The Leadership Wisdom of Jesus: Practical Lessons for Today

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A new edition of the bestselling book (75,000 copies sold) that shows how the teachings of Jesus can bring a new angle to your leadership style. No matter what your religious background, this book will help you map out the high road to your personal and professional goals.

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Preface to the Third Edition

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As I prepare this preface for the third edition of The Leadership Wisdom of Jesus I can’t help reflecting on how much has changed since the book was first published. Issues of spirituality and religion in the workplace are no longer topics of questionable relevance for business and leadership practice. In fact, spirituality at work has become a widely considered topic for many business and management researchers and educators, as well as a significant concern for many executives and managers. When I wrote the first edition, this was not the case. In fact, writing the book as a business professor, consultant, and author was quite notable, and for many it was perceived as a rather bold undertaking, at the time.

Yes, many things have changed, yet paradoxically, many things have stayed largely the same. In fact, I believe much of what I wrote in the preface to the first edition still applies. Jesus taught timeless wisdom that transcends the ups and downs and ebbs and flows of years, decades, centuries and even millennia. Consequently, while the emergence of spirituality as a legitimate concern for the study and practice of leadership would seem to make this book even more relevant now as the third edition is released, the timeless wisdom it is based on has always been relevant, and I believe it always will be. Indeed, looking to the teachings of Jesus as a potential source of practical lessons for leading today remains a wise thing to do. Following is some of the original message I wrote in the Preface to the first edition:

 

Introduction: A Call to Wise and Compassionate Leadership

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When you are called upon to lead, in any capacity, are you effective? Is your leadership ethical and just? Are you able to provide positive influence for others that benefits them as well as the end that is being served?

Now let’s go even deeper. Are you able to lead yourself effectively? Do you serve as an ethical, moral, effective example for others? Do you lead with humility? Do you lead with compassion? Have you mastered the arts of forgiveness and service? Can you be like a child when that is required? Do you understand and put into practice the Golden Rule? Do you know the secret of mustard seed power?

There is a powerful and informative literature dating back hundreds of years that addresses historical thinking on wisdom. It is especially centered on the writings and teachings of mostly ancient, and usually religious, leaders. A number of historical leaders and thinkers have achieved a special level of greatness and wisdom. King Solomon, Moses, Confucius, Lao Tzu, Buddha, Gandhi, Muhammad, and many others have struck a chord with multitudes in an unusually powerful way. As our contemporary knowledge continues to expand dramatically, it would be a grave mistake to forget the vast wisdom of such key historical figures.

 

Logs Before Specks, or Lead Thyself First

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Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. (Matt. 7: 3–5; New Revised Standard Version)

As you consider the above passage, do some leaders you have worked for or people you have worked with come to mind?1 Have you known some irritating hypocrites? This seems to be a common reaction, but perhaps the more important question is, did you consider yourself as one in possible need of the advice offered in the passage? If you did not, then perhaps this passage can be especially helpful to you.

Let’s think for a minute. Would you like to become an effective leader? Would you like to have a significant and positive impact on others, on the world, or on history? Jesus provides some striking advice for moving toward this end. One of his key lessons suggests that if you want to lead others you should first—do what? Become more commanding so that you can bend the will of others to your own? No, that’s not it. Work on your charisma so you can inspire others to do what you want? No, again. Develop the ability to identify what people want and provide it as an incentive for complying with what you lead them to do? No, that’s not it either. Learn how to uncover the shortcomings of others and berate them for their failures until they do what you demand of them? No, no, no! All of these things may enable you to influence others, at least in the short run, but they just do not provide the proper foundation for effective leadership. The first step, Jesus seems to say, is to look in the mirror.

 

The Last Shall Be First

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He asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9: 33–35)

Jesus took a surprising and fascinating approach to the topic of achieving fame and glory. In fact, he suggested that the only sure way to become great is to seek just the opposite. He taught that if you want to come in first, then purposely put yourself last. He directed that we should become last of all and the servant of all. That is an awfully hard pill for most of us to swallow. Much that we have learned about human nature suggests how important it is to build up our self-esteem and our belief in ourselves. In this spirit the virtues of accomplishment in athletics, academics, work, and so forth have been prescribed as healthy medicine for our psyche. The right to say, “I’m number one!” has become a compulsive quest for millions around the world.

