What word did you put in the blank?
Influence? Power? Responsibility? Authority? Position?
I imagine that unless we’re all reading the same leadership book at the same time, this fill-in-the-blank statement will yield a number of different responses—some helpful and others not so helpful; some accurate and others flawed.
When Jesus defined leadership to his disciples, he put it this way:
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 (diakonos), and whoever would be first among you must be slave (doulos) of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:42-45)
In Jesus’ day, most people would have completed the sentence this way: “Leadership is authority.” That’s how the Romans did it. And that’s how many Jews in Jesus’ day thought about leadership (including his own disciples). To them, leadership was all about getting people to serve you.
Jesus claimed the exact opposite.
He argued that leadership is all about serving others. In fact, Jesus said that whoever wants to lead well needs to think and act like a servant.
This is what he told James and John when they asked him if they could sit at his right and left hand in heaven (Mark 10:35-37). They were looking for position and authority, and Jesus was trying to tell them that they had missed the point.
I think we often miss the point as well when we teach this story from the Bible. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard pastors (including myself) explain this text by saying, “You see here, Jesus doesn’t rebuke James and John for wanting to be great, but rather, He redefines greatness by saying that we must become servants.”
What’s wrong with that explanation? Well, nothing really. But here’s what’s often implied by the pastor and understood by the listener in this illustration: service is the pathway to leadership. If you serve, then you’ll become great. Serve today, so that one day, you’ll lead.
In other words, service is the means, and leadership is the end.
As good as that sounds, it’s not what Jesus was saying. In fact, it’s the exact opposite of what Jesus was trying to teach His disciples.
Jesus makes it clear that He came to serve. Serving and saving sinful humanity was an end in itself—not a means to leadership and greatness. For Jesus, leading was a means to serve. Not vice versa. When correcting the way the disciples thought about leadership, service, and greatness, Jesus suggested that their desire for greatness looked a lot like the desires of the oppressive Roman leaders of the day, wanting leadership for the sake of leadership. The disciples were thinking like people who grasp position and authority not to serve others, but to have others serve them.
What motivates you as a leader? Do you look more like Jesus, or James and John (in Mark 10)?
Over the next few weeks, we will explore what biblical leadership looks like, and think about how we can all lead more like Jesus.
[NOTE: This blog was adapted from my new book, The Multiplication Challenge. For further discussion on leadership and service, check out Chapter 1, entitled, “How to Think Like a Leader.”]