The King Who Led with a Towel – Jesus the Servant Leadership Role Model

Jesus' Style of Leadership - Washing Feet as a ServantThe teachings and life style of Jesus are significant in the Christian’s life. He is the essential role model for how we seek to live out our lives. It’s interesting, therefore, that his model is often sadly neglected when it comes to aspects of church and organisational leadership. He was the prototype of Christian leadership.

“The King Who Led with a Towel” is a three part article that examines Jesus’ leadership style and example. It is extracted from “Culture Craft” by Rick Sessoms and Colin Buckland and Rick’s original 2003 paper. Their dialogue introduces us to the explicit leadership lessons that Jesus gave to his Disciples and his leadership values. They provide key insights into a practical and effective style of leadership for Christian leaders in both churches and other organisations.

This first part of “The King Who Led with a Towel” considers the lessons that Jesus taught his Disciples about leadership and part two looks at the  servant leadership values that Jesus demonstrated.

A Different Leadership Style

John 13:3-14 is a classic biblical account that demonstrates Jesus’ leadership perspectives and practice:

“Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin, and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ Jesus replied, ‘You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’

‘No,’ said Peter, ‘you shall never wash my feet.’

Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.’

‘Then, Lord,’ Simon Peter replied, ‘not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!’

Jesus answered, ‘A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.’ For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean.

When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. ‘Do you understand what I have done for you?’ he asked them. ‘You call me Teacher and Lord, and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”

The time was Passover, the most sacred of Jewish feasts. Three million people would have been in Jerusalem for this Celebration Week. Word had spread like wildfire through the city that Jesus of Nazareth was on his way to the feast. Thousands lined the road as Jesus made his way into Jerusalem. “Hosanna!” they chanted. “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is the kingdom of our father David!”

But Jesus wasn’t what the crowd expected. They expected a conquering King. He disappointed the Passover pilgrims that week. But in so doing, he fulfilled their most profound need. This is made graphically clear a few days later when Jesus and his friends had gathered for a meal. Since the streets and roads of Palestine were plain dirt – in dry weather they were deep in dust, and in wet weather they could become liquid mud – the shoes people wore in that day were simple: a flat sole, held onto the feet by a few straps. So every walk in the street soiled the feet. That’s why just inside the doorway of homes sat a basin of water with a towel. The custom was for a servant to greet visitors and wash their feet.

But on this night when Jesus gathered his disciples for a meal, the wash basin sat unused. Of course, the disciples had their minds riveted on more noble thoughts. The talk of the week had ignited their imaginations of the Kingdom of God – dreams of thrones and power and glory. In fact, they were conflicted about which of them would be the greatest in this Kingdom – while everybody in the house had dirty feet.

So Jesus got up from the table, prepared himself, and started to wash the feet of his followers. Here is the King of Kings, washing filthy feet, and drying them with a towel. Here is a King whose symbol of authority is a towel. Jesus demonstrated and taught three lessons about leadership in his use of the towel that night.

Lesson #1: Jesus’ use of the “towel” represented His whole life and leadership.

The first lesson is that the towel dramatizes not only Jesus’ leadership, but also his whole life. Washing his disciples’ feet was no isolated event. On the contrary, what Jesus did that night in the upper room vividly portrays the whole journey He made from the Father into the world and back to the Father. Jesus laid aside His garments that night just as He had laid aside His glory in heaven and His privileges as the Son of God. He washed men’s feet – a menial act of service – just as He died the degrading death of a common criminal. And when Jesus had finished washing their feet, He took up His garments and returned to His place of honour, just as He was taken up from the grave and was seated again with God the Father. In this upper room, the Son of Man stripped off His garments, got down on his knees, and washed dirt from the feet of those whom He had called to follow Him as a fitting symbol of His whole life and leadership.

Lesson #2: Jesus’ use of the “towel” revealed His perspective on positional power.

The second lesson is that the towel revealed Jesus’ own concept of positional power. From a human perspective, washing feet is beneath the dignity of a King. In fact, Peter reflected his shock at Jesus’ actions when he responded, ” You shall never wash my feet”. Peter wanted Jesus to fit into human ideas of royalty and privilege. In this foot-washing, Jesus dismantled our concept of position and pecking order. We live with the notion that to be leader is to be exalted. But in His use of the towel, Jesus revealed that being God means coming down from His throne and giving Himself to serve.

Peter would have been perfectly comfortable washing Jesus’ feet. That would be normal according to human ideas. But to see Jesus – the great I AM – stoop before Peter and begin to reach for his dirty feet is not normal.

Just before coming into Jerusalem that week, Jesus told His disciples, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and give his life a ransom for many. In that one line He turned everything upside down.