 

Cleanse Your Insides

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Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person. (Mark 7: 18–23)

In a modern age that places importance on the power of the image we project, Jesus’ lesson offers a far different path to being personally effective. Books, magazines, TV shows, and self-help gurus have all pointed to the importance of impression management. We are directed to “dress for success,” to use “power words,” and in general to manage our external lives so as to impress and manipulate others in order to get what we want from them. We are encouraged to clean up our act on the outside, to create an external illusion of who we are, in order to get ahead in the world.

 

Stop Worrying

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Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these…. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today. (Matt. 6: 25–29, 34)

Do you make a habit of worry? Do you dedicate a great deal of attention and energy to worrying about failures of the past or concerns of the future? What is your honest appraisal of what you accomplish when you worry? What are the fruits of your worry labor? If the first step to becoming an effective leader of others is to become an effective self-leader, is being a persistent worrier the mark of a good leader?

 

Commit to Ethical Behavior

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So they watched him and sent spies who pretended to be honest, in order to trap him by what he said, so as to hand him over to the jurisdiction and authority of the governor. So they asked him, “Teacher, we know that you are right in what you say and teach, and you show deference to no one, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But he perceived their craftiness and said to them, “Show me a denarius. Whose head and whose title does it bear?” They said, “The Emperor’s.” He said to them, “Then give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and give to God the things that are God’s.” And they were not able in the presence of the people to trap him by what he said; and being amazed by his answer, they became silent. (Luke 20: 20–26)

Throughout the accounts of Jesus’ life it is readily apparent that he based his teaching on a strong moral and ethical foundation. Self-serving immoral behavior was just not an acceptable choice. This passage from the book of Luke describes a fascinating situation in which Jesus is challenged to address an emotionally charged, controversial issue. The question about whether it was right for persons to be forced to pay taxes, particularly when many tax collectors collected more than they were supposed to and pocketed a portion of what they collected, was a heated issue.

 

Let Your Light Shine

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You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others. (Matt. 5: 14–16)

The first section of this book has focused on lessons from Jesus that are primarily concerned with how we live our lives—how we lead ourselves. It is appropriate to close by addressing the lessons that others can learn from observing our example. In fact, the heart of leadership, in many cases, is the model that is provided by the leader. People pay a great deal of attention to what leaders do, how they live, and how they treat others.

This is a tremendous responsibility. Acting in shortsighted, self-serving, unethical ways will surely sabotage any attempt at positive leadership. Conversely, the visibility of leadership is a tremendous opportunity. We can project and amplify our positive leadership through our lives. We must walk our talk.

 

Stones Under Glass

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The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you.” (John 11: 3–10)

This fascinating account consists of several interconnected components that paint a challenging picture for aspiring leaders. First, it makes it clear that there was no question about the occurrence of the condemned action: “This woman was caught in the very act.” So the offense is not in doubt; it happened. Second, the law of Moses commanded stoning such a woman. The punishment was clear, but Jesus didn’t buy it. Nevertheless, Jesus does not tell the people what to do. Instead he bends down and doodles on the ground in silence, leaving them to ponder the situation themselves. When they keep questioning him, instead of subjecting them to any proactive preaching, Jesus finally challenges them to examine themselves and make their own decision. He essentially says, “If you haven’t sinned (made mistakes) yourself, then go ahead and stone her.”

 

Love Your Friends and Your Enemies

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You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? (Matt. 5: 43–47)

Once again, Jesus’ teaching poses a tremendous challenge. In addressing the centerpiece of his entire message—love—he teaches that we should offer this precious gift to everyone, even those we cannot imagine loving. Here Jesus is preaching a serious lesson about love that is in stark contrast to the frivolous way that love is frequently treated in our culture. Too often, love is viewed as an everyday commodity that can be bartered and consumed in our pursuit of wants and pleasures.

 

The Golden Rule and Beyond

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In everything do to others as you would have them do to you. (Matt. 7:12)

The Golden Rule is probably the most powerful human relations strategy in the history of the world. And although it has been around for thousands of years and was prescribed by such spiritual leaders as Confucius and the Buddha well before Jesus prescribed it, it is still a sound principle today. Its practice can indeed produce valuable, golden results. The aim of treating people as we would like to be treated is to honor others as inherently valuable (spiritual) beings, as miraculous unique creations, no matter how seemingly imperfect and unworthy they are in their humanity. Each person is one of a kind; there are no duplicates.

Think for a moment about the ways you have been treated by various authority figures throughout your life. I suspect that you will recognize the simple fact that when you were treated disrespectfully, as an unworthy person of little value, not only did your view of yourself suffer but so did your view of the leader. The leaders for whom you were willing to go the extra mile were likely the ones that went an extra mile for you, the ones who believed in you even when you screwed up, the ones who recognized your great potential, your full value as a unique person.

