Chapter Three: The Price of Leadership




            When ICI University was located in Irving, Texas, we had many guests.  I would occasionally take some of them to see the place where President John F. Kennedy was shot and the memorial to him on the sixth floor of the old Texas School Book Depository building in Dallas, Texas. One of the pictures on the sixth floor is of the presidential motorcade passing the Adolphus hotel on Main Street. If the picture were clearer, I would be seen in it because I was standing there when the motorcade went by.

            In 1963 my wife, Esther, our two sons, George and Mark, and I were living in Richardson, Texas, just north of Dallas. We were planting a new church in that community. About noon on November 22, 1963, I drove from Oak Cliff into the heart of Dallas and parked my car in the Adolphus Hotel parking garage. I walked outside to stand on Main Street to watch the presidential motorcade.

            There was a huge crowd with many people surging into the street to be near the passing motorcycles, limousines, and cars. Eventually, the presidential car came into view and passed by with President Kennedy, his wife Jackie, and Governor Connally in the car. I almost could have touched the car as it went by. I was standing just a few blocks away from where President Kennedy was shot.

            The shooting occurred too far away for me to hear any gunfire or see anything. When the motorcade passed, I returned to my car and drove up Central Expressway. I turned on my radio and heard the words, “The President has been shot.” I drove on to Richardson, entered my home, and began praying about what I would say to our congregation. It was then that I began thinking about the enormous price there is to leadership.  President Kennedy paid the ultimate price.

            This incident brings me to my subject and my text for this chapter.  My subject is “The Price of Leadership.”  My text for this book is
Matthew 20:20-28; for this chapter it is verse 22.  In this verse, Jesus challenges the disciples with a question about paying the cost of leading.  Matthew 20:20-28 tells the story:

   20  Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to Jesus with her sons, bowing down and making a request of Him.

  21 And He said to her, "What do you wish?" She said to Him, "Command that in Your kingdom these two sons of mine may sit one on Your right and one on Your left."

  22 But Jesus answered, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?" They said to Him, "We are able."

   23 He said to them, "My cup you shall drink; but to sit on My right and on My left, this is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by My Father."

   24 And hearing this, the ten became indignant with the two brothers.

   25 But Jesus called them to Himself and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them.

   26 "It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant,

   27 and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave;

   28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many."

            As we consider verse 22 and our subject, “The Price of Leadership,” we will discuss (1) Christ's reply to the request of James and John and their mother, (2) some of the costs of leadership, and (3) meeting the challenge of leading.

            Before we pick up these themes, however, let us briefly review and summarize some thoughts on leadership which we have thus far considered. There are at least three types of leaders.   A leader can be ahead, the head, or a head. When we think of leaders, we often think of the last two types. However, all three types of leaders can influence others.

            With this in mind, several points should be made: (1) Leadership may involve position, power, and authority. All these factors may be involved in what one does as a leader, but they may not be either. (2) The indispensable element of greatness in leadership is service. One may serve and be great with or without the other elements, such as power, being involved. (3) One may serve without leading in the sense of being the head or a head.  (4) Sometimes one is a leader in the sense of being ahead in service.

Christ's Reply

            The mother of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Jesus and requested (verse 21), “Command that in Your kingdom these two sons of mine may sit one on Your right and one on Your left.”  Jesus' reply emphasized the price of leadership. True leadership may or may not involve position and honor, but it always exacts a price. We will now focus on Christ's reply.

            First, Jesus responded, “
You do not know what you are asking.”  The mother of James and John did not know all that her request would involve. She saw and wanted her sons to have the places of honor, but she did not see the cost. If she had seen the cost, she no doubt would have been more hesitant to make her request. Indeed, she may not have made the request at all.

            Many budding leaders are unaware of the cost.  Projects often involve more than they think it will.  Sometimes, it may be better that we do not know the cost. When we started ICI (now Global University) we did not know how difficult it would be to produce high quality materials. It took years to develop what we projected in one committee meeting!   I have met many people since who did not understand all that was involved. We could say the same thing about any place of leadership. We may try to count all the cost, but because of our ignorance, our estimate will fall short of the reality.

            Jesus immediately touched on the crucial point--we should think of the cost before we offer ourselves for leadership. The leadership queue is much shorter when the cost is understood!  By beginning here, Jesus did not have to condemn the disciples for their zealousness to lead.

