Most of us like to be noticed for our skill and complimented for our accomplishments. A desire for recognition is human nature. Whether it is from parents, bosses, peers, subordinates, friends or enemies, recognition is about as common of a response globally as it is here. Look behind the “on location” news reporter at how folks photobomb to get recognition, and how people at football games wear the unimaginable to see if the camera can focus on them. Many seek 15 minutes or seconds of fame. Even the multimillionaire athletes enjoy waving to their moms and regrettably rarely the dads while the camera is on them. It is all about recognition.
Leaders are generally recognized for their skill and complimented for their accomplishments. If they are good at what they do, it seems unusual for a good leader not to get recognition. Of course, no one wants the negative recognition for a job not well done or a sin that brings shame to the office or organization. Good recognition, however, is addictive for many. The more you get, the more you want.
But, as a brief reminder on the obvious, it was not that way with Jesus. He frequently left a place when the recognition started pouring in. He even told people occasionally to refrain from saying anything about what He did for them. He was silent on occasions when braggadocio would have been the expected response. He refused the recognition that Satan offered at the beginning of His ministry. And He refused to defend Himself or justify His actions at the end of His ministry during His arrest and crucifixion.
He was so unimpressive in pedigree and social status that it was very difficult for religious leaders to look beyond His posture to His words and actions — both of which amazed people. It is hard to escape noticing how intentional His incarnational lowness was from birth to exodus to vocation to baptism to death. It was status-denying. When a person leads like that, others become naturally confused. It is just not normal when people lead that way — the right way. When a leader fails to leverage power and ego strength to their advantage, they often succeed in leveraging power and impact for something much greater than themselves. Jesus did that. People who lead like Jesus do that.
I do not believe the issue here is as much about appearances (leading from a low state) as it is about heart (leading from relational sensitivity). It is not that Jesus refused attention. He just knew what that would get him and those who gave it. Instead of seeking acclaim, godly leaders yearn to serve the people they lead. Leadership has been defined simply as influence. If leadership is influencing others, we influence them best when we influence them to love and good deeds rather than to tout our love and good deeds.
When I was a pastor, I always looked for people who were eager to serve and just willing to lead. When I found them, I would place them in charge of something. Sadly, there were always more who were eager to lead and just willing to serve. That is like cancer. In this latter case, service is a means to an end. The service will always be disingenuous. The former is like a breath of fresh air. When people are truly eager to serve, they will always have the welfare of the person they serve in mind, rather than the credit of their leadership.
So what does this look like? How is it exercised? It starts with a heart for the hurting and those who need help moving forward. Who needs help around you? Who needs to move forward in life to live out their calling and purpose? When our primary focus is to love and serve God, and our primary orientation to others is to help them forward, we learn to lead like a servant. That is “least leading,” or leading from the posture of helping rather than gathering recognition.
Someone will always get recognition when we lead well. Leading is not about trying to minimize recognition. It is about directing recognition where it belongs. The recognition and glory should be bent heavenward to Father, Son and Spirit. When we lead well, there is plenty of recognition to go around. When we lead well, people experience the love of genuine care and the touch of God. Jesus was concerned that the Father would get sufficient glory from His life. The Father did. Jesus led well. Now it is our turn to direct attention Godward through the only kind of leadership to accomplish that — servant leadership.
Bishop Matthew Thomas has been an active part of the Free Methodist Church since 1979. His ministry roles have included serving as a pastor, church planter, missionary and superintendent.