 

Put the Gavel Away

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Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back. (Luke 6: 37–38)

Earlier we reviewed the story of the woman caught in adultery. When she was brought to Jesus as a test to see if he would condemn her, he simply challenged her accusers by saying that whoever among them was without sin should throw the first stone. Because none of them had lived a perfect life, none had never wronged someone else or made other mistakes, none of them met Jesus’ criterion. As human beings it was impossible. So one by one they crept away.

In the passage introduced here, the message is carried even further. First a warning is provided. If we do not want to be judged, we should not judge others. If we do not want to be condemned, we should not condemn. This is a very important lesson that appears to be easily forgotten. When other people make mistakes, and especially when we must share some of the negative consequences, it is very easy to judge and condemn them. After all, their carelessness, poor judgment, bad motives, or whatever we believe caused them to screw up makes our critical attitude seem justified. Of course there is a high likelihood that we are misreading the situation, but in our minds we are likely to ask, Why shouldn’t we judge and condemn them if they deserve it?

 

Gather the Lost Sheep

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What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. (Matt. 18: 12–13)

A hard lesson is presented here. In recent recessionary times of downsizing, rightsizing, reengineering, or whatever other labels have been used to refer to massive employee layoffs, Jesus’ challenge that not one person be willingly forfeited is a striking contrast. In fact, Jesus argues that the one person who is found, helped, and supported is of greater importance than all the others who were kept safely in the fold all along. This is hard mental medicine. It flies in the face of the rationale that says that losing a few people in order to keep the ship afloat (to keep the organization solvent) is a justified act. Jesus proclaims that every last person is priceless and deserving of great celebration.

 

Prepare the Soil

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A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. (Matt. 13: 3–8)

In this parable, Jesus provides a metaphor that can shed light on one of the most important aspects of leadership: laying the groundwork for positive influence and change. His teaching suggests how important it is to prepare the soil for the seeds of leadership. Indeed, many potential followers will simply not be ready for positive influence, even when serving with the best of leaders. This chapter reflects on the formidable challenge of preparing others for positive influence and change.

 

Be Forgiving—Allow Mistakes for the Sake of Learning

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There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’” So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate. (Luke 15: 11–24)

 

Lead by Serving

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You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must become the slave of all. (Mark 10: 42–44)

This is clearly one of the more striking passages from Jesus’ teachings related to leadership. In fact, it turns leadership upside down. The lesson seems to be that to become a great leader you should act as a servant, not as a commander or even as a charismatic source of inspiration. The idea is indeed puzzling and challenging, but Jesus repeats the same basic message several times in his teachings. He instructs that if you want to become great, be humble, sit in the lowest places of honor, become like a child. Again, Jesus challenges us to rethink what it means to be a leader. He challenges us to resist the temptation to act out a leadership role of being superior to others and behaving as though we know it all.

 

Lead Without Blindness

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They are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit. (Matt. 15: 14)

Jesus presents a simple commonsense idea in this passage. It contains a lesson that is well worth considering deeply by anyone who aspires to lead others. It raises important questions such as the following: Are you about to lead others blindly into a pit? Are your followers better equipped to lead themselves than to follow you? Do people who live with their problems day in and day out see their situation more clearly than anyone else? How blind are you to the real issues that need to be addressed in this leadership situation? Can you lead others to see their own situations more clearly so they can practice more effective self-leadership? Is the ultimate act of leadership to facilitate others so they can lead themselves? Is it presumptuous, maybe even preposterous, to assume that an external leader can exercise leadership that is more effective than that person’s own self-leadership?

 

The Value of Pennies

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He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money in the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” (Mark 12: 41–44)

The issue of evaluating and responding to the contributions of others is a major challenge for leaders. It is usually considered effective leadership to distinguish levels of performance of followers and to dole out rewards according to the amount that is contributed. This approach seems to be rational, logical, and even just. But once again Jesus throws us a curve. The value of contributions, he seems to be saying, must be considered in light of the capabilities of the contributor.

Initially this may send up some red flags. Is the implication that we should not concern ourselves with the levels of our employees’ performance? If someone means well and is doing the best she can and her performance is unsatisfactory, should a leader simply pat her on the back and praise her for trying? While this practice may not be as illogical as it sounds, I don’t think it is the real leadership lesson that can be learned. Perhaps the lesson is best summarized by prescribing a focus on the heart of the person. That is, pay attention to the intent, the motives, and the progress of the person. This may indeed be very sound wisdom for a couple of reasons.

 

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