2017 Volume 20 Issue 3

Leadership “Jesus Style”

Leadership “Jesus Style”

3 Narratives from the Gospel Accounts of Jesus’ Life

Articles and books proliferate extolling the virtues of leadership exemplified in Jesus of Nazareth. The theme often stated, implicitly if not explicitly, is that this itinerant Galilean living 2000 years ago models leadership ideally suited for the modern day CEO or C-level executive. Unmentioned is that Jesus never oversaw any formal organization nor managed a budget of any size; in contrast, we can make a fairly compelling case that Jesus not infrequently was considered a threat to the corporate and government establishments.[1] Sadly, much of the written literature in this area originates with modern principles and insights considered best practices and remakes Jesus in that image. In contrast to that literature, this article avoids superimposing assumed best leadership practices upon Jesus and instead observes his character traits and interactions with people to determine if there are demonstrable qualities and approaches that transcend time and may be applicable and relevant for any leadership setting.

[1] Interestingly, to the author’s knowledge those writing in this area seldom mention that Jesus recruited as associates and followers individuals many today would consider the least qualified and ill-equipped to lead an organization focused upon transforming society and granting full access and participation to anyone expressing a desire to join the movement.

The Socio-Cultural Context

Attempting to bridge the historical chasm of two millennia reminds us of the importance of socio-cultural context and unstated values for leadership settings. The nature of leadership and its implementation varies with the nature of the communities or organizations being led. To state the obvious, leadership of a motorcycle gang differs dramatically from that of a Rotary club; college dormitories have resident directors and not boot-camp drill instructors. Leadership entails the means by which authority is made effective; any significant change in the nature of a community or organization requires serious and studied attention to the attendant changing needs in leadership. Apart from any reference point to Jesus of Nazareth, we intuitively know that communities vary in ethos and defining identities, and that leadership styles in these communities can often be charted on a grid from democratic and/or functionally egalitarian to authoritarian and/or autocratic.

To be overly simplistic, any discussion of leadership in relation to Jesus the Galilean must remember the significant differences in values and ethos between the first century eastern world of Jesus and our twenty-first century western world. To cite a few examples: the first century world valued tradition (the past provided a foundation for the present); age (the elderly often were considered models worthy of emulation); wisdom (defined as well-lived experience); and authority. In contrast, our twenty-first century world often seems a “tradition-less” society (we struggle to find a corporate story), prizes youth and tries desperately to delay aging, frequently values technical expertise over practical wisdom, and challenges authority. When we view Jesus as leader, we must always remind ourselves of the socio-historical backdrop of his sayings and actions.

Although the disclaimers stated above are daunting, I remain convinced that Jesus of Nazareth manifests character traits in His speech and actions that transcend time and culture. While there are numerous Biblical narratives that offer insights into Jesus’s leadership practices and priorities, I will simply cite a few central characteristics demonstrated in Jesus’s behavior that I consider worthy of serious consideration if not emulation. In the interest of brevity, I have selected three narratives familiar to readers of the Bible. These stories derive from the gospel accounts of the life of Jesus. The narratives occur in Mark 10, Luke 10, and John 10. Each narrative provides an encounter of Jesus and his followers that results in a glimpse into the character of Jesus as leader.

Vision of Leadership

Mark 10 recounts several episodes that occur as Jesus makes his final trip to Jerusalem with his followers. Both Jesus and his disciples presume that his ministry and vocation will culminate dramatically with his arrival. However, the disciples anticipate a cataclysmic battle in Jerusalem that will result in the overthrow of the Roman Empire and re-establishment of Jewish rule (aka the “kingdom of God”), whereas Jesus courageously envisions victory through suffering love and loss of life at the hands of the ruling establishment. Against this backdrop, a scene that unfolds in this chapter details the request from two of his most loyal followers (the brothers James and John) for key positions of leadership in the new regime. Specifically, they ask to flank him when he ascends the throne of power in this new kingdom. Jesus engages their request and boldly subverts their vision of leadership. In the “organization” Jesus is initiating, leadership will be defined not by authority, power, and position but by service. In a most famous line, Jesus replies to James and John that “[he has come] not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). This passage provides ample opportunity for contemporary leaders to consider key images and terminology that communicate and define their organizations.[2] In this narrative, Jesus chooses not to content himself with merely making minor adjustments or tweaks to contemporary societal norms and structures; rather, he completely subverts contemporary understandings of hierarchy and authority by inverting presumed community and organizational norms. While “servant-leadership” has become an overworked expression, this passage provides a striking demonstration of its implementation.

