“Jesus of Nazareth was the greatest leader in the history of the world.” Thus Michael Green summarises the contribution of Jesus to the subject of leadership. The style and character of Jesus’ leadership, as recorded in the Gospels, has been influential to this day. Green continues “in leadership, as in all else, [Jesus] is the supreme pattern for human life.”
A definition of leadership
John Adair explains “the Anglo-Saxon root of the words lead, leader and leadership means a path or road … from the verb leaden, to travel or to go.” So a definition of the word leadership suggests a journey. Adair continues, “A leader is the person who, in one form or other, shows the way on that common journey.” Ken Blanchard and Phil Hodges call leadership a “process of influencing.” They explain “any time you seek to influence the thinking, behaviour, or development of people in their personal or professional lives, you are taking on the role of a leader.”
Leadership could therefore be seen as coercing people. John Finney qualifies this when he says, “Christian leadership (and good business practice) is at least as much about enabling the ministries of other people to blossom as it is about getting them to do what we want.” Adair quotes John Buchan who said, “The task of leadership is not to put greatness into people, but to elicit it, for the greatness is there already.” The role of a leader, therefore, involves taking people on a journey whereby they are also, in some way, changed by that journey.
The leadership of Jesus
Jesus of Nazareth was a leader. Blanchard and Hodges call him the “one perfect leadership role model you can trust.” The public ministry of Jesus lasted for three years; his training has been estimated at thirty years. However, his influence has lasted two-thousand years. Leighton Ford writes, “Evidently, everything Jesus did during his intensive, focused, three-year career was done deliberately to secure the beachhead which would eventually fulfil his long-range strategy to reach the whole world.”
Jesus began his ministry by announcing, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” His calling was based on the vision of the kingdom of God. He shared this vision with ordinary people, fishermen and tax collectors, and seeing their potential, shaped twelve of them into a team. Jesus demonstrated his character as a servant leader, and when faced with opposition and conflict responded with humility and integrity.
Adair concludes, “Jesus and his vision are one of the greatest catalysts of all time for drawing out the hidden greatness in humanity. For those who aspire to that ‘still more excellent way’ of leadership he pioneered, Jesus is a perennial source of inspiration.”
Forming vision and calling
Jesus had a strong sense of calling and a clear vision that he would go on to communicate. At his baptism Jesus heard a voice from heaven which said, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” Jesus knew God had called him for his ministry. Ford writes that Jesus had “inherited that same sense of destiny” as a child and as a man “lived it out.”
Ford explains that “Genuine leaders operate out of a sense of calling, not a sense of drivenness.” He continues, “The strongest leaders are those who have received a strong affirmation of their personhood, in a way which frees them not only to lead a cause but also to serve others. A sense of identity, a security that comes from knowing who one is, lies at the very heart of leadership.” Jesus had received this sense of identity from his Father in heaven and was able to operate “out of a sense of quiet confidence that came from knowing who he was.”
The vision of the kingdom of God was at the heart of Jesus’ ministry. His sense of calling enabled him to persevere with proclaiming this vision. This is a characteristic that Adair ascribes to ‘great leaders’ which “makes them restless if they are not about their business.”
Ford calls vision “the very stuff of leadership – the ability to see in a way that compels others to pay attention.” Jesus preached the message of the kingdom of God wherever he travelled. Adair writes that Jesus sought “the ‘kingdom of God’ with every fibre of his being.” People would listen to Jesus in their thousands and respond to his message.
Ford calls this style of leadership ‘transformational.’ He writes, “[Jesus] was able to create, articulate and communicate a compelling vision; to change what people talk about and dream of; to make his followers transcend self-interest; to enable us to see ourselves and our world in a new way; to provide prophetic insight into the very heart of things; and to bring about the highest order of change.”
By proclamation and demonstration of signs and wonders, Jesus influenced people to leave their jobs and follow him, to change their lifestyles, to change their attitudes and hearts. Blanchard and Hodges add that “Leadership is about going somewhere. Effective leadership begins with clear vision, whether for your personal life, your family, or an organization.”
The business term for a vision is mission statement, and it is the responsibility of the business leader to ensure that the organisation has a clear mission statement which is understood in order to succeed. Blanchard and Hodges illustrate the danger of not having a vision by quoting Proverbs 29:18 “Where there is no revelation (prophetic vision), the people cast off restrain.”
