Gene Wilkes, in his book Jesus on leadership: Developing servant leaders, takes his readers back to reflect on how to manage people the way Jesus did. The work is intended as a primer for those who want to lead among God’s people like Jesus. The idea of servant leadership is presented simply and clearly in the beginning: “to adopt the leadership of Jesus one needs to become a servant to the Servant Leader in the first place” (Wilkes, 1998, p. 22).
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Alongside that, the author claims that the book may be able to test the readers’ faith about who Jesus is, which might change not only one’s leadership style but also their way of life. The author’s thesis of the book is supported by quotations and examples from the Holy Bible and his personal experience as well.
The book consists of several chapters, seven of which represent the principles of servant leadership, namely humbling one’s heart, being a follower, finding greatness in service, taking risks, taking up the towel, sharing responsibility and authority, and team building. These divisions are presented chronologically according to the milestones of Jesus’ mission.
The principles are preceded by the introductory chapter Down from the Head Table, in which Wilkes (1998) endeavors to identify Jesus’s leadership model as one of “servant leadership” with such vital characteristics as “leadership as service,” “never self-serving,” “everything he [Jesus] did was in service to the mission” (pp. 9-10). The four operative concepts of servant leadership are stated: Mission, Vision, Equip, and Team, and modeled based on Jesus’ life in the following sections.
In the first chapter, Principle # 1: Humble Your Heart, Wilkes (1998) asserts the two distinguishing qualities of a servant leader: humility and the ability to wait. Humility, he explains, can only begin after having an accurate picture of oneself before God. The second principle is to be a follower rather than an ambitious seeker of a position. The main idea is concentrated in the thesis: “Leadership is not something you pursue. Leadership is something others give to you.” (Wilkes, 1998, p. 27). The author insists that position must not be honored above discipleship, while ambition is by far not the same thing as the willingness to “follow Jesus to the cross” (Wilkes, 1998, p. 68).
In the next chapter, Principle # 3: Find Greatness in Service, the idea of greatness is developed. Based on examples spoken by Jesus, Wilkes (1998) derives two more rules of servant leadership: subject subordinates to your power and exercise authority, meaning that true greatness comes from becoming servants to the mission of the group and those teamed with them. The fourth principle suggested by Wilkes is to take risks, which means that for a church to grow, it is necessary to free God’s people to serve as God has gifted them. Another critical idea here is that the church ought to concentrate on eternal purposes rather than short-term objectives in order to keep enthusiasm at the due level.
The fifth principle, taking up the towel, is dedicated to discovering the power of servant leadership based on the Suffering Servant of God. The author contrasts, leading by words versus leading by giving people a picture. He accentuates the need for storytelling and picture painting for effective leadership. The sixth principle, “Share responsibility and authority,” is dedicated to the third operative concept stated in the introductory chapter. A core message of this chapter is that responsibility without authority disempowers members of a team. The last principle, team building, reveals four steps to building a ministry team and elaborates on the idea of including those who are led and served. The core message here is that trying to lead alone affects the followers and the leaders in a destructive way.
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Undoubtedly, the work by C. Gene Wilkes has many strengths. First of all, the author presents a thorough, systematic approach to leadership with a mature concept based on Jesus’ life. Wilkes works out seven fundamental principles, unpacks them, and provides the reader with ample illustrations from Jesus’ life based on the text of the Holy Bible. He also brings examples from his own life such as his wife, who sacrificed her career to serve her family as she understood this service as her mission. These examples help readers to incorporate the concept of servant leadership into the specific leadership context.
Another apparent advantage is that the author is fluent with other works on leadership, specifically with Jim Collins’ Good to Great, in which the need to choose mission over self-indulging purposes is highlighted, and with the work of Robert Greenleaf on servant leadership. The author studies what principles can be applied to the existing knowledge of servant leadership through the person of Jesus, as represented by canonical texts. The last but not the least strength of this book is that the author appears as a faithful pastor and leader himself, as he continually puts Jesus’ person forward and builds on his life.
There are some contradictions in the text; Wilkes states that service is at the center of leadership, but at the same time, the leader’s sense of the mission and vision is given priority and should determine everything else. Although it is not explained how these mutually exclusive lines of actions can be reconciled, they are put forward as essential. Also, it is highlighted in the book that it is crucial to becoming a servant to the servant leader so that all the members of the body give themselves in service to the leader’s mission in concordance with his vision, but Wilkes does not elaborate on how it becomes a “now shared mission.”
The book is written in a lofty style and sometimes reminds of a stump speech or a sermon, for example: “Our culture has wearied of the leadership models of Attila the Hun and rogue warriors. We are seeking leaders who consider us more than a means to an end” (Wilkes, 1998, p. 15). The author’s ambitions may go somewhat beyond leading a congregation, according to his modest promise to change the reader’s way of life. The feeling of a sermon is intensified by numerous references to the text of the Bible. Another point that deserves mentioning is how Wilkes criticizes contemporary American culture using such epithets as “cholesterol-free” (p. 23), “culture where the individual has reached godlike status” (p. 23).
Wilkes appeals to the readers’ better side being winningly kind, psychological, transparent, and sometimes vulnerable, giving examples from his own life, and at the same time, professional as a manager. The inseparable principles of humility, finding greatness and power in service, taking risks, and others are nothing but a profound managerial strategy and tactics extrapolated and applied to the church context. Though written in plain language, the book requires rereading due to its deep philosophical ideas that cannot be digested at once. Therefore, the book Jesus on Leadership by C. Gene Wilkes is a must-read not only for every pastor but also for community leaders, managers on any level from CEO to customer service, fathers, and mothers.
Wilkes, C. G. (1998). Jesus on leadership: Developing servant leaders. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Ltd.