How Did Jesus Develop His Leaders?

Leadership development is a commonly discussed topics in many circles of church life.

We realise that if we are to grow the impact of our churches, multiply our planting movements and build something that can outlast ourselves then we need to deliberately invest in other people and raise them up to share in the mission.

Without a doubt, the very best developer of leaders in church history is Jesus himself. Over the process of just three years, he developed a group of ordinary, working men into world-changing apostles who led the Jerusalem mega-church and oversaw the spread of the gospel through the whole known world.

In fact, just a few weeks after Jesus ascended to heaven, his disciples made quite an impact on the Jerusalem authorities, and the only explanation that those authorities had was the leadership development that they had received at the hand of Jesus: “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognised that they had been with Jesus.” (Acts 4:13)

The approach that Jesus took to developing these leaders was very intentional, and it was rather different to the approach that many of us employ in our churches. Jesus did not enrol his followers in a Bible college, nor did he follow a guided reading plan with them. There is no record of weekly ‘Bible study and accountability’ meetings. Rather, Jesus drew these men into the things that he was doing. Most of the three years of Jesus’ ministry were spent together. They saw first hand the things that he was doing. They had lots of unhurried behind-the-scenes time to ask their questions and understand what was really driving Jesus. They were given opportunities to go out themselves and do the same things that they had seen Jesus doing, and then were able to gather back and reflect on their experiences.

All of this happened while there were still some very serious character flaws in the lives of the disciples. Jesus seemed comfortable with trusting and developing people even before they had got their act together, and there was much more to what Jesus saw as discipleship than just character development.

Nevertheless, along the way there moments that Jesus did need to intervene and help the disciples grow in key areas of character. The way he did so offers great insight for us as we look to develop leaders in our contexts, and I want to spend some time exploring one of those times.

The incident can be found in John 13:1-16, and it would be a good idea to give it a read before we get into it.

​1. He Dealt With the Issue In the Moment

The issue at hand was a lack of servant-heartedness amongst the disciples. They had come in for dinner and somebody needed to take the lowest place and wash the feet of the others. None of the disciples chose to volunteer themselves for the task, and so Jesus addresses the issue straight away.

Notice that Jesus did not allow this issue to become a growing frustration. There have been times that I have noticed issues that need to be addressed in people I am working with, but instead of doing so straight away, I have let them niggle away at me unaddressed. When we do this, not only does it fail to help the person grow, it can have a detrimental effect on the relationship with us as the leader and it can also blow up the magnitude of the issue so that when the conversation finally does it happen it comes across as a much bigger thing than it needs to.

Instead, Jesus sees this as a teachable moment and is instantly able to nudge the disciples back on course. Where possible, finding a way to help people as the issue itself arises is much more effective than trying to do so preempitvely (how can you possibly deal with every possible issue in advance?) or retroactively (where the issues can be blurred by the passing of time and the different recollection that each person has of events).

​2. He Led By Example

It has often been said that actions speak louder than words, and Jesus shows the truth of this statement here.

For many of us (including myself), the obvious place to start would be with a conversation. Sit the disciples down, share what you have noticed and start to chat about how the issue can be addressed. And as the passage goes on, we see that a conversation about the issue does happen between the disciples and Jesus.

However, the very first move that Jesus makes isn’t to talk but to take up a towel and a basin of water, get on his knees and wash their feet himself. Jesus didn’t just tell the disciples what he expected of them, he showed them. And by doing so he created a vivid image that helped his point sink in.

This point was particularly striking because it reflected something that had characterised the entirety of Jesus’ ministry. The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve. Though in very nature God, he emptied himself by taking the form of a servant. The best kind of an example is a life lived out according to certain principles, rather than a one-off demonstration that is unconnected to regular practice. As I think about the leaders who have had the biggest impact on my growth and development, what primarily comes to mind isn’t the words that they said (though I do remember some of their words – and they did play an important role at the time) but rather the example they set and the godly practices that they modelled in their lives.

3. He Dealt With the Issue at Hand

The account of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples is particularly useful for learning about leadership development because we have both a literal example of Jesus challenging and correcting his disciples and also a metaphorical image about what it is to be ‘washed’ by Jesus. There is, in a sense, a parallel between the state of the disciples’ feet and the state of their character. Both had something present that needed to be addressed.

In washing their feet, Jesus directly addresses the issue that has presented itself. In a similar way, he directly addresses the lack of servant-heartedness that has shown itself in their character.

In developing leaders, often the best thing we can do is be very direct about the issue at hand. I remember a few years ago, a leader took me aside after a team meeting and made an observation about the way I conducted myself in the meeting. He did so in a way that was both gentle and direct, and the issue that he highlighted was one that I had not been previously aware of. Because of this intervention, I was able to grow in my own leadership, serve the others in the meeting better and honour God more in how I conducted myself. Had this leader contented himself with general ‘discipleship’ conversation without ever naming the specific thing that he saw, I may have still been unaware of the problem to this day.

4. He Led as a Servant

Though servant-heartedness will not be the only issue that we need to address in the people that we are developing, servanthood should always characterise our approach.