Choosing Significance

Luke 10 seldom appears in leadership discussions. The chapter contains a most brief interaction between Jesus and two sisters, Mary and Martha. Having invited Jesus (and apparently others) to dinner, Martha finds herself scrambling to handle all the preparations while Mary sits idly at the feet of Jesus listening to him teach (ironically choosing not to “serve” the one who has come to serve)! Exasperated, Martha asks Jesus to intervene and compel Mary to help with the many unfinished tasks. Jesus surely surprises Martha with his response, “…Martha, you are distracted and worried by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part…” (Luke 10:41-42). We must carefully avoid misreading this encounter; elsewhere Jesus clearly affirms the need for responsibility and discipline in one’s personal and professional life. Here the discussion point is the importance of focusing upon what is most important in the moment, and boldly foregoing societal convention and norms to engage whatever is of utmost importance. In this particular instance, the distractions of assumed responsibilities and societal norms caused Martha to miss the opportunity to engage in a truly life-changing conversation. Mary, recognizing the significance of the moment, and the person, experienced an opportunity to learn from one who manifested single-minded commitment to a mission and cause that ultimately revolutionized lives and societies. Contemporary leadership is fraught with distractions and worries of the moment; we dare not miss those opportunities to seize moments where transformation might occur, whether personally, professionally, or for our organization.

Knowing and Being Known

John 10 presents a most familiar image for Jesus as leader—Jesus as shepherd. Although most of us live in a post-industrial world unfamiliar with the agrarian imagery of shepherding, this image continues to dominate leadership discussions. While our lack of familiarity with this world of animal husbandry may cause us to struggle with a full understanding, Jesus’s application of this image is clear. Within the context of leadership, Jesus draws two striking conclusions: leadership involves a leader knowing his sheep and being known by his sheep. On the one hand, good leaders know well those within their community; this knowledge, coupled with care and concern, empowers leaders to effectively move the organization forward. On the other hand, truly effective leaders must allow themselves to be known by those within their organization. Knowledge of leaders builds trust and commitment. Creating a bi-directional sharing of knowledge engenders an empowering environment where integrity and concern for others are virtues, not vices, and where concern for the other produces maturity rather than dependency. Such organizations and communities thrive, rightly balancing reciprocal knowledge of leaders and followers with attentive concern for each other.

The Journey

A concluding image prominent in the biblical materials that transcends time and culture is the image of life and vocation as a journey. This image provides a multiplicity of expansive possibilities for our understanding of leadership practices that create and sustain healthy communities and organizations. The metaphor of life and work as a journey implies the need for leaders who not only know the path ahead but also know the abilities and shortcomings of those participating in that journey. Leaders familiar with the route can anticipate the pace and skill set needed to navigate the terrain. However, truly capable leaders also know the skills and unique abilities of those engaged in the journey and are able to position those people strategically to ensure a most successful journey. Historians and cultural critics alike are of one accord, namely, that Jesus of Nazareth inspired, equipped, and empowered a most unlikely composition of followers that ultimately turned the first century world upside down and forever changed the course of history. While our goals as leaders may pale in scope and ambition, the central tenets and attributes of this Galilean Jew empower us to engage seriously the question of what non-negotiable character traits we might incorporate to enable transformational leadership.


[2] One of the more interesting phenomena of the New Testament is that although the Greco-Roman world had numerous terms for power, rule, and authority, the Biblical writers consistently eschewed these terms; when discussing leadership they used participles rather than titular nouns (emphasizing function rather than position).

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Author of the article
Rick R. Marrs, PhD, Provost, Pepperdine University
Rick R. Marrs, PhD, Provost, Pepperdine University

Rick R. Marrs, PhD, Provost, Pepperdine University, is the Provost of Pepperdine University and a professor of religion at Seaver College. He has taught at Pepperdine since 1987 in the areas of Old Testament studies and ancient languages. His primary research areas are the Prophets, Psalms, and Wisdom Literature of ancient Israel. Prior to becoming Provost of the University, he served as Chair of the Religion Division as well as Associate Dean and Dean of Seaver College. Before joining the Pepperdine community, he taught at Stevenson University and the Ecumenical Institute of St. Mary’s Seminary (1979-84) and the Austin Graduate School of Theology (1984-87). Prior to becoming Provost of the University, he served as Chair of the Religion Division as well as Associate Dean and Dean of Seaver College. Dr. Marrs has a BA with summa cum laude honors in New Testament Greek (1973) and Master of Divinity (1976) from Abilene Christian University. He completed his PhD in Near Eastern Studies at Johns Hopkins University (1982).


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