            Second, Jesus then asked, “Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?”  We will consider the cup He was about to drink, but before we do, let us examine the text.  In the King James Version of
Mt. 20:22-23, we read:

   22  But Jesus answered and said, Ye know not what ye ask. Are ye able to drink of the cup that I shall drink of, and to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? They say unto him, We are able.
   23 And he saith unto them, Ye shall drink indeed of my cup, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with: but to sit on my right hand, and on my left, is not mine to give, but it shall be given to them for whom it is prepared of my Father.”  (KJV)

            According to this version, Jesus refers both to the cup He would drink and the baptism He would experience. His reference to the baptism is not in the Nestle Greek version of the Matthew text.  Also, the New American Standard Bible does not include the baptismal reference here.

            However, the Nestle Greek text and the New American Standard Bible include the reference to baptism in the parallel passage in
Mark 10:38-39.  Here, in the NASB, we read:

   38 But Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?"
   39 They said to Him, "We are able." And Jesus said to them, "The cup that I drink you shall drink; and you shall be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized.”

             Given the textual evidence in Mark, I believe that Jesus referred both to the cup He would drink and to the baptism He would experience. Both of the metaphors, the “cup” and the “baptism,” depicted His suffering. To “drink” and to be “baptized” meant to endure the sufferings.

            Third, Jesus suffered much in His earthly life and ministry. He gave up heaven's glories to become a man and dwell among us. He ministered in power and served others in dynamic ways. Yet He was rejected of men and despised. The sufferings He endured culminated in his passion (Latin passio means suffering) and death.  The following points are germane.

            One, when Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane, He prayed (Matthew 26:39), “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will.” Then, a second time, He prayed “My Father, if this cannot pass away unless I drink it, Your will be done” (Matthew. 26:42).  Jesus had to drink the “cup” in the Garden. The contents of this cup were the sins of men and the judgment of God.

            With regard to our sins, Paul wrote (
2 Corinthians 5:21): “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”  Few have written so eloquently on this point as Robert W. Cummings, one of my former teachers. In Gethsemane, he writes: “It is not the human weakness of Jesus that we see in Gethsemane; it is the recoil, the revulsion of the nature of the holy Son of God, when the One who was the sharer of God's holiness became sin, so that we might become righteousness” (1944, 34).

            Concerning God's judgment, Christ is the One who paid the price of turning away God's anger and the covering for our sins.   John states:  “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2, NIV).  The phrase “atoning sacrifice” is the NIV’s translation of the Greek word hilasmos.  The NASB translation is “propitiation” whereas the RSV has “expiation.”  According to Leon Morris, “Propitiation means the turning away of anger; expiation is rather the making amends for a wrong” (1983, 151).  Many writers hold that the expiation is achieved by covering over or wiping away the sins.   Gary M. Burge points out that “The NIV attempts to catch both emphases with its translation, ‘atoning sacrifice’” (1996, 86).

            Putting all this in other words, the translation “atoning sacrifice” includes two concepts.  Because of the price Jesus paid in the atonement, (1) God’s anger is turned away from the one who believes in Jesus and (2) the sins of the believer are wiped away and covered.  All of this takes place because Jesus atoned for our sins.  

            The hymn “Jesus Paid It All” was written by Elvina Hall in 1865.  She was a member of the Monument Street Methodist church.  The hymn explicitly captures the essence of the second concept above, and no doubt presupposes the first.  The lyrics include the following refrain:

Jesus paid it all
All to Him I owe
Sin had left a crimson stain

He washed it white as snow

            Two, Jesus used the metaphor of baptism as well to describe His coming sufferings.  The metaphors of the cup and of baptism give us a graphic portrayal of the suffering Jesus would endure.  In Luke 12:49-50, Jesus declared:  

   49  I have come to cast fire upon the earth; and how I wish it were already kindled! 

   50 But I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is accomplished.”

The metaphor of baptism might refer to sufferings in general, but here Jesus especially refers to His death on the cross, to His work of atonement for our sins.   In spite of the incredible suffering He would endure, Christ plainly says that He is eager to accomplish His atoning work.

            Fourth, Jesus made it clear that His disciples would pay a price for following Him and for leading. He said (verse 23), “My cup you shall drink.”  The suffering of Jesus was unique in the sense that only He could take upon Himself our sins and atone for them, but the disciples, too, will suffer. For example, during the Passion Week, Jesus said “Remember the word that I said to you, 'A slave I not greater than his master.'  If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also” (
John 15:20).  When the way of the cross is difficult, we should be neither surprised nor dismayed.  While we must be prepared for persecution, it is encouraging to know that there will be people who keep the word of Christ and who keep our word.  Our word is our proclamation of the Word of Christ. 

