A Leader Does the Right Thing First
Servant leadership and other lessons from the greatest leader in history
The link to my actual sermon notes—which this article is based upon—is available for paid subscribers. Look for the link at the bottom of this post.
Leadership is Not About the Leader
Some of you reading this article are business leaders or executives who attend a Christian church. Some are even pastors or ministers. But I know not all of my readers may come from a religious background, and for the purposes of this article, that’s OK.
I’ve been in leadership for more than four decades as a pastor, so I always find myself looking to leadership lessons from the Bible. And whether you’re a Bible reader or not, I think you can find something of value in today’s article.
It’s about Jesus Christ, the most popular and effective leader in world history. Jesus laid down a paradigm of leadership that transcends time and circumstance—and even religion, if you’re open-minded enough to learn from His example.
There’s no question that Jesus left an enduring legacy and transformed the world. Today, He’s followed by billions of people around the world who have committed their lives to Him out of love and admiration. But Jesus’ pattern of leadership was unlike any other in history. It wasn’t defined by the quest for power or wealth but by service to others—plus a willingness to undertake difficult tasks.
Jesus made this promise to His followers:
“Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father.”—John 14:12
He set the standard for leadership in a way that called us to impact our world positively through how we live and lead. We can follow His example, and Jesus understood that true leadership is not about the leader but those they lead.
The Power of Love in Leadership
From the very start of his ministry, Jesus loved first. In fact, He was always the first one to show love. John 13:1 says, “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” Love is the cornerstone of Christ-like leadership. It creates a relationship characterized by respect, value, and mutual growth rather than exploitation.
I’ve found that secular leadership is often motivated by selfish ambitions, including the quest for money and success. But as Jesus demonstrated, the most enduring and transformative leadership is borne out of love. His disciples followed Him, but not to gain traditional success or wealth. Jesus did not make his followers rich, nor did he offer them material possessions. Judas Iscariot, the only disciple motivated by money, ultimately betrayed Jesus for a few silver coins, cementing his place in history. This underlines the stark contrast between worldly and spiritual motivations.
The followers of Jesus followed Him out of love. Love bound them together.
The attorney James E. Hughes has written a fascinating book called Family Wealth: Keeping It in the Family. He observes that most families fail to preserve their wealth across generations because they have the wrong value systems. The families that successfully preserved their wealth reflected virtues such as truth, beauty, goodness, community, compassion, and—transcending all these—love. For them, money served to enhance the family’s mutual love, rather than the family making decisions in service of the money.
This same principle applies to leadership: love for those we lead should take precedence over personal gain or success.
The Importance of Servant Leadership
The Last Supper is one of the best-known scenes in the earthly ministry of Jesus. You may be familiar with the famous painting by Leonardo da Vinci, but do you know the biblical account behind it?
Right before His crucifixion, Jesus and the disciples gathered for a meal together. But the disciples were distracted. Oblivious to the suffering Jesus was about to endure, they argued about who was the greatest among them. Imagine that: While spending time with someone who would change the world, they could only think about themselves and their own meager influence.
Yet Jesus was secure in His identity, authority, and destiny, so He took action:
Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come from God and was going to God, 4 rose from supper and laid aside His garments, took a towel and girded Himself.—John 13:3-4
He assumed the role of a servant and washed the disciples’ feet. This act highlighted a style of leadership that prioritizes the needs of others over personal gain or power. This is servant leadership. And paradoxically, by relinquishing power through an act of sacrifice and service, the leader takes on an even more powerful role.
Leadership marred by insecurity seeks position and power. It’s driven by fear, jealousy, or control. But secure leaders are confident in their authority. They know who they are. They know what they are capable of and they know where they are going. This frees them up to serve others, and in the process, these leaders build deep and lasting relationships.
The Willingness to Take on Unpleasant Tasks
Jesus not only showed His love by serving the disciples, but He was also the first to undertake unpleasant tasks. Consider what it meant to wash the disciples’ feet. This wasn’t a time when staying clean was easy. Every path was made of dirt and dust. Bathing was rare. Shoes were different—if they were worn at all.
This made for filthy feet, no matter who you were.
But it wasn’t just that. From cleansing the Temple and confronting the corruption of religious leaders to healing lepers and ministering to outcasts, Jesus consistently loved people who were hard to love, and took on difficult tasks no one else wanted to or could do. (Ultimately, this included dying for the sins of humanity—an example of love and sacrifice that Christians have been trying to follow ever since.)
