Leading like Jesus
Leadership is a subject that excites interest. The term connotes images of powerful, dynamic individuals who achieve great exploits and inspire others to follow them. We are inundated with information on leadership and biographies of leaders. While all of this information is undoubtedly useful, as Christians we want to ground our understanding of leadership on the example of Jesus. In this article, I look at the leadership behavior of Jesus as portrayed in John 21.
John 21:1-25 describes a post-resurrection encounter between Jesus and seven of the disciples, including Peter and John the author. The plot of the story revolves around a conversation between Jesus and Peter. It serves to highlight the leadership of Jesus and the missions of Peter, the disciple loved by Jesus, and the other disciples. It demonstrates the close inter-connection between these issues. The success of the ministry of Jesus’ followers depends intrinsically on their reliance upon him. This point is made in each of the scenes.
The passage provides insight into John’s perspective of Jesus as a leader. His leadership can be understood as loving, transformational, and servant leadership. It is an appropriate approach for contemporary Christian leaders.
Jesus and the disciples (vv. 1-14)
The opening of the first scene introduces the seven disciples and Peter as a leader within the group. He leads them in a night of unsuccessful fishing. We can picture the disappointed disciples in the boat. Then Jesus shouts an instruction from the shore, they obey, and a bountiful catch ensues. Disappointment is replaced with excitement and anticipation as they wonder whether it is Jesus. When they come to the shore Jesus has prepared breakfast for them. The disciples experience the familiarity of another meal of bread and fish with Jesus. The aimlessness of the recent past is starting to dissipate in the light of his reappearance.
There are two sets of actions in this first scene, the account of the fishing and that of the breakfast. They combine to provide a symbolic message for followers of Jesus. The account of the fishing indicates that human effort will be unsuccessful unless it is at the direction of Jesus. The breakfast indicates that Jesus provides sustenance for his followers. Together, they suggest that Christian mission flows from fellowship with Jesus. Such mission has an inward and an outward aspect. The inward relationship of feeding and fellowship provides the capacity for the outward task of fishing for men. Union with Jesus is the indispensable basis for service for Jesus.
Jesus and Peter (vv. 15-19
The breakfast is also the setting for scenes two and three which focus on a conversation between Jesus and Peter. In the second scene the symbolism of sheep is used to focus on Peter’s responsibility for those within the Christian community. Jesus three times asks Peter if he loves him. Three times Peter responds affirmatively and Jesus tells him to care for his flock. The threefold questioning of Peter’s love for Jesus is powerfully evocative. It brings to mind the threefold denial of Jesus by Peter and stimulates us to contemplate the nature of love and commitment to another. We feel pathos for Peter’s frailty and we are inspired by Jesus’ restoration of Peter to the position of caring for the Christian community.
Peter is restored to the relationship and position he had before the threefold denial of Jesus. He is assigned the care of the flock with the knowledge that there is a cost to discipleship. In v. 18 Jesus predicts Peter’s death. The imagery of the proverb quoted conjures an image of the cross. The very thing that Peter feared in his denials is prophesied in his restoration. In the meantime, Peter is to follow Jesus and to tend the flock.
Jesus and the Beloved Disciple (vv. 20-25)
The third scene is also dominated by the conversation between Jesus and Peter and the issue again is obedience to Jesus. Peter enquires as to the fate of the disciple whom Jesus loved. This description of John is evocative and portrays Jesus the leader as having a warm and familiar relationship with his followers. Jesus does not appear to be an aloof and detached leader.
Peter is told that the fate of John is not his concern. John’s role is to testify to the message of Jesus. This is different to the role of Peter and to the roles of the other disciples. The role of each is assigned by Jesus and they succeed as they hear his voice and follow his instructions. Each should concentrate on his own calling without comparison with the other. The important thing is that each one follows Jesus.
Jesus the Leader
The progression of mood throughout the narrative is from uncertainty and possible despair through excitement and on to the sense of purpose and challenge that comes from the commission of Jesus. We are inspired to contemplate the possibilities of a life that is committed to the leadership of Jesus. He is the leader who loves and provides for his followers, who is able to give the necessary direction and instruction to produce successful ministry, who confronts and converts weakness and failure, and who restores those who respond to him.
