 

In the book of Genesis, we are told that God made man in “His own image” – which means that there is an imprint of the Creator within all of us: 

“So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and every creature that crawls upon the earth.”

Genesis 1:27-28

“be fruitful and multiply” – This was the call to family 

“fill the earth and subdue it” – This was the call to leadership, to influence the world for the better

Yet, this call to leadership has so often been misunderstood, misused and abused. Too many leaders have taken our role to rule as a calling to lordship, not a calling to servanthood.

Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him. “What is it you want?” he asked. She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”
“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”
“We can,” they answered.
When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the 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 your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Matthew 20:20-22, 24-28

Jesus makes it clear from the beginning from the pages of Genesis 1 – leadership is HIS idea, but it looks quite different from how the world has painted it to be.

Perhaps today, you may feel a desire to bring a positive change to the culture of your workplace, or to be a positive presence in your family and school – but you feel a sense of limitation in your leadership. Maybe you feel constrained to lead because you are thinking, “how can I lead when I don’t have the title to do it?”.

I believe God is calling us to lead today; not from a place of dominance, but from a place of influence.

In verse 25, Jesus said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them”. Then, He said 4 words that differentiate what true leadership is from the way the world may define it: “NOT SO WITH YOU”.

Jesus taught his disciples that there are false leadership ideas to unlearn, and there are truths to replace them with. And as we unlearn what is false, and learn what is true, we are given a blueprint for how to change the world. 

1. Not a position; but a posture

In verse 22, Jesus responded to James and John’s side-hustle for a promotion by saying “You don’t know what you are asking”. The brothers were asking for a position in order to lead; they had conveniently asked their mother to pull the strings for them. Side note: there is historical evidence that the Asian Tiger Mum has always existed!

When Salome said  (in verse 21) “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom”, she was asking for the 2 highest positions of authority in the kingdom to be given to her sons.

But Jesus said, “Not so with you”. Leadership is less about rank and more about the posture of the heart. It’s less about power over and more about power under. It’s less about ladder-climbing over others and more about ladder-carrying for others. Leaders who lead from a posture of serving, not a position of lording are always given more influence.

Some years ago, an engineer called Peter Skillman created a simple challenge called the Marshmallow Design Challenge. Peter set out to try to answer one of the world’s oldest questions about humanity, “why do some people use their influence more effectively than others?”. 

He did this by studying how different groups of people work with each other. The challenge was simple: build the tallest free-standing structure out of 20 sticks of spaghetti, some tape, string and one marshmallow, which must be at the top.

And while the task itself sounds quite simple, the more interesting part of this experiment was with the different types of people who were involved in this challenge.

Peter brought together teams that consisted of business school students, lawyers, CEOs, and kindergartners (not more than 6 years old).

Then, he studied 2 things: how these different groups worked together and influenced each other; and the average heights of their marshmallow structures.

What he found was fascinating. The results challenge our common assumptions about leadership and influence: he found that the groups DID differ in their performance. At the bottom, averaging less than 25 centimeters, was the average marshmallow structure of the business school students. Then came the lawyers, who built towers that averaged 38 cm, and CEOs that averaged at 55 cm. I think the lawyers were too busy arguing with themselves.

But consistently taller than the marshmallow towers of the business students, lawyers and CEOs, were the kindergarten students, at 65 cm.

Peter concluded that the adults and kids were influencing each other in very different ways. On the surface, the adults seemed organized and orderly – but underneath the surface, they were riddled with subtle competition, power jostling and status management. This caused wasted time and effort, but more than that, it affected their outcomes.

The kids, on the other hand, seemed the reverse on the surface – completely disorganized and absolutely chaotic– but underneath the surface, they were absolutely effective at using their influence.

In other words, they weren’t smarter, but they worked smarter. Harry Truman once said, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”

It’s no wonder why, when the disciples were busy jostling for power, asking Jesus, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matthew 18:1), Jesus responded by calling a child and placing the child among them saying, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  “whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3-4).

Jesus basically told his disciples, that there is more to learn about leadership from the children in Sunday School classes than from politicians in the Parliament! 

Leadership is not a position to gain, but a posture of giving. From the simple, undefended posture of a child, we can learn something about the difference between pride and humility. Pride desires to be seen as not just good, but better than others. Humility sees the good, and desires to better others. Pride takes, but humility gives. Pride asks, “what can I gain?”. Humility asks, “what can I give?”

