The leadership model of Jesus and its application for P-12 school faculty

By Roger Morris, Ed.D. |

morris-rogerParents, politicians, teachers and students are looking for effective teacher leaders and school administrators who will not only manage and lead a school but can navigate the difficulties surrounding school districts in America today. According to many sources, these are the most challenging times schools in this country have ever faced. “Perhaps more than ever the quotation from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities describes the positions of public education: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’ Actually, given the criticisms of public education, some of these directly involved in K through 12 education might argue that the only relevant part is ‘it was the worst of times’” (Marzano, 2003, p. 1). While this may or may not be an accurate perception by some, education has always undergone change and transformation since the first Puritan schools of the 1640s. Change can serve as an opportunity for growth and higher success. Marzano even admitted to this when he stated, “In effect, we stand at a crossroads—will we implement the research-based guidelines to produce schools that don’t just work but that work remarkably well? To do so requires a powerful commitment to change the status quo” (Marzano, 2003, p. 10) Likewise, school leaders are under constant pressure for schools to produce results on tests and other measures that are deemed appropriate by politicians and the communities which they serve. As a result of this pressure and other factors, such as retirements, the teacher leadership, and principal leadership pools are becoming smaller. “Filling vacant principalships is becoming problematic because the pool of candidates willing to assume positions as school leaders grows smaller” (Carr, 2004, p. 173). With the pool of qualified teacher leader and educational leadership candidates shrinking, communities are looking for dynamic school leaders that have a high degree of leadership qualities.

Much research has taken place on the concept of “servant leadership”, which is a model that describes the leadership of Jesus (Grahn, 2011). Much of the research conducted on servant leadership is its application to either church ministry or business. However in education, servant leadership has been recently studied and has become a model for school leaders in the 21st Century.

In a review of leadership models from a historical perspective, there appear to be three underlying characteristics of leadership in the 19th and 20th Centuries. They are:

  1. The premise that leaders are born, not made.
  2. Management and the success of organizations are directly linked.
  3. No failure is tolerated (Crippen, 2004).

These characteristics are still expected by some organizations, including school districts, particularly in the era of testing accountability. The phrase taken from the movie Apollo 13 that is commonly used by people outside of educational leadership is “failure is not an option.” Servant leadership has offered an old approach to leadership, but a new concept in the education world.

In this analysis, one question will be considered. Can Jesus’ model for leadership work in a school setting? In order to answer this question, an examination of Jesus and His leadership traits needs to be examined as well as best practices for school leaders. This study examines the leadership of Jesus and whether or not His model can apply to the complex and sometimes difficult position of a school leader.

Servant Leadership as Jesus’s Model to Lead Others

The term “servant leadership” appears nowhere in the Bible. It was generally used to define Jesus’ leadership style and was first used by Greenleaf as early as 1970 (Crippen, 2004).   Since then, much has been written about servant leadership, both in the context of Jesus and in the context of a general set of characteristics to be used by business leaders and others. Blanchard described Jesus’ leadership approach as “a transformational journey” (Blanchard, 1999). Greenleaf, however, was apparently the first to recognize servant leaders as a model for successful leaders in many different types of organizations (Greenleaf, 1996). According to scripture, Jesus does address the importance of sacrifice and denying the importance of oneself as key. Mark 8:34 states, “Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’” In another discussion, Jesus described the attitude teachers and leaders need to demonstrate. In Matthew 25:40, Jesus stated in a parable, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Effective Leadership

Greenleaf did not advocate a model or “formula” for leadership (Greenleaf, p. 299, 1996). On the contrary, he advocated that leaders “should design his own strategies if he wants to be his optimal best” (Greenleaf, p. 299, 1996). However, he did provide several characteristics of leaders that he believed, have proven to distinguished good leaders from bad leaders. They are generally characterized in his writings as the following (Greenleaf, 1996):

  • Leaders should have a vision and set goals, both personal goals and work for the organization to have definitive goals.
  • Leaders should be willing to prioritize tasks and be willing to neglect unimportant ones.
  • Leaders should listen, even if the person is opposed to what is being done.
  • Leaders must be able to clearly articulate the goal to the wide audience.
  • Leaders must have a high moral and high ethical value structure and set the example for others.
  • Leaders must be willing to grow as a person intellectually.
  • Leaders must be willing to withdraw from leadership for a time to relax, rest, and reprioritize.
  • Leaders must tolerate mistakes and imperfect people.
  • Leaders must be genuine.
  • Leaders may not be accepted by everyone, but they must be accepting of everyone.

