It’s a remarkable force.
In the word of The Lord of the Rings character, Gollum, power tends to be that “Precious” entity that is worth contorting body and soul to attain.
It seems that once we get it, our bodies and souls have already been reshaped in order to protect the power at any and every cost. As is evidenced in the depictions of J.R. Tolkein’s character, the accumulation and protection of power can quickly become our life’s purpose…and we are willing to enact various forms of violence in order to succeed. We recognize that our increase of power comes at the cost of another. We become conditioned to use power to grow our power.
Perhaps this is what makes Jesus such an unusual and compelling leader. From the very beginning of his leadership journey, he rejected the wilderness temptations of relevance, popularity, and influence. Jesus had access to power, but not the kind of power that the religious, the zealots, and the Empire pursued and preserved. This was a power that increased and was deployed at the expense of no one. His was a power that set people free, reinforced their identities, and reinstated them into the community.
As he leveraged power for the sake of others, his popularity grew. His relevance increased. His influence spread like a contagion. So too did the community’s longing for Jesus to acknowledge his relevance, embrace his popularity, and leverage his influence for the sake of their liberation from Roman occupation.
Time and again, they catered to his ego in an effort to get what they desired. Time and again, he chose anonymity rather than applause.
One of my most important leadership lessons happened by accident. I was a young pastor with aspirations of success in my field. I had been groomed to believe that success looked like the accumulation of power as was evidenced by relevance, popularity, and influence. My two primary teammates and I had taken a break from a retreat in which we were dreaming up what we were sure would become the church that would be the answer to all of our context’s biggest questions and problems.
We had just completed a session in which we had explored the “We will know we are successful when…” conversation. Optimistic numbers and budget projections attached to innovative programming ideas filled white paper on every wall in our retreat space. Intoxicated by the power that our church plant would bring us, we filed into a movie theater for a mental break.
To this day, I cannot recall the film we watched. A certain preview had sobered me up. It haunted me for the duration of the feature-length film.
The preview was for a film on the life of William Shakespeare. It was unmemorable. Nothing grabbed my attention until the very end of the preview when the title of the film slammed onto a black screen and then dissipated into the darkness.
It was a one-word title: Anonymous.
Of course, Jesus didn’t remain anonymous. He was a rising star turned public enemy who, rather than leveraging power for his own sake, laid it down for the sake of the rest of us. He died as a political prisoner between two un-named criminals and was buried in the unmarked grave of a lesser-known migrant.
His ethic of self-sacrifice (Walker, 275-284) at times looked like leveraging power and at other times looked like laying it down. In both cases, others were the focus of his sacrificial ethic. Self-sacrifice caused new life to emerge in those within Jesus’ reach.
The letters had dissipated from the screen, but they were etched into my soul.
That evening, one thing led to another and I eventually found myself in the third chapter of the Gospel of John. It was then and there that I found my leadership calling. In the thirtieth verse, John the Baptist says, “He must increase and I must decrease.”
From there, I traversed over to the writings of Paul in Philippians and discovered the ancient hymn that set the method of Jesus’ leadership. In the second chapter of Philippians, Paul offers a picture of downward mobility…all the way to self-sacrifice…for the sake of others.
It has been my intention to pursue a downwardly mobile leadership journey. One in which my name is unimportant and in which the fame of Jesus increases through restorative self-sacrifice. I have and will continue to live this journey imperfectly, but I am convinced that it is the only way that causes new life to spring up in those within my reach.
Simon Walker, The Undefended Leader.