Jesus taught about the Kingdom of God, where the least are the greatest and sacrifice is the path to power. In that world, as one ascends into leadership, responsibilities increase while rights decrease. This dynamic runs contrary to the world’s leadership model, in which rights increase and responsibilities decrease with each ascent toward power. But true leaders—those who learn from the example of Jesus—will love when they aren’t loved back, will strive for peace amidst conflict, will take responsibility for messes they didn’t make, will puts others’ needs before their own, and will treat people with dignity even when those people only show them contempt.
The life and leadership of Jesus Christ provide an enduring model for believers. Our world is in dire need of this kind of love-driven servant leadership. By doing the right thing first, we can indeed transform our world—one act of love and service at a time.
Practical Ways to Lead Like Jesus
To become a leader like Jesus is a call to every believer, but it’s powerful enough that even secular leaders recognize the value of servant leadership. It’s not about performing miracles. It’s about how many lives we can influence for good, and how we can transform our world through the way we live and lead. The following characteristics are critical to that kind of leadership:
1. True Servanthood
Leading like Jesus means choosing to serve first. In Mark 10:45, Jesus says, “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.”
You may not give your life “as a ransom,” but you can strive to serve others rather than demanding that they serve you. This requires putting the needs of others before our own and leading with humility and grace. It means making sacrifices for the betterment of those we are leading.
2. Love and Compassion
Love and compassion were the cornerstones of Jesus’ leadership. He showed compassion for the sick, the poor, the oppressed, and even for those who persecuted Him. He loved everyone whether they returned that love or not.
Leaders in the church world or the business world should strive for similar examples of love and compassion. This can be as simple as showing empathy when someone is going through a difficult time, or as complex as making tough decisions that are best for the people we are leading—even when those ideas are unpopular.
Jesus embodied forgiveness. He forgave those who betrayed Him, denied Him, and even those who crucified Him. As leaders, it’s crucial that we also practice forgiveness without qualifications or limitations. This means forgiving those who may have wronged us or made mistakes. Grudges are common in the business world, but holding onto resentment or anger only hinders our ability to lead effectively.
Unforgiveness is like an umbilical cord into your past that only fuels you with bitterness. Forgiving others clips that cord and empowers you to lead with love.
4. Empowerment of Others
Jesus worked to equip his disciples and encouraged them to spread His teachings. He didn’t hoard power or keep His followers dependent on Him. Instead, He shared His wisdom, gave the disciples the tools they needed, and ultimately sent them out into the wider world to share the message of the Gospel. Jesus encouraged them to become leaders themselves.
We can do the same by giving others opportunities to grow, learn, and take on leadership roles.
5. Rootedness in Wisdom
Jesus was a student of the Old Testament. He quoted it frequently. He cited it when He taught and preached. He used Scripture to guide His decisions and teachings and let it inform His actions. Regardless of one’s spirituality or faith tradition, a true leader will always seek wisdom and draw from the time-tested ideas and experiences of others.
Christian leaders in particular should stay rooted in the Bible, seeking guidance and wisdom from Scripture.
6. Committed to Integrity
Jesus was a leader of high authenticity and integrity. He was genuine, truthful, and consistent in His words and actions. Leaders of integrity will also cultivate these qualities, adhering to a strong moral and ethical code and consistently demonstrating trustworthiness and a commitment to doing the right thing.
People will only trust and follow leaders who are honest and transparent, and who remain true to their word.
7. Authentic Humility
Jesus was the perfect example of humility. Despite being the Son of God, He never sought to exalt Himself or flaunt His own power. Instead, the Gospels describe Him using words like “meek” and “lowly.” Like Jesus choosing to wash His disciples’ feet, we must also strive to display humility in our actions. We are not superior to those we lead, and we recognize that every role is important.
Leading like Jesus is about more than just assuming a position of power or gathering followers. It’s about using our influence and our gifts in service to others. It’s about showing love and compassion, forgiving others, empowering and equipping those who look to us as an example, and to live with integrity and humility.
Regardless of their religious beliefs or culture, a true leader will reflect the leadership qualities of Jesus Christ—the greatest leader in history—especially in the pursuit of servant leadership. As we strive to become more like Jesus, we can transform our communities, our societies, and ultimately, the world.~ Jimmy Evans
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