If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another's feet.
(John 13:14 NRSV)
Recently John Bossong, a father and manager of a truck sales company, wrote on a blog about the lesson he learned from his daughter's first paycheck:
"My oldest daughter brought home her first paycheck last week. The household was celebrating uncontrollably. She's just 17, and this is her first 'real' paycheck. Why was I so impressed? It wasn't that she actually earned some money ... It's what was handwritten on the bottom of the check: 'Welcome to the team! Give your very best and you will be awesome here!' That's what my 17-year-old daughter saw when she picked up her first check. Doesn't seem like much. One simple sentence. One opportunity to make a difference. A personal note from the owner. Great leaders make it personal!"
Yes they do!
And more than that, as Bossong notes: "Great leaders model the values of the organization."
That was Jesus' point precisely when he washed the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper. First, he modeled the key principle of the organization he was forming: Our lives are not given to us for our own sakes but in order to spend them loving and serving others -- God, first and foremost, and our neighbor as ourselves.
We all know actions speak louder than words. But to be perfectly clear about his purpose, Jesus followed up his vivid demonstration of humble service with absolutely clear instructions: What I have done, you ought to do.
Those of us who strive to lead as Jesus led -- as servant, steward and shepherd -- have to do our best from day to day, even moment to moment, to avoid falling into many traps and temptations to be self-serving leaders.
It's not easy. In fact, I would argue that it's not even possible without the grace of God, made manifest in the Spirit, whom Jesus sent to us at his Ascension. Jesus delegated to us -- all the baptized, laity and clergy alike -- the task of sanctifying the world.
And he taught us that we can't get the job done by browbeating others into submission. As Pope Benedict has reminded us time and time again, especially during this Year of Faith, what's at issue is a change of heart. And hearts are changed by love -- not "love" the noun, but "love" the verb. It's not so much a matter of what we say, but rather what we do and how we do it.
Of course, Jesus didn't intend for us to be Jesus-like Leaders only in church matters. He directed us to follow his leadership example in all our roles and relationships -- just as he did throughout his life. Every time we try to influence the thinking or behavior of another, we are trying to lead. And Jesus told us, very clearly and directly, that we should lead as he led.
Nevertheless, I can't help longing to see -- and actually expecting -- the best examples of Jesus-like Leadership modeled by our church leaders, clergy and laity alike. If it's true that "great leaders model the values of the organization," then we have every right to expect church leaders to lead as Jesus led.
And when they don't, we shouldn't be surprised that there are consequences -- in this world as well as the next.
In the Gospel of St. John (10:11-13), Jesus warns us about what happens with self-serving leaders. At the first sign of danger they run for cover, looking out for themselves. When that happens, the sheep do the same. They scatter. And at least some of them become food for the wolf.
All of us leading everywhere could do better. And when we do, we will see better results -- for ourselves, our organizations and for the world. That's what Jesus intended when he stooped to wash the feet of the disciples. We can, with the Spirit's help, make his vision our reality.
Owen Phelps, Ph.D.
Director, Yeshua Catholic International Leadership Institute