Washing the Disciples’ Feet: Jesus Models Servant Leadership

By Dr. Kevin Dougherty

Servant leadership is a leadership approach in which the leader meets the subordinate’s
legitimate needs—which might include such concerns as training, encouragement, resources, or help with personal issues—in order to allow the subordinate to better focus on and accomplish the organizational mission. While the traditional authoritarian leader asks, “What can the organization do for me?,” the servant leader asks, “What can I do for the organization?” Servant leadership requires attention to the subordinate’s situation, humility, and hard work. The servant leader must figure out what her subordinates need, put her own needs aside, and devote time and energy to creating the environment where the subordinates are both cared for and empowered. The idea is that if the leader meets her subordinates’ needs, they can then concentrate on and are empowered to pursue the organization’s needs. They also build a genuine trust in their leader based on her responsiveness to their needs.

Perhaps the most oft-cited example of the servant leadership is the account of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. This event is all the more telling when juxtaposed with the disciples arguing among themselves over which one of them was considered to be the greatest…. Jesus countered this selfish display of pride by performing one of his society’s lowest chores as a model of servant leadership. Open sandals, the dry climate, and dusty roads made washing feet a routine hygienic necessity in the Greco-Roman world. Washing someone else’s feet, however, was considered “the most menial task, which none but a servant or slave would ordinarily think of doing.” Even more, “for a superior to perform the act for an inferior would be an incomprehensible contradiction of their social relationship.” That, however, is exactly what Jesus did. Jesus and his disciples were gathered for an evening meal when Jesus “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.” When he was finished, Jesus asked the disciples if they understood what he had just done. He explained that he was setting for them an example: “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you should wash one another’s feet.” He contrasted such behavior with “the kings of the Gentiles” who “lord it over them” while calling themselves “Benefactors.” The disciples should not be like that, he warned, and offered himself as an example, standing “among you as one who serves.” The disciples accepted Jesus as their Lord and Master, and he certainly was in a position to have others serve him. Instead he “changed the definition of great leadership from a place of power, position, and prestige to the role of humble servant of love.” As Ken Blanchard says, Jesus “turned the organizational pyramid upside down.” This is not to say that Jesus surrendered any of his power or in any way ceased to be the leader. He merely recognized the need of his followers to have their feet washed and humbled himself to do it. In the process, he not only provided a kindness; he also equipped his disciples to continue their mission by taking care of their feet. When a servant leader acts in this way, Blanchard notes, “your effectiveness soars because you are responding to the needs of your people.”

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