“Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. And he said to her, "What do you want?" She said to him, "Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom." Jesus answered, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?" They said to him, "We are able." He said to them, "You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father." And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 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 your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."”
Matthew 20:20-28 ESV
I have read many leadership books and have benefited from them greatly. We can learn something from anyone, even if they are a “secular” leader who is not a believer. But we need to remember that while we are in the world, we are not of the world – we will often be led by God to do things differently than the world would. Jesus presents us with an important truth here in this passage of scripture: He tells us that the world’s leaders often lead through control and manipulation, but this should not be the case with us. The world has a system, a way of doing things, but God’s way of doing things is very different. Jesus made it clear that we should not lead like the world leads when He said, “It shall not be so among you”. Even though the world’s system of leadership may show some fruit, the way that God wants us to lead will always produce better fruit: real and lasting fruit.
Just before Jesus says in this passage that we should lead differently, there is an interesting situation. James and John’s mother asked Jesus if her sons could be the closest to Jesus and sit in a place of authority in Jesus’ kingdom. This was truly a political manoeuvre which upset the rest of the disciples. Obviously every one of them desired to be great, and they were all ready to fight for their positions. But Jesus intervened and redefined their idea of greatness.
The world’s system of leadership is a political one where there is a strong desire for power and control. Its leaders are more interested in getting a desired outcome and will often stop at nothing to get what they want. There is also a religious system of leadership which attempts to make everything seem right and look good. This system is controlling, has high expectations, and wants things done perfectly. It is also mostly guilt-driven. Both of these systems of leadership focus on using people as tools to accomplish something. In reference to the controlling and unloving systems of leadership, Jesus says “it shall not be so with you.” He’s saying that kingdom leadership looks different to world’s systems of leadership. Jesus goes on to explain the way things should be done: a kingdom-styled leadership, or Jesus-styled leadership.
“…But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Matthew 20:26-28 ESV
Jesus defines great leadership as great serving. This is not the way most people think. He says that a call to great leadership is a call to great serving. John Maxwell rightly defined leadership as “influence”. If you’re influencing someone, you’re a leader. The temptation for many would be to obtain a leadership position (where they have authority over people) and then try manoeuvre people and get them to accomplish something through control, manipulation and guilt-driven tactics, all of which are goal-driven and not at all concerned with people. Leadership is influence - but great leadership is influencing people through serving them. Jesus said it: if you want to be a great leader, then you should be a great server. But He not only said it, He demonstrated it.
In John 13 we see that Jesus “showed them the full extent of His love” (John 13:1 NIV) by wilfully humbling Himself (God in the flesh) to the position of a slave by washing His disciples’ feet. This was not a pleasant task. In Jesus’ day people wore open-toed sandals and walked on dirty, dusty streets. It was a hot climate and they rode or walked with camels and donkeys which would relieve themselves without warning – I am sure they’d end up with animal poop between their toes. And so foot-washing certainly was not a pleasant task, and yet God in the flesh (Jesus) humbled Himself and served His disciples (even Judas, who He knew would betray Him) by cleaning their feet.
This idea of Jesus washing their feet completely offended Peter who declared that Jesus would never wash his feet (John 13:8). This was because he saw leadership as a place to be served rather than a place to serve. Jesus responds to Peter telling him that “unless I wash you, you have no part with me”. Jesus was telling Peter that he needed to accept this kingdom-styled leadership or else he would not get to be a leader in the kingdom.
There is so much more that we could say about this, but the bottom-line is that leadership in God’s system is not controlling, manipulating or guilt-driven. Rather it is motivated by love to serve others (where they are at). When the people we lead see our love for them through our service for them, we will never have to use control, manipulation or guilt to motivate them.