Winston (2008) offers the concept of agapao as establishing the beliefs and principles of behavior that support good leadership. Agapao is the Greek word translated as love in John 21:15-16. It carries the sense of doing the right thing at the right time for the right reason. It is the love that Jesus recommends in Luke 10:27 when he answers, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”
Gibbons (2008) points out that agapao expresses God’s great benevolence toward humankind expressed in his undaunted determination to shape all things for the good of those who believe in his Son, Jesus. It reflects a positive and willful attitude of his mind toward us rather than an emotional response to a person or their sin. It also speaks of God’s joy over his created beings and the delight he takes in them.
Leadership that is based on such love establishes a foundation for an altruistic relationship in which both leader and follower are benefited through a morally right process of interaction. Winston maintains that agapao behavior produces higher respect for the leader and higher performance by the follower towards achieving the leader’s goals.
The leadership of Jesus in John 21:1-25 accords with Winston’s notion of agapao leadership. He demonstrates genuine concern for his followers, particularly in his restoration of Peter. They in turn demonstrate an undying loyalty to him and to his cause. Jesus, therefore, demonstrates how good and effective leadership behavior is expressed as he engenders in his followers an ever growing sense of respect, commitment, and service.
Transformational leadership as identified by Burns (1978) seeks to transform organizations through identifying the importance of task outcomes and by seeking to help followers raise themselves above self-interest to higher ideals. Transformational leaders seek to raise the consciousness of followers by appealing to higher ideals and values such as the greater human good. Yukl (2006) states that "Transforming leadership appeals to the moral values of followers in an attempt to raise their consciousness about ethical issues and to mobilize their energy and resources to reform institutions" (p. 249). Burns (1998) notes that "...transforming leadership ultimately becomes moral in that it raises the level of human conduct and ethical aspiration of both leader and led, and thus it has a transforming effect on both" (p. 134). Transformational leadership applies idealized influence, individual consideration, and inspirational motivation to the task of energizing individuals and organization to achieve the desired outcomes.
The leadership of Jesus can be identified as transformational in incarnating ideals such as love, humility, and service, and inspiring the same qualities in his followers. This is demonstrated in his washing of his disciples’ feet in John 13:14 where he says to them, “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you should also do as I have done to you.” The encounter with Peter demonstrates transformational leadership as Jesus focuses Peter on the higher motivations of love for his Lord and service to the flock. The power of Jesus’ challenge to Peter stems from contrast between the self-sacrifice of Jesus and the threefold denial by Peter that provides the background context for this dialogue. Peter, along with the other disciples, is transformed by the leadership of Jesus. They go forth from the events described in John 21 to transform their society.
Jesus demonstrates that effective leaders inspire followers by their role modeling of exemplary behavior and commitment to the vision and values of the organization.
Jesus the loving, transformational leader is also a servant leader. Servant leadership as popularized by Greenleaf (1977) posits that service to followers is the primary responsibility of leaders and the essence of ethical leadership (Yukl, 2006, p. 420). Service includes nurturing, defending, and empowering followers. A servant leader is concerned for the needs of his followers and seeks their well being along with the well being of the organization. A servant leader empowers followers rather than dominating them. Greenleaf believes that followers of servant leaders are inspired to become servant leaders themselves. The results of servant leadership include higher ethical standards within organizations and greater value placed on human worth. Society benefits from servant leadership.
Jesus certainly meets the criteria of a servant leader. In John 21 he does not consider it beneath his position to make breakfast for his followers. He takes the initiative in restoring Peter. Of course, he is the one who has lain down his life for his followers (c.f. John 15:13). Peter, reflecting later on the example of Jesus, writes “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21). Indeed, Peter and the other disciples did follow in his steps.
You the Leader
Jesus the leader is an agent of positive change as he redirects and inspires his followers to the task of evangelizing the world and building the church. In John 21 his leadership is loving, transformational, charismatic, and that of a servant. The impact of such leadership is inestimable. As the narrator concludes, “there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” History demonstrates the abiding legacy of Jesus’ leadership.
Any leader will benefit from studying and seeking to emulate the leadership qualities of Jesus that are demonstrated in John 21. To lead is to be an agent of positive change and to inspire and empower followers toward noble goals.
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