Greenleaf’s principles can apply to both teacher leaders and school leaders. With the emergence of teacher-based teams in the nation’s schools, it is critical for teachers to see themselves as leaders of a larger organization (Portner, 2013). Likewise, principals should see themselves as a “leader of leaders” (Portner, 2013). These strategies are tied to two key qualities that all leaders must have, according to Greenleaf (1996) and they are to “know the unknowable, and foresee the unforeseeable” (p. 313). Many perceive these characteristics as a visionary perspective of what could and might happen in school situations requiring teacher and school leadership (Blanchard, 2005). Blanchard (2005) adds more characteristics of this model to include the following:

  • Leaders serve as performance coaches
  • Leaders identify potential leaders, train them, and transform them into leaders that can take over.

Comparison of Qualities of Effective School Leadership and Jesus’ Model for Leadership

School leadership has been studied and written about for many years. The challenges facing school districts and schools in the age of accountability is a dynamic shift in the early days of the common school. The United States federal government is recognizing that the concept of school leader has changed. “Principals were thought of for many decades as building managers and supervisors of operations—and principal preparation programs were designed accordingly. But we now know that the role of the principal has changed dramatically.

Today, the job of a principal is to be an instructional leader, not just a supervisor. Top-flight school leaders are more like CEOs than building managers. They can oversee multimillion dollar budgets and hundreds of employees. They work with community organizations and the media and are expected to serve as change agents” (Duncan, 2015). In other words, in addition to supervision, school leaders are expected to be teachers of teachers and leader of leaders. Effective school leadership has now been quantified by the states that operated and supervise the schools in the localities. Each state has a model for effective school leadership. However, most states do have a general set of characteristics that are modeled after commonly-accepted standards that have been researched to be effective (Canole, 2015). These standards are commonly referred to as ISLLC/ELCC. For the purposes of this paper, they will be referred to as “the standards”. Generally, the standards are broken into six areas (Canole, 2015).

Standard 1

A building-level education leader must have knowledge of how to promote the success of students by understanding principles for the development, articulation, implementation, and stewardship of a school vision of learning (Canole, 2015). This standard is directly reflected and referred to in the Canole (2015) report this concept of servant leadership. “Stewardship is a concept of leadership as a servant-leader advanced by Robert Greenleaf, who believed that the best way to lead was by serving. Stewardship involves using foresight; employing power ethically; seeking consensus in group decisions where possible; and, envisioning leadership as employing persuasion and building relationships based on trust…” (Canole, p. 22, 2015). To translate this school leadership standard into a biblical perspective, the question of whether or not Jesus exhibited these characteristics needs to be answered. To fulfill this standard, Jesus would have had to develop a vision for the organization, His church, lead others by serving others, employ power ethically, seek group decisions, build relationships, and persuade people (Canole, 2015). Obviously, there are many verses in Scripture that articulate these characteristics in Jesus. Perhaps the most quoted, is commonly called the “Great Commission” in Matthew 28:19-20 in which Jesus states, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Clearly Jesus outlined a vision for his disciples and future believers. In other scriptures, Jesus used persuasion and relationship-building as tools to both encourage His followers and seek new followers.

Standard 2

A district-level, school, and/or teacher leader must have knowledge of principles for advocating, nurturing, and sustaining a district/school culture and instructional program conducive to student learning and staff professional growth (Canole, 2015). In Canole (2015), this standard closely aligns with distributive leadership, which, according to Harris (2015) is not simply the delegation of mundane tasks. However, in Woolfe (2002), Jesus provided a pattern of more than delegation and distributed his leadership to his following that continues today. Some of the distributive leadership characteristics include team member development and empowerment, in addition to the delegation of major responsibilities, not just minor ones (Harris, 2015). In Luke 10:1-20, Jesus sends out seventy-two individuals and not only empowered them to speak on His behalf but gives them the power to cast out demons and heal the sick, something never given to anyone before.

