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.
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.
- 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.
- Remove obstacles so your team can go further faster.
- Enable others to attain peak performance and when they make progress, cheer like crazy. The result of servant-leadership is peak performance in others.
- Focus on giving more than getting.
- Give honor, don’t seek it.
- 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.
Honor is a word that I have never pondered or considered deeply. Excellent thoughts Dan. We can give honor but we can’t “get” honor. That is true for authentic honor. We can obtain inauthentic honor through manipulation and coercion.
Thanks rpope. I’ve noticed when people don’t receive appropriate honor they feel violated and de-motivated. Perhaps we have an internal honor barometer that helps us evaluate the situation.
Although it’s not useful to demand or manipulate honor, the desire to receive it seems natural.
I think there needs to be a proper balance between serving and leading.
Leaders challenge the status quo. And, they serve (coach, mentor, train) and help others in achieving the desired vision, goals etc.
I think the best way to serve is by simply asking–“how can I help?”
Thanks Paul. Love the question you add. Dough Conant, the retired CEO of Campbell’s Soup practically made a career out of showing gratitude, moving the agenda forward, and asking, “How can I help.”
Thank you Dan! This is one of my favourite stories about leadership. I believe to lead you have to serve. To serve you have to listen. To listen you have to care and to care you have to see through a lens of love. Many thanks for your consistent messages on leadership.
Thanks Kendra. The progression you offer is helpful. care – listen – serve.
Thank you for your insightful views on this ancient conversation. I like your emphasis on what Jesus didn’t say to his disciples. That’s a good reminder that seeking greatness is not wrong in itself as long as we pursue it in the right way – as servant leaders.
I’m indeed inspired again and again mostly in this great day and perfect timing.. #gratitude One thing remains obvious which is #humility. I think it’s the no. 1 attribute of a servant-leader.
One can show up to serve by trusting and being realistic towards the goal of the team which calls for humility.
For real, no one would want to know what you know until they know you care about them. #Love #Honor #Focus THANKS!
Being a pastor I believe you nailed the essence of Christ’s teaching here. Especially how he, the quintessential servant leader, authentically lived out his mission to serve and not be served. Although his followers of yesterday and today may struggle with such irony, thanks for the great reminder that fulfilling and joyful life is found mostly in serving others.
I suspect that “greatness” wasn’t necessarily the objective, as such; thinking of the most modern example of powerful and effective “servant” leadership: Lincoln, who consciously and consistently sought “distinction.”
Not without ego or participation in the unseemly pursuits required to become the ascending new party’s nominee (getting the convention to Chicago, then manipulating the attendance to his personal advantage, etc.),
but then with humility, even as he quietly mastered “becoming” Commander-in-Chief while taking all manner of barbs (and major battle losses) for his appearance of ignorance,
even as he coached his team of rivals to a unique consensus, and a change of heart and trust amongst his most vituperative critics.
Greatness is most often a side-effect of historic witness and service – written by the victors. Had Lincoln survived and not been martyred, he may have well met Churchill’s fate … being turned out / scapegoated for his successes under impossible odds.
Thanks Rurbane. Lincoln wanted power. All politicians do. The issue isn’t the want, it’s the path to achieving it. And the way power is used once it is earned.
There are no perfect examples. No leaders without ego. I just ordered a book on the legitimate use of power that I’m interesting in reading. I’ll let you know if it’s helpful.
I’ll add that wanting to be ‘great’ is different for everyone. Perhaps saying, “I want to make a difference,” is more palatable. But frankly, I want to work with leaders who want to be great. Aspiration is one of the first things I look for.
Always a pleasure
I’m just catching up on my reading. Thank you for sharing this. Interestingly, we are studying the life of Jesus in our Sunday School class and have been on this very topic/story for a couple of weeks now. We’d like to think that if we were one of the 12 disciples, we would have been different and would have recognized the servant leadership traits that Jesus demonstrated each day. Even when he bowed and washed their feet, they didn’t get it. I’m not sure we would have either – it’s a daily struggle to stay focused when so many obstacles are thrown in our path and challenges are put before us. Fortunately, the ultimate sacrifice is not asked of us!
Excellent perspective about continuous improvement and servant leadership. If we’re not improving as leaders, how can we help others improve? In the pursuit of excellence, we gain the ability to help add value to others, which is the essence of servant leadership. In today’s world, staying the line of the status quo can lead to organizational death. Certainly our “Why” behind developing makes a huge difference on how we lead. Thanks for another great opportunity to reflect on leadership.