Roger Severino

Countercultural Leadership: What Jesus Taught Us before Jim Collins

Reflections on John 13: 1-17

In his best-selling book Good to Great, Jim Collins and his research team discovered something perhaps surprising about the CEO’s who led companies to beat out their industry competitors over a given period of time. They tended not to be the bombastic, charismatic types that were larger than life, and had egos to match. They were “Level 5” leaders (his terminology) that had a great capacity for working hard, leading by example, and demonstrating servant leadership. Yes, there were other necessary qualities that these CEO’s shared, but humility was one characteristic not often found in the board room.

Prior to the Last Supper in John 13, there was a quarrel among the disciples about who would get to sit on his right and left when Jesus entered into his kingdom (see Mark 10:35-45). Jesus called them over and said to them, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles dominate them, and their men of high positions exercise power over them. But it must not be like that among you. On the contrary, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be a slave to all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life —a ransom for many.”[1]

Sacrificial leadership is for the benefit of others, rather than profiting oneself. How radical.

We see this played out during the Last Supper recorded in John 13:1-17. After the disciples had been walking the streets of Judea in open-toed shoes, they gathered to celebrate a Passover meal together. Normally, a household servant might provide water and wash the guests’ dirty feet. In this situation, it was only the 13 men gathered together. So Jesus did the unthinkable. “He poured water into a basin and began to wash His disciples’ feet and to dry them with the towel tied around Him.”[2]

Not surprisingly, Peter balks when Jesus comes to wash his feet. As one of the leading disciples, he isn’t sure he likes how this is playing out. Jesus is messing with the hierarchy. If Jesus is “humiliated” by taking the posture of a servant, what does this mean for Peter?

After Jesus washed their feet, he said, “Do you know what I have done for you? You call Me Teacher and Lord. This is well said, for I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example that you also should do just as I have done for you.”[3]

Two thousand years later, we still see, expect, and experience people in positions of power who use their authority to dominate, further their interests, and pursue self-centered goals. We find it unusual and refreshing when we encounter the powerful who demonstrate authentic humility, and use their leadership and influence to bless and enrich others.

It is counter to society. It is counter to our human nature. It is often misunderstood and occasionally ridiculed. But Jesus taught us that humility is the path to greatness; the greatest among us will be the servant of all. For an incredible example of how Jesus reflected this in attitude and action, meditate on Philippians 2:5-11.

[1] The Holy Bible: Holman Christian Standard Version. (Nashville: Holman Bible, 2009), Mk 10:42–45.
[2] The Holy Bible: Holman Christian Standard Version. (Nashville: Holman Bible, 2009), Jn 13:5.
[3] The Holy Bible: Holman Christian Standard Version. (Nashville: Holman Bible, 2009), Jn 13:12–15.

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