Your Cup and Baptism

            As Christ has made clear, we will encounter sufferings along the trail to greatness in His kingdom.  We will have our “cup” to drink and our “baptism” to undergo. We are applying this truth to leadership. We cannot be great leaders without paying the price of leadership.  The persecution that Christ foretold is, of course, only one kind of price that leaders and disciples pay. Leaders are confronted with many different costs.  Most, if not all, leaders have experienced one or more of these costs.

            First, John W. Alexander avers that “A penalty for leadership is loneliness” (1972, 110).  The higher the position, the more lonely it is. There are fewer peers in whom to confide. Many leaders have found themselves entirely alone when they were confronted with difficult decisions. When the advisers have said everything, the decision still has to be made.

            Second, because of their insight and understanding, leaders sometimes are ahead of their times. Seeing much, they want to effect change, to create, and to innovate. However, they often feel the pull of tradition and the slowness of others to accept change. In such situations leaders must either slow down and wait for others to catch up or take the risk of forging ahead. Either way, the leader pays a price.  The burden is easier to bear when the leader keeps his focus not only on what exists at the time, but also on the vision. 

            Third, many times leaders are misunderstood. Others may not understand their thinking or their motives. Rather paradoxically, a highly idealistic person is sometimes more misunderstood than others. Idealism forces openness and honesty, and openness and honesty reveal flaws. Sometimes leaders are misunderstood because they act on the basis of confidential information. People who do not have this information sometimes do not like the leader’s decisions.

            Fourth, Sanders writes, “No leader is exempt from criticism, and his humility will nowhere be seen more clearly than in the manner in which he accepts and reacts to it” (1967, 110).  Perhaps this is the greatest test of all for leaders. Leaders must be able to endure and benefit from criticism.

            Fifth, Fisher wrote a book about University presidents called The Power of the President. In it he emphasizes the positional distance that the University president must maintain. He explains his point of view as follows:

Distance means being utterly transparent but always remote. Distance is having a close vice-presidential associate after ten years say, 'Yes, he's my best friend and I would do virtually anything for him, but I can't say that I completely know him.' Distance is recognizing that a leader is no longer “one of the boys or girls.” Distance is being a friendly phantom: warm and genuine, concerned and interested, but rarely around too long or overly involved. Distance is recognizing and using the trappings of office, adjusting these only to suit the taste and sophistication of the audience or constituency.  Distance balances remoteness and familiarity. The effective leader is both excitingly mysterious and utterly known. (1984, 45)

Many would be leaders do not understand this concept nor can they live with the thought of being “distant” from followers. Yet positional distance appears to be an element in many leadership roles.   It is a price that may be paid by those who would lead.  As servant leaders in the body of Christ, we must be careful not to overdo this principle.  People we serve like to feel that they know their leaders well.

            Sixth, another cost is the loss of privacy.  For many people this is a sacrifice. Somewhat paradoxically, people work to be leaders, then they bemoan the loss of privacy!  Nevertheless, the loss can be real.  Some leaders try to offset this by having unlisted phone numbers and by isolating themselves in other ways.  Sometimes, however, the loss must be suffered in order to be close to the people being led.

            Seventh, leaders must learn not only to lead but also to be subordinate. One cannot lead well unless he has learned to be subordinate also. It is interesting to watch leaders in various situations. A leader in one context strides confidently to the head place at the conference table, while in another situation, he quietly sits down in a subordinate place. The leader knows what his role is at all times.

            Eighth, progress involves risk. He who will not take risks will not lead. The problem, for Christian leaders, is to know when action is born of faith and not presumption. We must listen carefully to people who issue words of caution, yet be ready to act when God fills our hearts with faith. Theodore Roosevelt famously said, “No man is worth his salt who is not ready at all times to risk his body, to risk his well-being, to risk his life, in a great cause” (

            Ninth, most leaders invest more time and energy than their followers in the mission they seek to accomplish. Because of this, leaders can become very weary. Unless they are willing to pay this price, they probably will not be able to lead. This is particularly true when many volunteer leaders are involved. The leader has to lead by example.

            At the same time leaders must learn to delegate tasks to others and take opportunities to rest. When leaders are physically rested, they are more effective. Because leaders both need rest and, at the same time, have to sacrifice themselves in service, they live with tension that is probably never completely resolved.

            Tenth, unfortunately, the leader's family often has to pay a price along with him or her.  How many pastors have wished that they had taken more time with their children? When children go astray, they are especially prone to look back and wish they had done things differently. The leader must be careful to protect his family from paying too high a price.