Colin:     I have to admit that these words of Jesus stir in me a mixed reaction. On the one hand, I’m touched by such a King. But on the other hand, like Peter, I’m disturbed. For at first glance, if I hold to a view of God as the One who serves me, will it not create in me an inappropriate pride?

Rick:    I see what you mean. Will it cause a person to be self-centred?

Colin:    But as I take a second look, the opposite is actually true. A God on His knees humbles me. For if my only view of God is that of a supreme King at the top rung of the ladder, then I’m always wondering how I will get to Him and worrying how I am doing. Am I making progress toward Him? What can I do to make my way up to Him? In the name of religion, I become preoccupied with myself compared to where everybody else is on the ladder. But this kind of love knocks me off the ladder and out of the centre. Jesus was revealing the King’s own idea about what it means to be King.

Lesson #3: Jesus’ use of the “towel” teaches us to serve God by serving others.

After washing their feet, Jesus said to His disciples, “Do you understand what I have done for you? You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord’, and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you should wash one another’s feet.”

What a profound statement. If Jesus had said “Now that I’ve washed your feet, you wash my feet”, we would be standing in line for the privilege of being first with the towel and the basin to wash God’s feet. But Jesus said, “Now that I have washed your feet, you wash one another’s feet.” I am a debtor to Jesus the King for what He has paid for me.

Rick:    I once heard a preacher interpret Jesus’ words here to imply that my neighbour is now the appointed agent authorized to receive what I owe the Master.

Colin:     You know, if this is true, it means that my wife is the appointed agent authorized to receive my gratitude to Jesus Christ the King. I wash my Lord’s feet as I wash her feet. My children are the appointed agents authorized to receive my gratitude to the King. I wash Jesus’ feet as I wash their feet. My work colleagues are the appointed agents authorized to receive my gratitude to the King. I wash Jesus’ feet as I wash their feet.

Rick:     Leading with the “towel” means believing in people enough to empower them with the authority and the resources and the information as well the accountability they need to be the best they can be. It means creating an environment safe enough for them to risk giving all …and sometimes fail in their giving …and encouraging them to risk again. Leading with the “towel” implies that I don’t have to be the source of every good idea, but we discover the vision together. It is all about creating an atmosphere where everyone is free to tell the truth, especially to the leaders. Leading with the “towel” means allowing people to express their passion and defending privately and publicly those who don’t compromise principle for profit. It also means treating each person with the sacred understanding that they are uniquely crafted in the image of their Creator – not in mine. Leading with the “towel” is enabling people to make decisions and to pursue their God given dreams, and celebrating their accomplishments. Leading with the “towel” means serving those I lead not so that they will serve me, but so that they will serve others.

But I have to admit, there is a tension in me as I write these things. As a leader, this way of relating to people isn’t normal. It’s often not the way I have related to people in the past. This way of relating to people reverses the order. It is subversive. It destabilizes.

Colin:    But isn’t that precisely what Jesus intends? I think we’re beginning to grasp the Gospel of the Kingdom. Jesus changes our whole concept of power, of authority, of status. When the disciples were arguing about who would be greatest, He said to them, “You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them … But it is not so among you. Whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be number one shall be slave to all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve” (Matthew 20:25-28).

The King who led with a towel inaugurated a kingdom of foot washers. He deleted the icon of leaders clamouring for power, people climbing over each other to get to the top. Jesus’ example even puts to rest the notion that I wash your feet so that you wash mine. Rather, I wash your feet so that you can in turn wash another’s feet.

That which distinguishes Jesus’ way of leadership is brought into being by the self-emptying love of Jesus Himself. When leaders belong to King Jesus, we can no longer write on our resume, “I don’t wash feet.” That’s precisely what leaders do, because that’s what Jesus does.

Rick:     As liberating as it is, this way of leadership doesn’t just happen. As much as I may want to be this kind of leader, I find myself expressing with the Apostle Paul, “Lord, what I do is not the good I want to do, and the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing. . . who will rescue me?” (Romans 7:19-24). I’m unable to lead this way – at least with any consistency. In those times, when I’m unable – or unwilling – to take up the “towel,” when I find myself in that place where Jesus’ way of leadership just doesn’t make sense, it usually means that it’s time to let Him wash my feet again. It’s time to let the King wash me again. It’s time to let this King who knew where he had come from and where he was going, this King who knew that He was in the absolute centre of His Father’s will, this King whose heart is overflowing with love, to wash my feet again. For to the degree that I allow him to love me and serve me, to that degree I can wash the feet of those I lead into the liberty of the Kingdom of God.


As you ponder Jesus’ leadership style how does it compare your own?

Part 2 of “The King Who led with a Towel” can be found here.

Image: Nick Cummings