Jesus also expected his disciples to live out the vision. To help them do this, he called twelve of the disciples to receive his personal training. Jesus saw in the twelve the potential for who they could become and how they might serve the kingdom of God. The modern terminology for this is team building. Adair writes, “Leadership and team working are closely linked. Leaders tend to create teams, and teams look for leaders.”
Jesus did not look for followers; rather he looked for people who had his heart for the lost and the needy, who would partner with him in spreading the vision. Jesus “poured his life into the training of his disciples in … leadership.” Adair writes, “Together with Jesus, ‘the Lord of the harvest’ had called them to be ‘workers’ in his harvest.” The focus was the common task of the vision. Adair describes “the three needs present in working groups – task, team and individual – are interactive as if in three overlapping circles.”
The form of leadership that Jesus modelled was that of a servant leader. Adair notes there are two Greek words recorded when Jesus talks about being a servant – doulos, which means ‘servant’ or ‘slave’ and diakonos, which means ‘to wait at table’. Adair continues, “doulos … is used when the emphasis is on the task, the accountability, on being under authority and obeying orders … Where the emphasis falls on the giving of personal service, or the stress is on the spirit of love and humility which should inspire the service of others, then diakonos is more frequently used.”
Blanchard and Hodges describe how Jesus invested “most of His ministry time training and equipping the disciples for leadership.” Jesus wanted to instruct his disciples in a different kind of leadership than they would have experienced. When a dispute broke out between the disciples, Ford explains, “Jesus told his disciples not to be like the Gentile leaders, he said that “the one who rules” should be like the one who serves. (Luke 22:26).”Adair describes how in a similar dispute, “[Jesus] said to them, “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant” (Matthew 20:26). Then, according to Mark, Jesus cited his own example: “For the Son of Man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).”
Ford adds that servant leadership “is not giving up our own personhood,” rather it is about seeing the potential in others and supporting their development. Blanchard and Hodges describe, “The fruit of great servant leadership is realized when a leader seeks to send the next generation of leaders to meet the challenges of their season with all the wisdom, knowledge and spiritual resources he or she can provide.” The training Jesus provided equipped the disciples to continue his ministry and train those who were to come after them.
Jesus did not begin with organisational structure. Instead he focussed on the vision and drew together people who would share that vision. He then went on to implement his plan for mission. Some schools of thought make a distinction between leadership and management, with leadership being about vision and management about implementation. However, Blanchard and Hodges see these as the two roles of servant leadership.
They note that, “Once they agreed to follow Him, Jesus spent three years building a culture of trust with those men.” They add, “Without trust, it is impossible for any organization to function effectively.” Jesus nurtured the disciples for the task that lay ahead, showing “a high sense of accountability for the ongoing protection of his followers as he inspired and equipped them for their mission.” Finally he commissioned them to fulfil the vision in taking the gospel message to the end of the earth after he had gone (Matthew 28:18-20).
Handling opposition and conflict
Jesus was met with opposition throughout his ministry. After his baptism, he was led into the desert where he was tempted by Satan. He was able to withstand the temptations because of his strong sense of calling. At his baptism, Jesus had heard the Father’s voice affirming who he was, and so he knew that the doubting voice of Satan was counterfeit.
Ford writes, “The desert experience dramatically illustrates the leader’s need not just for affirmation, but also for testing during which he or she stands alone before God. Leadership can be a very lonely thing.” He adds, “Twenty centuries later those same testings face every leader.”
Jesus also experienced opposition from the rulers and authorities and conflict between his disciples. He acted in positive ways towards those who disagreed with him. Blanchard and Hodges explain, “[Jesus] did not isolate himself from those who disagreed; he embraced those who disagreed. He did not change his message to gain approval, but he continued to love those who did not accept his message.”
The character of Jesus
The way Jesus handled opposition and his heart as a servant leader demonstrated his character of integrity and humility. Adair writes that, “The figure of the servant diakonos exemplified humility.”
Blanchard and Hodges define humility as “realizing and emphasizing the importance of others. It is not putting yourself down; it is lifting others up. It is saying to yourself and others, “I am precious in God’s sight – and so are you!”” They add, “In fact, people with humility don’t think less of themselves; they just think of themselves less.”
