The Essential Victories of Servant Leaders

The Essential Victories of Servant Leaders

Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him. “What is it you want?” he asked. She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom” (Matthew 20:20-21). 

Leaders are tempted 

Matthew 4:21 identifies the two Zebedee brothers as James and John. We do not know if this incident was entirely their mother’s effort, or if the brothers sought their mother to be the spokesperson for this magnificent request, which did not at all go well with Jesus. Since there is no record of her sons dissuading their mother in public, mother and sons appear to be on the same page.  

This incident serves as an example of the temptations of leaders fueled by their family members. A parent, a spouse, children or other family members may pressure a leader to seek high honor and position because family members may like to bask in the glory and honor associated with of one of their own. 

When the remaining ten disciples heard about this encounter the two disciples and their mother had with Jesus, “they were indignant with the two brothers” (verse 24). Thus, the failed attempt to secure high honor, position and glory had an immediate cost for the brothers: they offended the other members of the team of disciples. 

Forbidden qualities of servant leaders 

Jesus took this incident as an opportunity to teach His disciples the differences between a servant leader and someone, who is NOT a servant leader; Jesus calls such a leader, “a gentile leader.”  

Jesus called them [His disciples] together and said, “You know that the 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 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” (Matthew 20: 25-28). 

Jesus forbids the following behaviors associated with Gentile leaders that are contrary to the very spirit of servant leadership: 

  1. Lording over those entrusted to your leadership, 
  1. Eagerness to exercise authority over those entrusted to your leadership, 
  1. Seeking to be served as a leader, and 
  1. Seeking to be elevated to a place of high or highest honor.  

This list of behaviors condemned by Jesus strikes at the very root of servant leadership. The temptation to fervently seek one or more items in the list is very human and is the norm. It is easier than you think to fall for the items in this list. Consider how the two brothers, having been with Jesus and witnessed his leadership model from close quarters, nevertheless, became a part of a public attempt to gain high honor, position and glory in God’s kingdom. Jesus sounded disappointed. 

Jesus your role model 

It is not surprising that Jesus tells His disciples NOT to use Gentile leaders as a role model. Instead, Jesus offered himself as the role model for a servant leader devoted to serving others.  Jesus’s agenda for leaders runs counter to the Gentile leaders’ version above; His agenda is:  

  1. Be a servant and seek to serve others,  
  1. Humble yourself to a position that is as low as possible, even to the level of a slave, and 
  1. Give to others, just as Jesus went to the extreme to give away His life for others. 

Jesus offered himself as the role model for a servant leader devoted to serving others.

See the marked contrast between the two lists above; no overlap, and nothing in common. Therefore, when gentile leaders serve as your role model, you will end up displacing Jesus from that role. 

Are you prepared and armed to battle the temptations to be a gentile leader? To be a servant leader, you need many essential victories over the strong temptations to be a gentile leader. As a servant leader, do you have the essential victories to show for it? 

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Paul Swamidass

Paul Swamidass, PhD, is Professor Emeritus, Harbert College of Business, Auburn University, Auburn, AL, USA. After a total of 33 years of teaching and publishing as a business management professor, he retired from Auburn University in 2016 after teaching there for 24 years. He teaches Biblical Leadership for Kerusso Institute for Global Leadership. His newest book is, Greater Things: The Qualifications of a Biblical Leader, Vide Press, 2020. He and his wife Nimmi worship at Lakeview Baptist Church, Auburn, AL.

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