Good to Great - Level 5 Leaders

Matthew 20:17-28

Jesus predicts his death and resurrection

17 As Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the Twelve aside by themselves on the road. He told them, 18 “Look, we are going up to Jerusalem. The Human One will be handed over to the chief priests and legal experts. They will condemn him to death. 19 They will hand him over to the Gentiles to be ridiculed, tortured, and crucified. But he will be raised on the third day.”

Request from James and John’s mother

20 Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus along with her sons. Bowing before him, she asked a favor of him.

21 “What do you want?” he asked.

She responded, “Say that these two sons of mine will sit, one on your right hand and one on your left, in your kingdom.”

22 Jesus replied, “You don’t know what you’re asking! Can you drink from the cup that I’m about to drink from?”

They said to him, “We can.”

23 He said to them, “You will drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left hand isn’t mine to give. It belongs to those for whom my Father prepared it.”

24 Now when the other ten disciples heard about this, they became angry with the two brothers. 25 But Jesus called them over and said, “You know that those who rule the Gentiles show off their authority over them and their high-ranking officials order them around. 26 But that’s not the way it will be with you. Whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant. 27 Whoever wants to be first among you will be your slave— 28 just as the Human One didn’t come to be served but rather to serve and to give his life to liberate many people.”


Thoughts on the passage:

In his sermon for the 125th anniversary last week, Bishop Ough challenged us to live into how God is calling us to be a great church as we move forward into the future. Jim Collins explored the question of what it takes for companies to make the transition from being good companies that did not stand out from the rest of their industries to great companies that outperformed not only their competition but often yielded returns far beyond even solid performers in the general stock market. Through carefully studying these companies as well as comparisons that did not have the same success, Collins comes up with a set of ideas of what it takes for a company to make the switch from good to great.

Over the last 125 years, Willmar has been a good church. We have done missions, reached new people, and spread the gospel message faithful in our worship, Sunday school classes and our outreach to the community. Over the next few weeks I want us to challenge ourselves to think about what it might take for us to become a great church. When he is studying companies, Jim Collins uses the easy metric of return on investment or stock price, as a way of defining greatness. Obviously, when we talk about great churches, we are not looking for a financial return of investment. Rather, I would say a great church is one that really lives into the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. A great church is a place where people’s lives are changed, relationships are saved, God’s healing power is experienced, and people grow in their love of God and neighbor. Willmar can be a great church!

President Truman once said, “You can accomplish anything in life, provided you do not care who gets the credit.” In his study of great companies, Jim Collins found that all of them were led by what he called Level 5 leaders. He defines Level 5 leaders as those who “Channel their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company. It is not that Level 5 leaders have no ego or self-interested. Indeed, they are incredibly ambitious – but their ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves.” While many of them might not have realized it, they exemplified some of these traits that Jesus talks about in Matthew where he tells his disciples that whoever wishes to be great must first become a servant. It is not about personal glory, but rather a desire to do what is best for everyone that makes a person great.

One of the tendencies of these Level 5 leaders that Jim Collins observed was what he called the “window and the mirror.” Level 5 leaders tended to look out the window when it came to success, giving credit to others, or to luck, for the good things that were happening at their company. By contrast, when it came to things going poorly, they were quick to take responsibility, never blaming others or bad luck with things went poorly. This comes in part from both a sense of humility, to recognize the contributions of others, but also a level of personal responsibility to be the first to find fault in their own actions when things go wrong.

While I would not claim to be a Level 5 leader, I can tell you how hard it is to shoulder personality responsibility. Our society loves to glorify success and there is not a lot of reward for those who accept the burden of their own failings. I know that when I look at my time here as the leader of Willmar United Methodist Church, there is a lot of blame that I need to take for the declines we have seen in worship, membership, and other areas of the church. I am not always sure what I could have done better, but I know that as the appointed leader of this church, I have not succeeded in the ways I would have hoped to, and for that I am sorry.

Being a Level 5 leader is not something that just pastors, or CEOs need to worry about. I would argue that the traits of Level 5 leaders are rooted in the servant leadership that Jesus calls all disciples to exemplify, not just James and John, or those who were gathered around with him in the story from Matthew. If we want to claim the name of Christian, if we want to call ourselves followers of Christ, then we need to be prepared to live our lives with that same sense of servant leadership and humility that Jesus did. Each of us can be a Level 5 leader in our own lives.

Now, there are a lot of things that I have done right in my four plus years as the pastor and there are also a number of things I have done wrong. Some of you might even have a longer list than me of the things I have done wrong. Rather than dwell on all of my mistakes, which would take all morning, I wanted to use one as an example. We set a rallying cry for our church to be a community of love and celebration. One of the things that we wanted to do was build a culture of gratitude. I am aware that I am not always doing my part. I have these great goals of doing more to write thank you notes and yet I do not do it enough. Now, it might not seem like a big thing, but we all know that every little bit makes a difference. Sometimes it is easy to think that others will do it and let that be enough, but I think that sort of mindset is what makes us a good church. A good church is one where the dedicated 20% do the work. A great church is one where the whole 100% are dedicated and do the work.

We tend to think about humility as a certain “aw-shucks” level of not pushing things. We think of it as downplaying our gifts or just not standing out. James and John wanted to be seated by Jesus. For most of us that would seem like a very not humble desire. Jesus does not fault them for it. Instead he tells them what it will take and what it will look like for them to accomplish their goal. For me to be a Level 5 leader is to take ownership of the fact that if we are going to be a great church than it is going to have to start with me. It can seem like a not very humble claim, but I make it not based on my gifts, but based on what Christ needs.

At the same time, all of us are called to be such leaders or if you prefer disciples. If we are going to be a great church, we just need to know that it starts with each of us. The leaders of the companies that made the jump from good to great were not just smarter than the other leaders. In fact, they might not have been as smart, but they were driven to keep getting better every day. We do not have to be the smartest leaders or the best disciples of Jesus, we just need to be committed to getting better. John Wesley would call it moving on to perfection.

I have made mistakes in my four plus years here. I can promise you that as long as I am your pastor, I am going to keep making mistakes. Here is what I am also going to promise you, those mistakes will be driven by my desire to help us to be a great church. I can also promise you that I will own my mistakes. I am never going to stop trying to make this a great church because that is what I am called to do. If we are going to be leaders or disciples, or followers of Christ, we need to die to ourselves so that we might bring about the kingdom of God.  Amen

Questions to Ponder:

What would make Willmar United Methodist Church a great church?

What traits make a great leader to you?

What does servant leadership look like?

Who is someone you know who does a good job of following Christ’s instructions to be a servant to others?


God, too often we find ourselves either filled with pride in our own abilities or hiding what we have from others in modesty and shame. Help us to see that you have given us all great gifts that can be used to bring about your kingdom. Give us the humility to seek not our own glory but yours. Give us the audacity and courage to strive to be the best disciples we can be in bringing about your kingdom. Amen