Jesus acted with humility when he washed the feet of the disciples. Adair describes how “Jesus shared equally with the disciples whatever food or drink was available.” He continues, “Although Jesus could be tough or demanding as a leader, there was nothing harsh, overbearing or domineering in his manner towards them.”
Warren Bennis lists “the major attributes of effective leadership today are integrity, trustworthiness, and authenticity.” Jesus lived out these attributes and modelled them for others to imitate. Leadership examples from the twentieth-century, such as Hitler and Stalin, demonstrate the disastrous consequences of extreme leaders who did not have these character attributes.
The leadership that Jesus demonstrated was significant in his time, but is it still relevant today? Jesus, as Son of God, could be viewed as setting a standard too high for ordinary people to reach. However, Ford argues that “Jesus’ leadership was not leadership in a vacuum. It operated in a real world, among real people with real problems, and showed that a new reality had come.”
By his very nature as the perfect man, Adair sees Jesus as the portrait of ‘ideal leadership’ because “he must have had all the qualities that we associate with leadership, and at full strength.” For that reason Jesus will have demonstrated the perfect model of leadership, which therefore is timeless and so still relevant today.
Jesus of Nazareth was a servant leader who fulfilled his calling to proclaim the vision of the kingdom of God. He committed his ministry to training a team of disciples who would be inspired to continue the vision. As the perfect role-model, the methods that Jesus used to equip those disciples are still relevant today to anyone who studies leadership.
Adair, John, The Leadership of Jesus – and its legacy today, (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2001).
Blanchard, Ken and Hodges, Phil, Lead Like Jesus – lessons for everyone from the greatest leadership role model of all time, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2005).
Fernando, Ajith, Jesus Driven Ministry, (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2002).
Finney, John, Understanding Leadership, (London: Daybreak, Darton, Longman and Todd, 1989).
Ford, Leighton, Transforming Leadership: Jesus’ Way of Creating Vision, Shaping Values and Empowering Change, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1991).
Spears, Larry C. and Lawrence, Michele, Practicing Servant Leadership: Succeeding Through Trust, Bravery, and Forgiveness, (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2004).
 Leighton Ford, Transforming Leadership: Jesus’ Way of Creating Vision, Shaping Values and Empowering Change, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1991), p. 11.
 Ibid., p. 11.
 John Adair, The Leadership of Jesus – and its legacy today, (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2001), p. 91.
 Ibid., p. 91.
 Ken Blanchard and Phil Hodges, Lead Like Jesus – lessons for everyone from the greatest leadership role model of all time, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2005), p. 4.
 Ibid., p. 4.
 John Finney, Understanding Leadership, (London: Daybreak, Darton, Longman and Todd, 1989), p. 36.
 Adair, p. 182.
 Blanchard and Hodges, p. 4.
 Ford, p. 60.
 Mark 1:15, ESV.
 Adair, p. 182.
 Luke 3:22, ESV. (cf. Matthew 3:17; Mark 1:11)
 Ford, p. 54.
 Ibid., p. 37.
 Ibid., p. 37.
 Ibid., p. 38.
 Adair, p. 94.
 Ford, p. 99.
 Adair, p. 133.
 Ford, p. 102.
 Blanchard and Hodges, p. 85.
 Ibid., p. 87
 Adair, p. 109.
 Blanchard and Hodges, pp. 19-20.
 Adair, p. 117.
 Ibid., p.119.
 Ibid.,, p. 138.
 Blanchard and Hodges, p. 46.
 Ford, p. 153.
 Adair, p. 139
 Ford, p. 153.
 Blanchard and Hodges, p. 111.
 Blanchard and Hodges, p. 84.
 Ibid., p. 25.
 Ibid., p. 24.
 Ibid., p. 110.
 Ford, p. 43.
 Ibid., p. 45.
 Blanchard and Hodges, p. 30.
 Adair, p. 138.
 Blanchard and Hodges, p. 67.
 Ibid., p. 66.
 Adair, p. 144.
 Ibid., p. 142.
 Larry C. Spears and Michele Lawrence, Practicing Servant Leadership: Succeeding Through Trust, Bravery, and Forgiveness, (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2004), p. xiv.
 Ford, p. 58.
 Adair, p. 178.