The Oxymoron of Leadership

By Rev. Tim Yee

May 14, 2017

“…the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Matthew 20:26-28


Multiple doors that all seem the same representing tough decision making.In yesterday’s devotion we considered the apparent oxymorons of a “crucified Messiah” and a “doubting disciple”. Leaders who find appropriate ways to share their doubts help their followers understand that Jesus won’t reject us for doubt alone. Today, I want to talk about another apparent oxymoron.

When United Airlines was recently caught up in the terrible incident of a passenger being forcibly dragged off one of their flights, the internet blew up not only with harsh words for the airline but also darkly humorous suggestions for a new motto:

You carry on, we carry off.

We put the hospital in hospitality.

We overbooked, but you pay the price.

You get the idea. It was incredibly ironic to watch that viral video of the passenger being treated so poorly and to realize that United’s real slogan is: “Fly the Friendly Skies.” To millions this seemed to be an oxymoron.

Here’s another apparent oxymoron: servant leadership. I don’t need to remind you how important this aspect of leadership is, except to say that perhaps it’s not just an aspect of leadership but the essence of leadership. Though in leadership circles people have different definitions of what servant leadership means, I want to make the case that the essence of Jesus’s leadership was as a servant. Servant leadership shouldn’t be an oxymoron for those of us who seek to follow Jesus.

Jesus did not only serve humanity by dying on a cross and rising again, but also by the totality of his life. The act of Incarnation itself is a great service to his creation. Philippians 2 beautifully chronicles this mystical journey of Jesus in one of the early church’s earliest hymns. Paul implores his listeners to consider the essence of Jesus’s life and for us to do likewise. He’s calling us to be servant leaders.

Max De Pree famously described good leaders as realists, praisers, and servants. That means that being a servant leader includes recognizing good work and praising people for it. But it also includes looking realistically at your organization and making tough but needed changes. Servant leadership isn’t wimpy leadership.

“Servant leadership” shouldn’t be an oxymoron in our own contexts and we must begin with ourselves and then expect it from those we lead. Servant leadership isn’t just an aspect of leadership, but really the essence of it.


When people think about you, would they affirm that they see you as a servant leader or would it strike them more as an oxymoron? In the organization you serve can you think of people who exemplify servant leadership?

Why in some contexts does the word “servant” evoke negative responses? Is there a way to both recognize this reality and yet still encourage people to embrace Jesus’ model as a servant leader? Is growing as a servant leader something that is a priority for you this year?


Jesus, you are the ultimate servant leader who gave everything to lead us to new life and we worship you as King of kings and Lord of lords. Help us to grow as servants while we lead others. Help us to recognize ways we fail to praise others for the good work they do. Help us also to define reality so that we aren’t aimlessly going in circles. May we grow into servant leaders that help our organizations thrive. Amen.


Explore more at the Theology of Work Project online commentaryServant Leadership (Matthew 20:20-28)

Rev. Tim Yee

Contributor Emeritus & Pastor

Rev. Tim Yee is Pastor of Union Church of Los Angeles, a 100-year-old church in downtown L.A.’s Little Tokyo District where he serves a diverse church of professionals, internment camp survivors, artists and homeless. He serves on the Board of Union Rescue Mission where he leads the P...

More on Tim

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Learn Learn Learn Learn

the Life for Leaders newsletter

Learn Learn Learn Learn