Jesus' leadership style

Jesus did not grasp for or cling to power. Instead, he understood
the purpose of all that the Father had given to him.

 SHOWING THE WAY TO GOD 

By Fr David McCallum SJ, Executive Director of the Program for Discerning Leadership

Power gets a bad name these days, and for some very good reasons, since abuses of power touch each of our lives in obvious or subtle ways.

  • Political power, that uses polarisation to divide and conquer. Economic power that widens the gap between haves and have nots, and which exploits and extracts valuable resources for a tiny minority of overwhelmingly wealthy people.
  • Social power, which concentrates influence with people who may not have any special regard for the common good, but whose celebrity status absorbs tremendous attention and creates inordinate distraction from matters of real importance.
  • Coercive power, which uses forceful means to violently oppress, including physical violence against those who are weaker or defenceless. And the list goes on.

Many of us, for these reasons, out of fear of misusing power, may resist being given authority, or deny or withhold the power we have at our disposal. But from the perspective of discernment, this may be as problematic as the outright abuse of power. What is power, but the ability and agency to make things happen, to act and generate impact, and obviously it can be used for good or bad and everything in between.

Don’t we need people who are conscientiously and ethically mature in their capacity to assess the context, situation, the people, as well as the demands of the moment so that they can discern the appropriate power to exercise at that moment? Don’t we need people who exercise power with intention and skill, always informed by love, and who take action with responsibility, accountable for the effects and consequences that follow?

We need people willing to use the power at their disposal in the manner and style of Jesus. To begin with, he did not grasp for or cling to power, but understood the purpose of all that the Father had given to him, and from the freedom of this right-relatedness to power, he discerned in every moment how to make use of it. Jesus exercised divine power over demonic forces, restraining and expelling them so that they could not do further harm, thus liberating those possessed. Jesus exercised prophetic power against injustice and on behalf of those who did not have a voice, position or privilege.

Jesus exercised priestly power with people by befriending and walking with them, eating and drinking at their tables and building society with those rejected or discarded by others, thus manifesting the Divine, inclusive communion of the Father’s Kingdom. Jesus used power to heal, to teach and enlighten, to call people to a deeper and more abundant life. Jesus even used his power to make space for others to discover and exercise their own power.

In all of this, what distinguishes the ways in which we see power abused in the world and the way that we witness Jesus exercising power? We know that for Jesus, it always comes back to the question, “How can I be of service?” This, for Jesus, is the fulfilment of the Father’s will, to serve the unfolding of the Kingdom of God and the manifestation of more abundant life. 

For those of us charged with roles of authority, or who have resources at our disposal, this is the question we want to return to often, in moments of conflict or crisis, moments of opportunity or of uncertainty. How can I be of service here? And in so doing, how can I join and co-labour with Christ, who is already at work for the benefit of others?

As we enter into the Advent season, perhaps we can make some time to reflect more deeply on the power that God desires to exercise through us on behalf of the Kingdom, on behalf of greater justice, deeper peace, in service of a more abundant life with and for others. The world requires this discerning use of power from us, and it needs it now.

Visit the Discerning Leadership website to learn more about Fr David McCallum SJ and the work of his team

Statue of Jesus at St Aloysius’ Church, Sevenhill in South Australia. Photograph: David McMahon