Read Psalm 72.
In my early twenties, someone shared a piece of career wisdom that has stuck with me ever since: “It’s more important to know what happened on Monday Night Football than it is to be good at your job.”
Yup. That was it. Getting ahead at work has more to do with being able to talk about sports than it does with character, results, or the hours you put in. Sadly, I have discovered this to be true all too often.
Perhaps it’s a subtle twist of the curse on human nature that allows it, but we tend to favor those with whom we have a natural rapport, those who flatter us, and those who do us favors, rather than those who may be technically proficient but struggle to make us feel good. It’s a symptom of a larger problem: God gives us authority in order to represent Him well and serve others, but in our sin we tend to take that power and use it bring ourselves peace and comfort.
There’s a whole industry built around this phenomenon. Servant-leadership language is often baked around it, but more often than not the sweet filling at the center of the cake is a message designed to inflate the egos of entrepreneurs and those in leadership roles: You’re special. You create jobs. You are irreplaceable. You’ve arrived. You deserve the perks. The rules that apply to everyone else just don’t work for you. It’s lonely at the top, so ignore the haters.
I get it. It’s marketing. It’s a lot easier to sell a book or a conference on leadership when you saturate it with a message that boosts someone’s self-esteem than it is to sell one that reflects Jesus’ own words to and about leaders.
To Peter, Jesus said, “Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go” (John 21:18). Then, as a note of explanation, John added, “Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God” (v. 19). About Saul/Paul, Jesus told Ananias, “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name” (Acts 9:16). And to all who would follow Him, leaders not exempted, Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:24–25).
When Solomon began to rule, he wanted something more than the lording-it-over-others attitude so many emperors and kings bring with them—at least at first. When God asked him how He could bless the young ruler, Solomon asked for something that would make him a better king, but also a better servant of Yahweh and a better human being in general: “Give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong” (1 Kings 3:9).
This same idea is reflected in Psalm 72, a psalm that was written either by Solomon or about him: “Endow the king with your justice, O God, the royal son with your righteousness. May he judge your people in righteousness, your afflicted ones with justice” (v. 1). Whether it’s in a nation, a workplace, or a home, fairness has to be foundation. Without it, there can be no trust. When that incipient craving for self flows from the top, whether from elected officials, employers, or parents, it infects everyone under that leadership.
Jesus confronted this head on when James and John approached Him about being his right- and left-hand regents in the kingdom of God. Jesus gathered all His disciples—He didn’t want any of them to miss this—and said:
You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:42–45).
We all exercise authority in one way or another, so let’s obey Jesus on this one. Let’s follow Solomon’s (early) example. Our leadership ought to be indistinguishable from true service—even if it means dying for others. Yes, that’s a dramatically different attitude than what’s popular today, and it’s probably not one you’ll find in a lot of books, but it’s the way of the kingdom and the lifeblood of the world to come.