Caught with Their Pants Down

Some of the world’s great leaders emerge from the world of religion.

I’m fascinated by a story that took place in the lakeside community of Capernaum sometime around 30 AD. It doesn’t matter if you think the story is truth, fiction, or a combination of both. The thing NOT said is just as relevant today as it was then.

Capernaum is mostly ruins today, but in Jesus’ day it was a bustling community at the North end of the Sea of Galilee. The story begins with a question.

Caught with their pants down:

“… Jesus asked his disciples, “What were you discussing out on the road?” But they didn’t answer, because they had been arguing about which of them was the greatest.”

These leaders-in-training were actually trying to identify the top dog. You might not know much about Jesus, but it’s not surprising the discussion took place without his participation.

The truth is you and I are concerned about status. Jealousy when a team member is honored and we aren’t reflects our concern for status. We gossip about people who get opportunities we wish we had. I listen to speakers and wonder why I wasn’t the one hired for that presentation.

You and I are concerned about status, but you probably don’t have the chutzpah to argue with your teammates about it.

Team meeting:

Jesus called a team meeting with his twelve leaders-in-training. He began by saying, “If you want to be first, take last place and be everyone’s servant.” (Paraphrase)

In other words, I expect you to be servant-leaders.


Jesus preached and practiced servant-leadership, but he didn’t invent the idea. It’s origins go back to ancient Greece at least 400 years before the Capernaum conversation.*

Robert Greenleaf fathered the modern servant-leadership movement when he wrote, The Servant as Leader*,” in 1970. There’s been an avalanche of papers and books on the topic since.

As early as 1971, Peter Townsend expressed a core idea of servant-leadership when he wrote, “A good manager is a blocking-back whenever and wherever needed. No job is too menial for him if it helps one of his players advance to his objective.”

Recently, Ken Blanchard and Renee Broadwell published, “Servant Leadership in Action,” with over 40 contributing authors. (March 6, 2018)

The ideals and practices of servant-leadership continue to impact leaders today. But don’t get the wrong idea.

The thing Jesus didn’t say:

Servant-leadership isn’t a low-aspiration endeavor.

The most surprising thing about the story of Jesus and his band of leader-wannabes isn’t what he said. Although, it is surprising to hear, “If you want to be great, be servant of all.”

The most surprising thing about the story is what he didn’t say.

Jesus didn’t say, “Shame on you for wanting to be great.” There’s no correction for selfishness, pride, or aspiration. If anything, Jesus affirms the desire for greatness.  

Jesus didn’t correct his team for arguing about greatness. He told them how to achieve it.

The desire for greatness isn’t the issue. How you pursue greatness is.

You might achieve greatness by putting others down and getting people to serve you but that’s not servant-leadership. You might demand position, title, and honor but that’s not the path to greatness that Jesus describes.

If you want to be great, show up to serve.

  1. Confront wrong thinking. The desire to earn promotions and get ahead is healthy, even necessary. Guide how people pursue their aspirations. When you see someone damaging the team for personal advancement, confront them.
  2. Remove obstacles so your team can go further faster.
  3. Enable others to attain peak performance and when they make progress, cheer like crazy. The result of servant-leadership is peak performance in others.
  4. Focus on giving more than getting.
  5. Give honor, don’t seek it.
  6. Reward people who help others succeed.

How might leaders show up to serve on a day-to-day basis?

What gets in the way of servant-leadership?

The Capernaum story is taken from Mark 9:33–35 (NLT)

*The Origins of Servant Leadership

**I relax my 300 word limit on weekends.