The heart of a gracious leader

The majority of my adult life has been spent serving in one form of leadership or another.  When I was training for pastoral ministry, much of the training focused on the teaching aspects of my role, not the leadership aspects, so I quickly realized that it would be wise for me to seek additional outside input on how best to navigate life as a leader.  I read many books on the subject, paid for training with leadership experts like John Maxwell, and did my best to learn from life experiences as they emerged.  In addition to that, I also made a point to observe the lives and leadership traits of other leaders I respected.  Even though I have been serving in leadership for decades, I still make a point to do this.

 For example, during the course of this past week, I had the privilege to witness three different leaders navigate the complexities of their roles.  I was present as one man spoke and a member of the audience who has caused conflict for him in the past made a point to visibly walk out of the room during his speech.  Another leader was just handed a series of surprise vacancies because of someone else unexpectedly abdicating their job without warning.  The third leader was asked to oversee tasks that are most certainly beneath her title and pay grade.  In each case, I watched these leaders handle their responsibilities joyfully and graciously, even though it would have been rather easy for them to vent, complain, or lash out.

 I’m grateful for the examples the Lord kindly gives us in life, but there is no greater example of gracious leadership than the example of Jesus Himself.  Mark 10:32-45 gives us a very clear picture of the heart of Christ and the ways in which He has commissioned those who serve in His name to lead others.

And they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them. And they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. And taking the twelve again, he began to tell them what was to happen to him, 33 saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. 34 And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.”  (Mark 10:32-34)

 When you know there’s something difficult waiting ahead of you, do you attempt to retreat from it or do you press onward and continue walking toward it?  Jesus knew that it would be in Jerusalem where He would be delivered over to the religious leaders who hated Him.  He also knew that they would then subsequently deliver Him over to the Roman authorities who would execute Him.  Likewise, He was well aware of the fact that before that execution on the cross, He would be mocked, spit upon, and flogged.  None of this escaped His foreknowledge, nor did He attempt to abdicate completing the atoning sacrifice He was prepared to make on behalf of humanity.

 This is gracious leadership personified.  Jesus understood that true leadership involves serving others even when the service you offer is going to cause you pain and even when the people you’re attempting to serve may attempt to hurt you in the process.

 In this passage, Jesus illustrates one of the strangest phenomena in leadership.  It’s a phenomenon you need to make peace with if you’re going to last more than five minutes in just about any role of authority.  The very people you may be sacrificing to serve may also be the people who cause you to experience some of your deepest pain.  They may fight against you, slander you, mock you, attempt to hurt your reputation, or may (in extreme cases) try to cause you physical harm.  That’s what Jesus experienced when He came to this earth to serve us.  Should we expect anything less when we make the attempt to serve others in His name?

 Even though this is the reality of the life of a leader, it isn’t the picture of leadership most people foster in their minds.  Many people think titles and rank are worth obtaining for their own sake.  They seek leadership positions because they assume those positions come with power over others and the privilege of being served by them.  That may have been what the apostles James and John had in mind when they asked Jesus to grant them seats of honor in His kingdom.

And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36 And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”  (Mark 10:35-37)

 I’m certain this request James and John made of Jesus felt embarrassing to them later in life, but at the moment these words were spoken, this is truly what they desired.  They wanted honor and authority, not humility, service, or struggle.  Their presumptuous request deeply irritated the other apostles, possibly because at this point many of them wanted the same things for themselves.

Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” 39 And they said to him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, 40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” 41 And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John.  (Mark 10:38-41)

 Jesus made it clear to these men that they didn’t really know what they were asking.  Ironically, they would one day see what sacrificial Christian service was really like when they tried to serve and lead others in the name of Jesus.  Roughly eleven years after this conversation, James was martyred for his faith in Christ before any of the other apostles, and even though John wasn’t martyred, he endured many forms of persecution during his life, including being exiled to the Island of Patmos.

“About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword, and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also.”  (Acts 12:1-3) 

“I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.”  (Rev. 1:9)  

 This is such a contrast to the kind of leadership this world values.  In fact, this world doesn’t really understand the kind of sacrificial leadership Jesus exemplified, nor does it understand the kind of sacrificial leadership Jesus called us as His followers to demonstrate.

And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.”  (Mark 10:42)

 The rulers of this age who aren’t being guided by the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit have a curious tendency to lord their power over others.  You can learn a lot about a person’s character by giving them authority.  They will reveal much about their character in the process.

 Just consider a few contemporary examples of what the rulers of this world are really capable of.  

Several years ago in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, local judges were convicted of being bribed by the owners of privately owned juvenile detention facilities in order to issue harsher and longer sentences on the young people who were brought before their courts.

Once Benito Mussolini gained control in Italy, he purged close comrades and even his own son-in-law. He rounded up Jews and sent thousands of them to their deaths in Hitler’s Nazi camps in Austria.

Mao Zedong followed a similar pattern. In the early days, he led the Long March of 80,000 communists for thousands of miles. Despite the epic journey they shared, Mao murdered colleagues and followers as together they terrorized the countryside. Only a fraction of the marchers survived to tell the tale. Once he attained power in 1949, his murderous ways became devastating on a greater scale. By the time his 27-year rule of China ended, an estimated 42.5 million had perished in waves of terror and purges, from starvation, and from brutal overwork.  -

 These are common traits among those who selfishly hold onto power in this world, but Christ has set us a better example.  He is the one we have been called to follow and submit our hearts to as we attempt to lead others.

“But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.”  (Mark 10:43-44)

 This is the pattern Christ has established for His church.  Christlike leadership is servant leadership.  The church is called to model this to the culture.  This is also the pattern we’re called to take into our vocational roles, the way we lead within our marriages, and the manner is which we attempt to lead our children.  

 It can be argued that this is the model we’re called to follow as we practice self-discipline as well.  Place the needs of others above your own.  Serve those Christ has entrusted to your care even if they don’t exactly make themselves easy to serve.  

“For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  (Mark 10:45)

Jesus is Lord.  He is Lord over creation and will return to rule and reign with ultimate power.  The day is coming when every knee will bow to Him and every tongue will confess that He is Lord.  He will utterly decimate Satan and anyone aligned with the evil one.  He will benevolently rule over all creation for all eternity.  This is the very same creation He spoke into existence and sustains by His powerful word.  

 All this being true, Jesus still chose to take the form of a servant when He walked among us.  He didn’t come to get anything from us because there was nothing we could offer Him that He needed or couldn’t give Himself.  Jesus came to serve.  Jesus came to give His life for us so that we could experience the joy of abundant and eternal life through our union with Him.

 Arrogant, self-centered leadership is common in this world.  It’s an example of humanism.  It’s a demonstration of living life on this planet while idolizing yourself or your own self interests.  The way of Christ stands in stark contrast to the ambitions of this world.  In following Christ, we reject the temptation of the human heart for self-idolization and we embrace the privilege to trust in Jesus as our Lord, Savior, and perfect leader.


“It has generally been my experience that the very top people of truly great organizations are servant-leaders.”

 ― Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People


“People do not care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

 ― John C. Maxwell, American pastor and author on leadership topics 


© John Stange, 2024


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