And we are given a clue to what pride looks like, not just in James and John who try to climb to the top, but in the rest of the disciples who didn’t get there first. In verse 24, “When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers”.  They were absolutely mad for not asking first.

Today you can know that you can lead with influence when you start with a posture of humility, not a position of authority.

2. Not about rights; but about responsibilities

Max de Pree says, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader is a servant”.

In verse 26, Jesus said, whoever wants to become great must first be a servant, and whoever wants to be first, must first be a slave.

26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave

The Greek word for ‘servant’ used here is the same that we use for ‘deacons’: a person who ministers care for, and promotes the welfare of others, instead of themselves. Jesus said, true leaders don’t see the world through the lens of lordship but through the lens of servanthood. And servants don’t see the world through the lens of rights but through the lens of responsibilities.

What you pay attention to will always determine what you pay for. If life is a series of trade-off decisions, what you look at decides what you sacrifice for. And leaders should always give their attention to responsibilities, not rights.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be aware of our rights, or keep quiet if there is abuse. Jesus wasn’t talking about forced slavery either. He was talking about a very different kind of servanthood – voluntary servitude. Servanthood came from a place of freedom to serve, not oppression.

Today, that freedom to give, to get beyond our self-preservation and concern is available to us.

If you pay attention to rights, you will pay for the cost of entitlement. If you pay attention to responsibilities, you will pay for the cost of influence. Both demand a price, but they are very different. Rights ask, “what do I deserve?”. Responsibilities ask “how can I serve?”

In Matthew 20, as the disciples jostle for their rights, Jesus turns their attention to their responsibilities. In the upside-down kingdom of heaven, the way up is down!

Jesus said, “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave” (Matthew 20:26-27).

So often, it’s easy for us to equate the influence of our leadership with the measure of our positional authority. But Jesus says “don’t set your attention on the position. You may get it but at the cost of true influence. Set your attention on how you may contribute, it’s the best possible trade-off”.

A focus on how you can serve, not what you deserve, always leads to the highest return.

It is easy to assume that all these talks about servant-leadership would not work in the actual competitive, dog-eat-dog world. After all, can taking responsibility really improve things?

Psychologists believe that the answer is yes –  great leaders have the ability to take responsibility for what is already in their hands and to make great the little that is given to them. 

They have what they call a strong “internal locus of control”: that is, the degree to which you believe that you have influence over the outcome of the events of your life because you are given responsibility over them, as opposed to blaming the external forces around you that you can’t control. 

You may ask, but what if my boss isn’t bought into the positive influence I want to bring? How can I lead when I’m not in charge?

Influence and authority are two different things, according to Jesus. You may be in a position of authority, but you may not always be in a position of influence.

So, if you’re not in a position of power, keep in mind that leadership begins long before the title is given and continues long after it is taken away. Don’t wait till you have the title to lead; lead yourself today and start taking responsibility for what you have now.

3. Not through principles, but through a Person

So leadership is not a position, but a posture. And it’s not a posture of rights, but of responsibility. Great leaders are servant-hearted and responsibility-oriented.

But Jesus goes one further, as he deconstructs leadership for us.

Great leadership doesn’t come through principles, it comes through a Person.

 In verse 28, he said, the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

If Jesus was just a great role model, all we would have is a set of principles on how to live out our calling to leadership. The good news is Jesus wasn’t just a role model, he became a ransom for us.

The good news is that Jesus took the cup of our suffering to save us, so that He could do in us what we can’t do for ourselves. The good news is this comes through knowing a Person, not principles.

At the start of the gospel of Matthew, we see the coming of Christ into the world, as the wisemen from the East ask, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” (Matthew 2:2). The wisemen looked for the promised king, and found him in the dirt of a manger, among the animals.

Later, as Jesus makes his entrance to Jerusalem, he enters as a king on a donkey, fulfilling the old testament prophecy that said:

5 “See, your king comes to you,

gentle and riding on a donkey” (Matthew 21:5)

Then, at the cross of Calvary, as Jesus was hung for the sins of the world, a sign was put up over His head, saying, “this is Jesus, the king of the Jews” (Matthew 27:37).

What king is this? Who was born in a dirty manger, who announced his kingdom on a lowly donkey, and who died on a rugged cross?

This is the king of an upside-down kingdom who, one day, restore order Whose victory over death means we have been cleansed by the Fall. Today, Christ – our true King and leader — invites us to join him, to use our influence to change the world. He bids us to step up and lead up.

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