After this, the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. He told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field. Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves. Do not take a purse or bag or sandals; and do not greet anyone on the road.

“When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ If someone who promotes peace is there, your peace will rest on them; if not, it will return to you. Stay there, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages. Do not move around from house to house.

“When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is offered to you. Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ But when you enter a town and are not welcomed, go into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town we wipe from our feet as a warning to you. Yet be sure of this: The kingdom of God has come near.’ I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town.

“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon at the judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades.

“Whoever listens to you listens to me; whoever rejects you rejects me; but whoever rejects me rejects him who sent me.” The seventy-two returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.”

He replied, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

From this passage, Jesus empowered his followers to perform tasks that he himself demonstrated. Similarly, a successful leader empowers its followers to perform meaningful and relevant tasks to accomplish the overall mission of the organization (Harris, 2015).

Standard 3

A building-level education leader must have knowledge of best practices regarding management of a school organization, operations, and resources for a safe, efficient, and effective learning environment. Again, Canole (2015) describes a leader who fulfills this standard as someone who has distributive leadership qualities. But the Canole (2015) report goes further to explain that the school leader should have knowledge in human resource allocation and attainment, have knowledge of leadership traits and qualities that produce the necessary outcomes, and as in standard 2, more empowerment of the individuals in the organization that includes leadership development.

Jesus likewise chose and developed his human resource pool to maximize the message He was to deliver. Woolfe (2002) states, “It was no accident that this carefully picked group of twelve men was soon able to develop many times that number of leaders to spread the message and power of the organization. Once ‘the Twelve’ became ‘the Seventy-Two,’ an inexorable process was set in motion. And, Jesus made sure they had plenty of ‘board experience’” (p. 213).At this point, many will ask about the one person that failed the Jesus leadership training and that was Judas Iscariot. In Standard 3, leaders are expected to give performance feedback and performance management involves positive and negative consequences. To an extension when Jesus needed His disciples most on the night He was betrayed, according to Mark 14:50, “Then everyone deserted him and fled.” So, what does this mean about Jesus’ leadership in the context that all of His followers failed him, particularly in His greatest hour of need for their assistance? Performance management is a significant part of the human resource function. While some staff members take constructive critique well, others do not. Likewise, Jesus had followers with varied backgrounds, that either took his teaching critique well, like Peter in John 21, or unlike Judas, who committed suicide. The Canole (2015) report does not address performance measures; however a leader is expected to lead in this area, which is a significant function of human resources and to an end, organizational effectiveness (Budworth and Mann, 2011). Woolfe (2002) cites a clear example of in which group members who fail, must confront the mistake, and be given a chance to improve, or be terminated if no improvement is desired or observed. In the case of Jesus, Judas is an example of no improvement after given a chance to improve, while Peter is an example of negative behavior observed and improved to become the leader of the Apostles in time. Peter certainly became a leader and it was noticed by the official leaders of the day. “When they (the Jewish leaders) saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13).

Standard 4

A building-level education leader (be a principal or teacher) must have knowledge of strategies for collaboration with other faculty and community members, understanding of diverse community interests and needs, and best practices for mobilizing community resources (Canole, 2015).

Canole (2015) reiterates that developing an intimate knowledge of the community, its diversity, and working with all stakeholders is essential to a school leader’s role. As early as the 1960s, writers of leadership strategies and models recognized that the emerging diversity of the population and the challenges of world events can make leadership challenging. (Greenleaf, 1996). Likewise, Jesus faced similar circumstances in the days following the Roman occupation of Palestine. In fact, Jesus knew very well the dynamics of the politics of His day, as well as the diversity of the community in which he served and lead.   As a leader of a diverse group of individuals, Jesus reached out to the poor, the sick, the rich, the poor, the Jew, the Roman, the Greek, the man, and the woman. He was all inclusive in his approach to people. An excellent example of this outreach is the interaction with the Samaritan woman in the Gospel of John. To read the passage, one must understand that the Samaritans and the Jews were enemies and did not interact with each other. Here is an excerpt from the passage:

Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John—  although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. So he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee.

