By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.
Director, Yeshua Institute
There’s one thing that makes our efforts to be Jesus-like Leaders especially challenging: We can’t focus on self-improvement.
What? Isn’t any effort to be better than we are all about improving oneself? Surely, trying to be more of a Jesus-like Leader involves self-improvement.
Yes, of course that’s true. Self-improvement is a part of the puzzle. But it’s only a part. It can’t be the central feature. It can’t be the focus.
To speak in terms of making one’s own improvement the focus of our efforts is to look in the wrong place for the progress we are striving to obtain. Leading like Jesus is not about saving the self. It’s about being open to the grace of God working in our lives and in the lives of the other people we encounter.
It’s a difficult, subtle difference. But it’s also a huge one.
To focus on oneself is the most natural thing in the world. We are all, by nature, self-centered. The world – indeed, the whole universe – revolves around us. We can’t help that we each are grounded in our own experience and see the world, even experience truth, from that limited, specific perspective.
At the same time, we become human only in community. The self does not exist only in contrast to others. Indeed, the very self we know and usually love emerges from community.
Without others to nurture us, to interact with us, to introduce us to the incredible web of human and global interdependence that comes to us in stages, we do not develop into self-aware human beings who can and do control our bowels and bladder, think and reflect, communicate and decide so many things – among them to who and what to love.
As we interact more with other people, we develop a growing sense of ourselves as individuals – distinct from the mass of humanity all around us.
It does not take long for us to become passionate advocates for the self. “Mine!” we declare soon after we are able to utter our first words. “I do myself,” we insist about the same time, rejecting another person’s loving attempt to help us.
As the days and years pass, we become ever more full of ourselves.
Bright and dark sides
The continued development of our self-awareness has both its bright and dark sides.
With it we become ever more aware of our needs – and how to meet them. We learn how to feed ourselves, dress ourselves, make choices about how we will spend our discretionary time, become more articulate about our passions and the needs outside of us that engage our interest.
But with it we can also become terrified. We can conceive of ourselves as alone, vulnerable, inadequate, exposed.
Or we can simply recognize that we can do better – whether our goal is personal, professional, physical, mental or spiritual development.
We see opportunities to improve and we decide – at least in some cases – to take them.
A positive motivation
At its core, the motivation to improve ourselves is a good and healthy thing. But it can be twisted in ways that actually hold us back and hurt us.
If the root driver of our self-improvement is to dominate others, it will lead us down paths that are not good for us in the long-term, even if they seem very rewarding in the short-term.
If we are hungry for riches, fame or power, the fruits of our efforts will likely cause us more pain than joy – and turn out to be insatiable monsters to whom we become enslaved.
What saves our drive to continue to improve and develop from a vile narcissism is a recognition of our complete and utter interdependence and a resulting commitment to serve the human community.
That insight and devotion are graces – gifts from God – and our focus on them becomes much sharper when we immerse ourselves in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, the God-man. He is the best leadership model and teacher of all time.
To try to lead like Jesus is to try to live, love and serve like Jesus.
It’s not about me
Adopting a Jesus-like perspective means we focus not on ourselves but on our relationships.
The big question, then, is not “How am I doing?” but rather “How are those around me doing?” Am I contributing to their well-being and development? Am I being the hands and feet of Jesus for these others?
Robert Greenleaf, who is credited with coining the term “servant leadership,” put the question this way:
Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?
A sign that we are moving closer to the ideal of Jesus-like Leadership is that we want to improve not for our own sakes but for the sake of others, for the sake of God’s plan for humanity and the universe, for the sake of serving God and all of His creation.
In that way we move closer to having the heart of Jesus.
Pray today for the grace to be ever more a Jesus-like Leader … beginning and ending with matters of the heart.