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Leadership Wisdom – All Leaders are Teachers

May 28, 2021 • Life for Leaders

Scripture – Matthew 5:1-2 (NIV)

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.

Focus

Jesus sits on a hillside with a group of his disciples talking about a new way of being human. Refreshingly, he uses remarkably direct and down-to-earth language, free of religious jargon. He speaks with little fanfare and with no drama. Except what he says will change the world, turning the world upside down by turning it right-side-up.

Devotion

We all teach whether we intend to or not. That’s especially true for those of us who are leaders. Admittedly, there are times when we are painfully aware of people watching us, listening intently to what we say, scrutinizing our every move. At other times, we are scarcely conscious of how we are being heard or seen. We assume that people’s attentions are elsewhere. But surprisingly, they are watching and listening, even when they seem not to be. If you doubt that claim, ask any parent of a teenager!

The Sermon on the Mount by Károly Ferenczy (1896)

The Sermon on the Mount by Károly Ferenczy (1896)

Not many leaders think of ourselves as teachers. Our modern conception of teaching is something that happens in a classroom. For those of us who lead in business, it’s easy to disdain what seems far removed from what we call “the real world.” As practitioners, we can even find ourselves thinking that “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach!” But such an attitude is not only presumptuous, but it impoverishes our own practice of leadership.

Jesus models a different vision for teaching and leadership. As a Jewish Rabbi (the word “Rabbi” can also be translated “Master” – a word something akin to its modern use in Star Wars’ Jedi “Master”), Jesus integrates two vital aspects of leadership –  instruction and practice, teaching and example. Nowhere is that more evident than in the Gospel of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. Jesus embodies everything he teaches and teaches all that he embodies. As theologian Stanley Hauerwas puts it, “[Jesus’] life is but a commentary on the sermon, and the sermon is the exemplification of his life.”

Jesus’ teaching as recorded in Matthew chapters five to seven will be the focus of this extended series of reflections entitled Leadership Wisdom. My hope is to reflect with you on Jesus’ teaching through the lens of our work as leaders, both as teachers and practitioners.

But first, please note that I mean the word “leader” in the widest possible sense. This last week I received a note from a reader of my Life for Leaders devotionals. She commented that she found them helpful, but did not think of herself as a “leader.” Because I knew her, I wrote her in response that, while she doesn’t have what appear to be “official leadership roles” in her current season of life, she is still very much a “leader” in my sense of that word. With a lifetime of faithful discipleship, she is an informal mentor to her many friends, serves inconspicuously in various church committees and community organizations, and invests in a new generation of grandchildren. In my estimation, she is every bit a leader as those who serve in more acknowledged and public leadership roles. So, dear reader, if that feels more like your life and calling, please know that these reflections are meant for you too!

One initial observation as we begin our journey “up on a mountainside” with Jesus. As a leader, Jesus teaches before “he began to teach.” Because teaching is so much more than just words, Matthew strikes a resonant chord with his readers by noting that Jesus “went up on a mountainside and sat down.” For his Jewish hearers, those actions vibrate with meaning. Matthew paints a picture of the Sermon on the Mount that harkens back to Israel’s formational moment as a covenant people: Moses going up Mt. Sinai to receive the gift of the covenant for God’s people. Matthew’s intent for this picture is inescapable. Jesus is the one who is to come who is greater than Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15), who is bringing a new covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34) to the world.

But there is a notable and important difference in the setting between Mt. Sinai and the Sermon on the Mount. As the writer of the letter to the Hebrews says so vividly, “You have not come to a mountain … that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm … to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them” (Hebrews 12:18-19). No, Jesus’ setting is remarkable in its understated ordinariness and, perhaps more importantly, in its welcoming hospitality.

Jesus sits on a hillside with a group of his disciples talking about a new way of being human. Refreshingly, he uses remarkably direct and down-to-earth language, free of religious jargon. He speaks with little fanfare and with no drama. Except what he says will change the world, turning the world upside down by turning it right-side-up.

That’s worth paying attention to.

Reflect

In what ways are you a teacher in your role as a leader? How can you be more self-aware and intentional in that aspect of your role?

Act

Pay attention to the physical space and setting in which you operate as a leader. Look for ways to teach others about what is essential to you by creating the right context for your conversations and actions.

Pray

Lord Jesus Christ,

I am amazed at how thoughtfully and consciously you lead and teach. I find myself often preoccupied with my own thoughts and my own work. And so, I often forget to pay attention to what others need to experience and to hear.

Help me to connect my words and actions with your words and actions. And help me do it in a way that is fresh and down-to-earth for those whom I am called to serve.

As we hear your great sermon anew, give us eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to follow where you lead.

We ask in your name, Amen.


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Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. Commentary on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: The Kingdom of Heaven Has Come Near (Matthew)


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