Jesus is the one who has all authority, and he would have been well within his rights to choose any of the disciples and command them to wash his feet. Yet he chose to serve and did not use the authority that he had to lord it over those who were under his leadership, but rather to put their needs before his own.

​It is easy to recognise when a leader is challenging us in a way that serves their own agenda, and it is equally easy to spot a genuinely servant-hearted leader who is acting out of love and serving us, even when that means raising issues that are uncomfortable.

5. He Allowed Discussion

The account that we read in these verses is not of a one-way conversation. Jesus is certainly making his point, but he is doing so in a way where his disciples (and particularly Simon Peter) could process what he was saying, ask questions and share their thoughts.

The particular content of these responses will be picked up in some of the points below, but for now the point is that Jesus’ approach to addressing this issue allowed plenty of time and space for conversation, and this was crucial in helping those that he was talking to understand what he was trying to get across to them.

6. He Drew People In

When Simon Peter realised what Jesus was doing, his first response was to protest and he told Jesus, “You shall never wash my feet”.

No way, Jose.

Jesus responded by explaining to Simon Peter, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” Symbolically, this is a reference to salvation. Unless a person is cleansed of their sin by Jesus they cannot know him. In the context of leadership development that we are discussing, it shows that Jesus approached the issue in a way that drew Peter closed and enhanced their relationship rather than pushing him away.

When we are working with our leaders, we need to remember that relationships are key, and the aim is that person has both a strong relationship with God and a strong relationship with us. Yes, there are habits and characteristics that need to change along the way, but where possible we should engage with these issues in ways that maintain and enhance those relationships rather than diminish them.

7. He Limited It to the Specific Issue

Peter’s next response to Jesus was oh so typically Peter.

Okay then Jesus, if it is important that you wash my feet, why stop there? Why not go ahead and wash the rest of me as well.

The answer is both obvious and profound. Peter had already had a bath and only his feet were dirty. So to wash the rest of him would have been completely unnecessary.

This same principle can be applied to leadership development. It is possible to overdo it. Jesus was a master at understanding what kind of intervention would be helpful and bringing this to his disciples. By spending time with his disciples as addressing issues as they arose, Jesus was able to quickly and strategically raise up those disciples into mature and inspirational leaders.

This is very different to an ‘off-the-shelf’ approach to leadership development that works through a pre-determined set of topics over a period of time, whether or not those topics are particularly relevant to the person in question.

Like with any kind of people-work, there is a danger of creating dependence when we develop leaders. If we create an environment where people need to be instructed by us in every area of life and ministry before they can step forward and lead, then this can be throttling and inhibit the emergence of those leaders.

Timely intervention that is focussed on the key issues at hand usually proves to be much more effective.

8. His Involvement Was Temporary

This ties in to the point about dependence.

Jesus instructed Peter and the rest of the disciples, both by his actions and his words. He made his point, ensured that they heard and understood and then dropped it. There was no expectations that they would sign up for a series of early morning Bible studies for the next two years on servant-heartedness. In fact, no follow-up was suggested at all.

Depending on the complexity of the issue, there are times that following up is a good idea, but the goal is to deal with the issue and move on. The process needs to be only as long as it takes to correct the issues that are causing problems. This will vary from one person to the next, but you don’t want to be lingering on these development issues indefinitely.

(And remember, there’s nothing stopping you revisiting an issue if you notice the same thing arise again – the pride thing seemed to come up quite a few times with Jesus and the disciples).​

9. He Did It In Community

The issue that Jesus was dealing with is one that arose in the context of community, and the way he chose to deal with that issue was also in the context of community. By addressing the matter with the whole group of disciples at one time rather than just a couple of individuals (or indeed with each of them one-to-one) Jesus created a shared experience and lesson for the disciples that gave them something that they could refer back to together, and was much more likely to embed the new practice into the culture of the group.

There is definitely a place for working with people one-on-one, and certain situations demand this, but where possible developing leaders in community serves to strengthen the group, share the wisdom and reinforce the learning, and at the the same time can de-intensify and de-personalise the process.

10. He Summarised His Point

Having taught his disciples through both his actions and his words, and having addressed the points that they raised, Jesus finished by summarising what happened and what he expected them to learn. He was crystal clear about the action that he expected to see in them to show progress in this area. “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”

The more clarity we can bring to what we are saying, and particularly to what we are expecting the person to do in response, the better we will be serving and the more likely we will see the development in them that we are looking for.

The encounter that we have discussed was just a small part of a long night, and all of that night was part of the development of these men as leaders. Addressing character issues plays a part, but so does fellowship around a table, so does joining together in praise and worship, so does entrusting ministry responsibility, and so does standing together in prayer in difficult moment.

We all want to see God’s kingdom expand, and to see churches doing well in reaching communities and multiplying, and most of us realise that to do this we need to raise up an increasing number of new leaders. Jesus is the absolute master at this, and his example has much to teach us all.

So my challenge to you is this: of the ten observations listed above about how Jesus developed leaders, choose one that you find particularly provocative, and look for ways to implement it in your practice of developing leaders. And let’s all take our leadership development to the next level.