Have you learned more about leadership from your bold mistakes or from fear and inaction? Naive boldness can come from too much optimism. Fear of action can come from too much pessimism. Winston Churchill said, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” Praise God that He uses all our mistakes—including our naive boldness and fear of action—to shape us into the servant leaders He intends us to be.
We find a great example in the Gospel of Mark of how Jesus, the perfect leader, uses his followers’ mistakes to teach them to be better leaders. After Jesus predicted his death to his disciples for the third time (Mark 10:33-34), you would think his disciples would be somber and asking questions about what he meant by such a horrific prophecy. However, scripture shows us James and John (two of the greatest leaders in history) instead attempted to seize the opportunity to gain power.
Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.” “You don't know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” “We can,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.” When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as 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 slave of all. 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.” - Mark 10:35-45
Leadership Is Not About Selfish Gain
James and John have a bold, yet clueless and selfish, request. "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask" (Mark 10:35). However, Jesus – the ultimate leader and communicator – asks the brothers a penetrating question. “What do you want me to do for you?" (Mark 10:36).
Here's their audacious request: "Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory"(Mark 10:37).
While we cannot blame them for a lack of vision or boldness, we can see they have missed the point. Perhaps they were overly optimistic and future-focused because Jesus mentioned His resurrection, but Jesus guides them to reality and asks them another critical question. “You don't know what you are asking.” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”
They confirm their cluelessness when they answer, “We can” (Mark 10:39).
Leadership Is Not About Earthly Comparisons
When the other disciples heard James and John attempting to place themselves on a pedestal beside the ruler of the world, they became indignant. Maybe they were jealous because they wished they would have asked first, or maybe they were indignant because they understood James and John were asking the wrong question. Either way, Jesus uses the conflict as an opportunity to love them and teach them the wisdom of servant leadership. Good teachers ask good questions. Wise teachers also offer excellent answers that point listeners toward thought provoking truth. That's why Jesus doesn't condemn or belittle his disciples, but instead reminds them that those who are regarded as rulers over the Gentiles repress those beneath them (Mark 10:42). But, that is not the case with followers of Jesus. Jesus says those who are great in the Kingdom of God are those who serve the people around them (Mark 10:43-45).
Leadership Comes From God
Jesus clarifies that leadership is from God. “But to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant” (Mark 10:40). Leadership, and specific honors, are from God. There are no specific things we can do to earn our leadership position in The Kingdom. Our status or role is based on God's righteousness, not ours.
“Do not lift your horns against heaven; do not speak so defiantly. No one from the east or the west or from the desert can exalt themselves. It is God who judges: He brings one down, he exalts another.” - Psalm 75:5-7.
God not only controls our earthly appointments, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit — fruit that will last (John 15:16)", but He also controls our heavenly appointments. “These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared” (Mark 10:40).
Leadership Is Always About The Good Of Others
Jesus shares with his disciples the most important leadership principle of all when He says, “Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 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” (Mark 10:43-45).
If Jesus became a man in order to serve, suffer, and die for the benefit of us (Philippians 2:5–8), then that is how He intends for us to exhibit our leadership qualities as we trust in Him and love others (John 15:12). Like Jesus, we are called to lead others through acts of service and suffering. Oswald Chambers speaks about this in his book Spiritual Leadership: Principles of Excellence For Every Believer. Chambers points to Isaiah 42 to show how Jesus led and how we are supposed to lead.
Here are the six sub-principles of servant leadership that Chambers calls “The Master’s Master Principle”:
- Dependence: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold” (Isaiah 42:1). This verse speaks of the coming Messiah. Jesus fulfilled the prophecy by emptying Himself of divine prerogative (“made himself nothing,” Philippians 2:7)." We can do this today by giving up our selfish desires and egos to serve others. This can be as simple as giving our time to listen to a coworker or not defending ourselves when we are falsely accused.
- Approval: “My chosen one in whom I delight” (Isaiah 42:1). God took great delight in His servant Jesus. On at least two occasions, God declared that delight audibly (Matthew 3:17; 17:5)." When we know God approves of our leadership, we have confidence to act. Instead of wondering what to do, we can take the action that has been made clear to us with confidence.
- Modesty: “He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets” (Isaiah 42:2). Neither strident nor flamboyant, God’s servant conducts a ministry that appears almost self-effacing." We can take the worst seat at the celebration dinner, clean up the mess no one else wants to clean up, and not care what others think because we have nothing to prove.
- Empathy: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out” (Isaiah 42:3). The Lord’s servant is sympathetic with the weak, mercifully understanding toward those who err." We can look for the one on our team (and within our family) that is suffering the most. We can say, “it’s going to be ok, I’m here to help you” to someone who just made a huge mistake. We can identify with them because Jesus has already relieved our burden.
- Optimism: “He will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth” (Isaiah 42:4). Pessimism and leadership are at opposite ends of life’s attitudes. Hope and optimism are essential qualities for the servant of God who battles with the powers of darkness over the souls of men and women. God’s ideal Servant is optimistic until every part of God’s work is done." This truth allows us not to just say optimistic things, but to be specific and mean them because in the future God is going to wipe away all suffering. Pointing your friend to an eternity where there is no more suffering is never false optimism.
- Anointing: “I will put my Spirit on him” (Isaiah 42:1). None of these leadership qualities—dependence, approval, modesty, empathy, or optimism are some sufficient for the task. God offers us the same anointing when our faith is in Jesus." This means we can be sure we are doing what is right when we follow the Spirit in our lives. We live out the truth by giving advice to friends, relatives, and teammates that is consistent with God’s word. This can mean not condoning activity that you know is not going to benefit others spiritually.
Of course, none of this is easy. Jesus was the only perfect leader. But, by following His example we can rest knowing that we are spending our lives the way God intends, and for the purpose for which Jesus died (John 15:13).
His promise to you: “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” - John 14:12-14
What a promise! Let’s go and serve the people God has given us in the same way our friend, Jesus, serves us.