leadership 7: jesus as “the ultimate leader”?

In a course on religious leadership, run in a christian theological college, it’s inevitable that we would eventually confront this question:

Is Jesus the ultimate leader? One through whose life we can discover all we need to know about leadership?

Now before I starting wondering about that question, let me say that if you’re reading this and not christian…well stick with me, I’m not going to go all theological on you (well, not much).

The story of Jesus life as recorded in the gospels, and as at least partially corroborated by external historical sources is the story of an itinerant preacher in the ancient middle east.  He gathered followers, taught his “way”, and wandered the countryside preaching, teaching, healing.

And then he was killed, leaving behind a small group who at first fled, but later continued to teach the same message, founded the christian church, and the rest is history.

But was Jesus actually a great leader? And what can we learn today about the art of leadership from this life and story?

One thing we do know is that he did not live up to expectations. There was a whole mythology and prophecy around what the Jewish ‘messiah’ would be like – including the expectation for many of a mighty leader who would overthrow the Roman empire who at that time ruled over much of the mid-east world (and to be fair, a whole chunk of the western world as well).  The messiah would be a warrior, a powerful king.

And Jesus?  None of that.

One of his finest public moments came riding a donkey. Another attacking the temple itself, the heart of Judaism. His confrontations with representatives of the Roman empire were limited, and he definitely didn’t set the Jewish people free from Roman rule. Eventually of course, the Romans had a hand in his death. If his leadership was oriented around a national uprising, it was a miserable failure.

Jesus, as much in his leadership as in many other aspects of his life, was counter-expectations, counter-cultural.  He made no effort to live up to the expectations of others – instead charting his own course, living according to his own clear sense of purpose.

That in itself is an interesting lesson for a leader to learn.  Be clear about your purpose, and live accordingly.

Secondly, I think we can look back and see some other interesting leadership qualities in Jesus.  Here’s the few that particularly appeal to me:

  • practiced an action/reflection model of learning for his followers – once famously sending a group out to teach, preach and heal with limited instructions and resources. On their return, he retired to the beach with the group to reflect on and learn from their experiences
  • re-interpreted well established world views – Jesus’ story is filled with moments where he took well known and well established religious and cultural teaching and turned them upside down, creating new possibilities
  • empowered all sorts of people – Jesus didn’t just work with those whom the society classed as best of the best, but imparted a sense of hope and possibility to all sorts of people as he met them – from social outcasts such as tax collectors and lepers through to Roman soldiers, fisherman and all sorts. Jesus also had a remarkable view of and interaction with women completely at odds with the culture of the day
  • saw to the heart of the matter – Jesus had an amazing ability to see through the surface of a situation or conversation, to what was really going on.  And a willingness to confront what really were the core issues, to name what needed to be named

Interestingly, these are leadership skills that I personally prize highly, and wish were much more developed in my own life and leadership. Jesus was the kind of leader I wish I could be.

And that reminds me of the old saying “God created us in God’s image, and we have been returning the favour ever since”.  How much of what I see in the Jesus story as leadership qualities to aspire to, are actually me reading my own situation and preferences back into this ancient story?  How much am I creating Jesus in my own image?

And thinking about that question reminds me of this piece from the movie Talladega Nights (and don’t watch if you are nervous about a little “blue” humour) that constantly reminds me of how we read our own modern situation and preferences into the life story of Jesus:

I guess the question I ponder is, does it matter?  Does it matter that in thinking about leadership in a modern context we project all sorts of situations and beliefs back into the life story of a man who would never have had to think about or confront such issues?

Or is that actually the whole point?  That in the life of Jesus we see a life fully lived, humanity represented most fully within his particular time and place?  That it’s therefore ok for me to look at what underlying principles might stand the test of time, might enable my to live out my own humanity more fully in my particular time and place?

I sure can’t look to Jesus life for a model of how to lead an organisation consisting of thousands of people with a budget in the millions.

But I can encounter the story of one who inspired countless others both in his own time and in times still unfolding; who believed in the capacity of the human spirit; who confronted injustice at personal cost; who raged when rage was needed; who wept when that was the only possible answer. I can encounter the story of one who challenged and changed the world view that shaped and sustained the culture into which he was born.

And ultimately as a “believer” I personally can enter into the strange, mystical sense in which that all continues to happen.

And so even if I find myself unconvinced that Jesus was a ‘great leader’ in modern terms, I am sure and certain that in the stories of Jesus, the life of Jesus, the ‘idea’ of Jesus I am challenged and inspired in the exercise of leadership in many different aspects of my own life.

And interestingly, there’s nothing religious about any of that.

NB: This is the seventh in a serious of posts reflecting on leadership, written during a Religious Leadership course with Trinity Theological College


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