We have seen how Jesus’ leadership model turns the world’s view of leadership on its head. The one with ultimate power and authority over the world led not in power but, applying the towel, as a servant, Jesus demonstrated Kingdom values. These are practical values that aspire to help those who are led, in church or organization, to achieve their full potential for the Kingdom of God.
In Rick Sessoms’ original paper in 2003 he set the “leadership with a towel” theme in the context of Robert Greenleaf’s rediscovery of servant leadership in the 1960s. Greenleaf’s classic book entitled “Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness” was published in 1977. This book coined for the first time in the corporate community the concept “servant leader.”
Leading with the Towel
As we have seen, in the previous parts of “The King Who Led with a Towel” series, the concept of servant leadership, Jesus’ leadership with a towel, is not simply a concept of the 1960s but has its origins in the Kingdom of God. It is fundamental to how Jesus approached leadership and as such, leadership with a towel is a model for Christian Leadership today, whether in churches or other organizations.
The question is how do we “lead with a towel”? How, as Christians can we lead in the manner that Jesus taught and demonstrated? Rick’s 2003 paper outlined a framework for just that:
Applying the Towel
- Jesus’ instruction to his disciples to “do as I have done for you” is a principle of servant leadership. It can be applied to mean that those I lead are now the appointed agent to receive what the master leader has given me.
- Washing the feet of those I lead means believing in them enough to empower them with the authority and the resources and the information as well the accountability they need to be the best they can be.
- Washing the feet of those I lead means creating an environment safe enough for them to risk giving all. . . and sometimes fail in their giving . . and encouraging them to risk again.
- Washing the feet of those I lead means that I don’t have to be the source of every good idea, but we discover the vision together.
- Washing the feet of the people I lead means creating an atmosphere where they are free to tell me the truth, especially about myself.
- Washing the feet of people I lead means allowing people to express their passion.
- Washing the feet of people I lead means defending those privately and publicly who don’t compromise principle for profit.
- Washing the feet of those I lead means treating each person with the sacred understanding that they are uniquely crafted in the image of their Creator, not in mine.
- Washing the feet of those I lead means enabling them to make decisions and pursue their dreams.
- Washing the feet of those I lead means celebrating their accomplishments.
- Washing their feet means serving them not so that they will serve me, but so that they will serve others.
As a leader, this way of relating to people isn’t typical. Such a way of relating to people reverses the order. It is subversive. It destabilizes. It upsets. Like Mahatma Gandhi many centuries later, Jesus’ model challenges our whole concept of power, of authority, of status. When his disciples were arguing about who would be greatest in the kingdom of God, Jesus said, “Whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be number one shall be slave to all..”
Jesus’ leadership with a towel inaugurates a community of foot washers. It deletes the image of clamoring for power, people climbing over each other to get to the top. Jesus’ example even puts to rest the notion that I wash your feet so that you wash mine. Rather, I wash your feet so that you can in turn wash another’s feet. It is a leadership that fulfills the highest priority needs of those we lead. The best test of a servant leader is to ask: Are those we lead growing as persons? Are they becoming healthier? Are they becoming wiser? Are they becoming freer? Are they becoming more autonomous? Are they becoming more likely themselves to become servants? And what is the effect of my leadership on the least privileged in society; will they benefit from my service?
A 20th Century Example
The 20th century was blessed by a woman who epitomized servant leadership. Theresa Bojaxhiu was born and raised in Albania. For years, she washed the feet, and the hands, and the heads, and the bodies of the poorest of the poor in Calcutta and Manila and other cities. But she also touched those who are not poor. One such man was Malcolm Muggeridge, formerly a prominent broadcaster with the BBC. So touched was Muggeridge by her that he wrote a book in her honor, entitled “Something Beautiful for God.”
In that book, he wrote these words: “To choose as Mother Teresa did to live in the slums of Calcutta amidst all the dirt and disease and misery signified a spirit so indomitable, a faith so intractable, a love so abounding that I felt abashed.” Muggeridge went on to tell of an experience he had in Calcutta to which he responded by retreating to his comfortable hotel room and complaining about the wretched condition of the city. Then he wrote these words: “I ran away and stayed away. But Mother Teresa moved in and stayed. That was the difference. She, a slightly built nun, few rubles in her pocket, not particularly clever or gifted in the art of persuasion, came with Christian love shining about her.”
The life of Mother Theresa reflected to the modern world a similar model that Jesus taught his disciples with the towel. The towel dramatized Jesus’ whole life. The towel revealed the nature of his leadership. And His use of the towel is an example for leaders everywhere. Families, organizations and societies in all cultures around the world will be healthier when leaders follow Jesus’ example daily.
Are those we lead growing as persons? Are they becoming healthier? Are they becoming wiser? Are they becoming freer? Are they becoming more autonomous? Are they becoming more likely themselves to become servants? And what is the effect of my leadership on the least privileged in society; will they benefit from my service?
Growing the Servant Heart
“Growing the Servant Heart” is a free on-line training programme that examines the nature and role of Christ-centred servant leadership in Kingdom enterprises. It is available in the Academy section of Christian Leadership, which you can select from the menu above or go directly from the Academy link. The following brief video will also you an overview.
Image: K H Rawlings Flickr