            Eleventh, often a group does not recognize a leader until he or she is gone. This especially is true of prophetic leaders. Such leaders often strike the consciences of those around them and see into the future with greater insight. Consequently, they are not accepted. However, all leaders are subject to rejection. As time goes on, they have to make unpopular decisions and take difficult courses of action. This eventually can result in rejection. This is a great price to pay.

            Twelfth, Maxwell holds that the "price-tag" of leadership is self-discipline. He explains: "All great leaders have understood that their number one responsibility was for their own discipline and personal growth. If they could not lead themselves, they could not lead others. Leaders can never take others farther than they have gone themselves, for no one can travel without until he or she has first travelled within" (1993, 161-162).

            We can lengthen the list. Leaders must pay the price of delayed reward, acceptable compromise in some cases, isolation, pressure and perplexity, never being off duty, disappointment, non-acceptance of vision, and many more. You can make your own list of costs you have paid.

Meeting the Challenge

            Given the costs involved in leadership, we do not wonder now why Jesus did not rebuke the disciples for their mother's request.  Instead He pointed them to the price of leading.  If we are to be leaders, we must be willing to pay the price.

            We must meet the challenge. The writer of
Proverbs 24:10 says, “If you are slack in the day of distress, Your strength is limited.” In the KJV version of this verse, we read, “If you faint in the day of adversity, thy strength is small.” Let us, then, consider how we can meet the challenge.  With regard to meeting the challenge, I would note the following aspects.

            First, when John F. Kennedy was shot, I thought a lot about the price of leadership. About five years later, in 1968, I was in Fort Worth in the home of Fred Scheuerman, my brother-in-law. At the time Bobby Kennedy was in California campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination. We watched the news and went to bed.

            The next morning, when I arose, Fred was watching a newscast, and the news was all about the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. Many pictures were shown of Bobby Kennedy lying lifeless on the floor. This time, my thoughts turned to values. My question was, “Is being president worth the price?” When we have to pay the price, our thoughts turn to the worthwhileness of the cause.

            If leadership were only a position, the cost could be far too great. Fortunately, for us, we serve the greatest and most worthwhile cause of all. We do our work with eternity in view. We set our sights on winning people to Christ, on making disciples, on training people to serve, and on ministries of compassion.

            Second, perhaps courage is the one characteristic which is needed most in meeting the challenge of leadership.  As Wolff points out, courage comes from the French word coeur, meaning heart (1970, 47).   It take a lot of “heart” or courage to be a leader.  As Wolff states:  “A leader needs courage because leadership involves risk. Courage is necessary to overcome the anguish, the loneliness, perhaps the ridicule and the rejection. The possibility of failure often looms large” (1970, 47).  Wolff adds these comments:

In his last letter addressed to a leader of the church, Paul reminds Timothy to rekindle the gift of God which is in him “for God did not give us a spirit of timidity but a spirit of power and love and self-control” (II Tim. 1:7).  Positively expressed, God gives us courage, heart--and this must be preeminently so in the case of a leader.  (1970, 47)

            Third, centuries before Christ, Moses said to the Lord, “If your presence does not go with us, do not lead us up from here” (Exodus 33:15).  The presence of God is absolutely essential for us. We cannot meet the challenges of leadership without the presence of God.

            We are blessed by the promises of God with regard to His presence. Before His death, Jesus declared, “I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever” (
John. 14:16).   Then, following His resurrection, Jesus said, “and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
We do not face the challenge alone!

            Fourth, we must know the rewards of leadership. Some day we will be with Christ. This will be our highest reward. We will participate in the timeless exaltation and praise of our Lord! Only believers in Christ will experience this.  Then, we will hear Christ’s voice of approval for all that we have done.  We will receive the “imperishable” wreath for our victory in running the race (
1 Corinthians 9:25).   Apart from this, the highest reward will be the harvest of our efforts.  All of those that we have influenced toward Jesus will be there.  What a joy that will be!


            Sometimes leadership involves position, honor, and power, but the indispensable ingredient in great leadership is service. When we serve, we are a leader even if only in the sense of leading in service.  We may lead in other ways also, but servant leadership demands service.  Individually and organizationally, we must focus on what meets the needs of the people we serve. 

            We must pay the price of leadership.  Christian leadership is no exception to this rule. As Christian leaders we must understand the required steps to leadership. We must know that leadership takes us along the pathway of humility. The needs of men, the commands of our Lord, and the urgency of the hour all demand men and women who will step forward and pay the price of leadership.