Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | October 18, 2012

Being first

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to [Jesus] and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”  [Mark 10:35-45]


          Ron Heifitz, a leader in the field of leadership training, tells a story of when he and his wife were in England, on their way to a speaking engagement.  Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, was approaching, and they planned to observe the holiday at a synagogue in London.  The day came, and they found themselves still in the English countryside, nowhere near a synagogue.  On a bit of a whim, they decided to enter a small, empty Anglican church for a time of spiritual reflection.  At the front of the church was a crucifix, and Ron found himself in a bit of spiritual conflict.  Here he was, a Jew well-aware of the abuses of Christians toward his people, confronted with the figure of Jesus on the cross.  Nevertheless, he asked “Reb Jesus” to tell him about the experience of the cross.  Suddenly, he asked his wife to go outside with him for a small experiment.  They sat together near a tree in the deserted church yard, and he asked her to spread out her arms in a cruciform pose, which they both did.  After a few moments, he asked her how she felt, to which she replied, “Really vulnerable.”  That was it!  For this expert in leadership, the experience was a lesson in vulnerability.  Jesus was such a great leader because he was open and vulnerable to the experiences of life.  (Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky, Leadership On the Line, Boston:  Harvard Business School Press, 2002, p.228-229.)

          In this time when we are all talking about leadership (in politics particularly), maybe it’s a moment to figure out what makes a good leader, from Jesus’ perspective.  Whatever it is, we are pretty sure by the end of his lecture to the disciples, that we want no part of it.  James and John were looking for power.  Jesus tells them that true power is in servanthood and courage.

          The world has had a pure example of that in recent days.  Malala Yousafzai, a 14-year-old Pakistani, was shot in the head because she spoke out publicly on behalf of poor girls who were not allowed to go to school in Taliban-controlled areas.  Even as she is still recovering and her future is uncertain, she has become a beacon of light, drawing attention to the plight of girls and women under oppressive ideologies.  Muslims and Christians, Hindus and people of no particular faith are demonstrating around the world in support of Malala and her cause.

          Why?  Because she has spoken out for all the Malalas, wherever they are and whatever injustice they live under.  And she continued to do this at her own risk.

          This is the very definition of a person who leads by being vulnerable.  

          The whole world is praying for Malala’s recovery.  And for her message of strength and equality to take root, grow, and blossom.

© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2012


  1. “…whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” The juxtaposition of the passage from Mark culminating in these words and the anecdote about the cruciform pose and experience of vulnerability in this blog entry simply hold me in awe and humility.
    I assume all of us are periodically reminded of our Christian imperative to serve one another and experience a sense of vulnerability in our everyday lives. But to tie it to leadership at this point in our election calendar brings these themes into my field focus in my specialty as a political science, though I realize that it also is a common theme for all of us as citizens.
    Lately, I have been thinking about the schedule and pace of both presidential candidates in this race and the extraordinary courage each must possess to not only brave the exhausting string of daily appearances and glad-handing they must perform, but to place themselves out there in public, exposed and vulnerable to catcalls and the risk of psychological assault or bodily harm—even death—as part of seeking our support and vote. Given the lamentable state of our polarized politics and the cacophony of shrill voices and inflammatory websites and blogs, it is a wonder that any man or woman would want to place him- or herself in harm’s way in such a political combat zone. What a treacherous and border-line violent environment we seem to have allowed to be created that permit the most outrageous charges to be hurled at both candidates and their running mates. Naturally, loyalists of one party or the other will claim that their candidate is more pilloried in the streets and gathering places, the web and the talk radio, than their opponent. But I think that when we suspend our Christian values of love, mercy, and compassion we contribute myriad small ways to a political culture of incivility and even hatred that jeopardizes the very lives of those who have mustered the courage to pursue leadership positions while accepting the dangers of doing so.
    As a political child of the sixties, I saw people whom I revered, like John and Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Freedom Summer volunteers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman, but also those who I disliked, like George Wallace and Ronald Reagan, who were shot or killed for making themselves vulnerable to those caught up in political hatred and/or mental defect.
    As I ponder the example of Jesus—in Ron Heifitz’s words–as a “great leader because he was open and vulnerable to the experiences of life,” I ask myself how often I have been willing to open myself to the kind of exposure he faced in order to bring the good news, heal the sick, and advance the causes of social justice and community in the company of others, even those with whom I have major differences. Then I feel chastened and humbled, knowing that God is both just and forgiving.

    • Ernie, thank you, thank you. This moved me a great deal.

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