Jesus’ leadership model is perfect; it’s those of us in leadership positions who are the imperfect ones.
Our imperfection is due, in part, to a misunderstanding of, or sheer resistance to, the teachings of Jesus and their practical application in our jobs. Jesus’ call to all of us, in leadership positions and not, is quite simple: to love one another as He has loved us (John 13:34).
Jesus’ commandment was not intended for a certain subset of the population or a certain socioeconomic class, nor did it exclude anyone. In John 13:35, Jesus said that the way others would recognize His disciples is by them loving one another. Simply put, they cannot call themselves His disciples if they don’t model that love. In the same way, we cannot call ourselves Jesus-like leaders if we do not model love.
Love: A Misunderstood Word
Let’s take a look at the word “love” in the context of His commandment and in our leadership. Conventional culture, wisdom, and leadership books would probably admonish us from loving our direct reports and others in the workplace. However, Jesus’ love is precisely what is probably most misunderstood, and hence, left out of leadership literature. There isn’t a leadership book, article, blog, post, etc., that doesn’t talk about caring for, valuing, empathizing with, etc. those that are in our charge. No one ever talks directly about loving them; Jesus did, and we should be okay with expounding it as well.
In the Greek of Jesus’ time, there were three words for love: philos, eros, agape.
Philos conveys personal affection (beloved, friendly), perhaps closest to what we mean by love. Jesus did not refer to this type of love, which interestingly is in line with what we’re told – not be too friendly and/or close to the people we lead.
Eros is the root word of erotic and perhaps needs no further explanation. Jesus clearly did not intend to use this type of love to describe His commandment. There are countless cases of leaders resorting to this type of love, and we are all familiar with the consequences.
Agape centers around benevolence, esteem, and goodwill. We are told over and over by leadership experts to treat people well, look after their well-being, and look to promote their self-esteem. Jesus made this His commandment 2000 years ago using the word agape over and over.
Jesus not only gave us permission to love, but He commanded us to do so. As we reflect on our leadership and strive to perfect it, we need to ask ourselves how effective we are in imitating Him. That can certainly be difficult because He did not leave us a manual with all the different scenarios that we will face in leading within our spheres of influence. However, He did leave us instructions: love.
Many times, in an effort to translate Jesus’ commandment into modern-day scenarios, we end up resorting to imitating someone we know or have read about. There certainly isn’t anything wrong with that, as long as we’re mindful of how close that person is to actually imitating Jesus in loving those that s/he leads.
Two Elements of Love
We need to remind ourselves of two elements around Jesus’ call to love. The first is that love (agape) centers around benevolence, esteem, and goodwill. Secondly, that love (agape) is not void of accountability. The Gospels abound with situations where Jesus is defied and/or challenged, and His accountability challenges people to choose what’s right and/or correct their behavior. He never forces or obligates anyone to do anything, but He makes quite clear the consequences of their actions.
An extreme example of this is Matthew 13:49-50, where Jesus describes how angels will separate the evil from the righteous and cast them into the fire. A less extreme, and perhaps more applicable, example is Luke 10: 40-42, where He lovingly reprimands Martha because she wants Him to reprimand her sister, Mary, for not helping her with the cleaning. As with all Gospels and His teachings, the intent is to use our reasoning to understand the lesson: there are consequences for our actions. There is accountability.
A Practical Example
One concrete example of how we can apply Jesus’ leadership model is in a common workplace issue: employee punctuality. How can we possibly apply Jesus’ commandment to a situation where an employee clearly cannot or refuses to fix an attendance issue?
Allow me to share an actual situation to illustrate what this might look like.
A vice principal from a school had been dealing with the punctuality and effectiveness of a clerical staff member. The VP had reached a point where she reached out to the Assistant Superintendent (AS) in charge of the division for assistance. The AS discovered that the VP had amassed much documentation, working with Labor Relations along the way.
However, in discussions about the working environment, the AS discovered that the relationship between the vice principal and clerical staff member was seriously damaged. The VP wanted the staff member gone, and the staff member resisted any attempts made by the VP to remedy the situation. So instead of just siding with the VP, the AS insisted on meeting with both people to determine if there was a way to mend the relationship so that progress could be made.
There were several meetings, and the AS offered several opportunities to the staff member to help her get past some of the difficulties she had identified. However, she still reverted to the same behaviors and was consequently suspended without pay.
What elements of Jesus’ leadership model were practiced by the Assistant Superintendent?
- He kept love at the forefront of the situation by supporting the VP and the clerical staff. He could have simply sided with the VP (who was clearly frustrated). Instead, he showed that he valued the dignity of both people involved by listening to both of them. Likewise, Jesus always listened to everyone who wanted to speak to him.
- He gave the clerical staff an opportunity to self-correct. During the process, the vice principal and principal tried to rush the outcome, asking the AS how much longer and what more they would need to show to move to the next level of discipline. True to Matthew 18:21-22, the AS insisted on giving the clerical staff member as many opportunities as possible to self-correct.
- There was accountability at the end of the process.
Life Long Learners
Most of us in educational leadership positions had our start in the classroom or in another position providing a direct service to students; we didn’t start in leadership.
There are as many reasons that attract all of us to serve as leaders, much as there were several reasons that the disciples were attracted to serve as leaders for Jesus. In the Greek, the word for disciple is μαθητής (mathétés) which means “learner.”
As leaders for Jesus, the disciples were life-long learners; it was in their title.
To get as close as we can to imitating Jesus, the perfect leadership model, we need to define our titles in the same way.