Jesus not only talked many times about how to be a leader, but He lived His life here on earth exactly in accordance with what He taught us about servant leadership. God made us and designed us in His image (Gen. 1:26), and He has provided the Bible to instruct us how He wants us to live our lives—not just our lives at home or when we attend church, but how we are to live our lives every minute of every day, which includes how we are to live while we are at work.
In Matthew 20:25-28, Jesus described the difference between the typical leadership model we see today and servant leadership. James and John, two of the disciples who are brothers and the sons of Zebedee (see Mark 10:35), get their mother to ask Jesus if they could sit on His right and on His left when Jesus ascends to His throne in the kingdom. Jesus knows immediately that James and John are asking the question, not their mother, and Jesus responds directly to James and John, not to their mother.
James and John were asking for Jesus to place them into a position of power and authority with Jesus in His kingdom, and their arrogance infuriated the other ten disciples. Their question led Jesus to teach them about how He expects leaders to conduct themselves (in the same manner Jesus lived His life here on earth as a leader): "Jesus called them [His disciples] together and said, 'You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them [the people under the ruler's authority], and their high officials exercise authority over them'" (Matt. 20:25).
Jesus is saying the Gentiles have great men as their leaders who exercise their power and authority over the people they lead. But Jesus contrasts the Gentile model (and the typical leadership model we see today) with how God designed leadership and the proper organizational structure: "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" (Matt. 20:26–28).
Jesus, who is God, is telling us how to be a leader. He says that whoever wishes to become a great leader must be a servant. In fact, Jesus takes it even further than just being a servant—He says if you really want to be a great leader, you must be a slave.
And to emphasize the point, Jesus says that He, as God and King, came to serve, not to be served. So, this is where Jesus is saying the leadership model God wants us to use, and the model Jesus used, is the servant leadership model. Even as King and Lord, Jesus modeled servant leadership. Jesus was humble, put others' needs first, and served others with humility.
As I began to study God's instructions in the Bible about leadership, I began to see my own thinking about leadership evolve. I have not always been the type of servant leader God wanted me to be throughout my career, and I am not representing that I have all this figured out. Many times during my career, I fell into the trap of wanting to be somebody rather than to be a servant.
If you spend enough time with anyone, you will see them at their best and at their worst. You will see some bright spots you want to emulate, and you will see some rough spots that will impact you in such a way you will never want to appear the same way to others.
I can reflect back on many times in my life and realize I did not act in the way I should have, and I fell short of being the servant leader I desire to be. But I have discovered that it is possible to live your life in accordance with what the Bible teaches. As a Christian with God living inside you, you can give God a voice and turn control over to Him—even at work—rather than leading at work as if you left Him at home or in the car.
And we cannot succeed in this based on our effort alone, but rather as a result of allowing God to work in and through us, and being intentional about trusting God and serving others.
This article is adapted from Larry O'Donnell's book, Management Waste.
Larry O'Donnell served many years as president and COO of Waste Management, where he became best known as the first "undercover boss" from CBS' hit reality show. A popular speaker, leadership consultant and ministry leader, he holds a Master in Biblical and Theological Studies from Dallas Theological Seminary and mentors business leaders around the world through his full-time ministry. His new book, Management Waste, his weekly podcast and blog are all available now at larryodonnell.com.
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