Now he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.

When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)

The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)

Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

 “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water?  Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”

Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”

 He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”

 “I have no husband,” she replied.

Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”

 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”

“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth” (John 4:1-24)

In this passage, Jesus makes it clear that His invitation to be a follower was open to everyone, regardless of what the follower’s past was, the race of the follower, or the gender of the follower. Jesus had conditions for His followers as stated in the passage. Organizations do have rules and ethos to follow as Jesus expected out of his group. But, He also accepted their imperfections as well.

Standard 5

A building-level education leader, whether that leader is a teacher or an administrator, must have knowledge of how to act with integrity, fairness, and engage in ethical practice (Canole, 2015). Canole (2015) presents three key characteristics to fulfill this standard, which are integrity, fairness, and act with high ethical standards. This is a higher trait than simply following the law, though demonstrating knowledge of and following the law is a part of this standard (Canole, 2015). Greenleaf (2015) in discussing ethics added that ethics involves both the method to achieving the goal and the “ethical aim” itself (Greenleaf, 1996). Woolfe (2002) similarly agrees with the assessment that it is more than just the end goal being ethical, with the “purpose” and commitment to the “right priorities” being equally as important (p. 32-57).

Likewise, Jesus in Matthew 5-7, commonly known as “The Beatitudes” describes the ethics and morals of men and women that focus little on the ends but focuses on the means of getting there.   “Social justice” as Canole (2015) describes it, is as “fairness” (p. 35). Jesus spoke frequently about fairness and summed up his attitude and belief in this way:

“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12).

Standard 6

A building-level education leader (teacher or principal) must have knowledge of how to respond to and influence the political, social, economic, legal, and cultural context within a school and district (Canole, 2015). According to Canole (2015) states, “education leaders must be prepared to understand, respond to, and influence the political, social, economic, legal, and cultural context of education” (p. 37). This standard is similar to the fifth standard, but the emphasis is on the understanding and the exercise of influential leadership and using power to influence political and social change with the school and possibly the community at large. Similarly, this involves the stewardship of the organization, which the leader takes care to provide common welfare of the followers and ensure that the influence of the organization is relevant to the community at large well as the members of the organization itself (Crippen, 2004). Likewise, Jesus used his influential leadership skills to implement social change, both within the organization and in the community at large, though these changes were not recognized until after His death and resurrection. Several examples can be cited, such as the inclusion of Gentiles into the Church (Acts 11), the care and common welfare displayed by the followers upon themselves (Acts 4), and with Jesus directly in his treatment of women who were regarded as a subclass (John 4, 8, 20). Jesus even used the analogy of a shepherd, which was commonly regarded as an unclean occupation (John 10). Therefore within the organization, the Church, people were accepted based on believing in the goals of the group, not based on gender, race, or other non-relevant factors. This was a very radical approach for a society at that time that had completely different views of social justice and common welfare.

Analysis and Recommendations

In this overview, one question was considered. Can Jesus’ model for leadership work in a school setting? Based on this analysis, it is indeed likely that Jesus’s model for leadership can be very useful to study and work in a school setting. Teacher education and leadership preparation programs, based on this analysis, should consider using resources that study the leadership model of Jesus in the context of developing successful educational leaders. More longitudinal data will be needed to determine if a study of Jesus’ leadership model and the leadership models of others are practical and relevant to the success of educational leaders. In curricula throughout the United States, educational leaders have used various resources to determine leadership styles and models to emulate. If using Jesus as a model, could programs develop better teacher/principal leaders? That is a question that deserves further study.


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Woolfe, L. (2002). Leadership secrets from the Bible: From Moses to Matthew : Management lessons for contemporary leaders. New York, NY: MJF Books Fine Communications.

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