Society & Politics

Leadership Lessons from the Public Life of Jesus - Lesson 3, Part 1


Preston Manning, Senior Fellow

This article is the fifth in a series by Preston Manning on leadership lessons from the public life of Jesus. A member of the Canadian House of Commons from 1993 to 2001, founder of two new political parties—the Reform Party of Canada and the Canadian Reform Conservative Allianceand the Leader of the Official Opposition from 1997 to 2000, Preston works with the MI on the development and communication of faith-informed approaches to political leadership and public policy.

Part 1: The Inculcation of High Ethical Standards


Prior to my entry into federal politics in Canada I spent twenty years as a management consultant, mainly focused on long-range strategic, communications, and community relations planning for clients in the energy industry. In that context I tried to keep up on the various techniques and strategies published every year in a variety of journals and books on the subject of effective management, especially the management of people. Some of these were quite helpful and would eventually be of use to me in managing the executive and organization of a political party, including a parliamentary caucus. But of all the management texts I have read and studied, perhaps the most insightful and helpful from my perspective has been a book by a 19th century Scottish clergyman and theologian, A. B. Bruce, entitled The Training of the Twelve.[1]

The language of this book will strike the modern reader as quaint and out of another era, which it is. And Bruce occasionally digresses into giving his side of various theological disputes which were apparently important at the time but no longer resonate with us. But the depth and breadth of Bruce’s descriptions and insights into exactly how Jesus of Nazareth, in three short years, took a motley crew of twelve young men and moulded them into the founding members and leaders of an organization, the Christian church, which has lasted over twenty centuries and greatly affected the lives of hundreds of millions of people, are profound and instructive indeed.

“The Twelve” were not the smartest. They were not the wealthiest or the best educated. They were not the best connected or the most religious of the people Jesus met. Far from it. Most were from a rural region, Galilee, of which one of their own is recorded as wondering “Can anything good come from there?”[2]  Bruce describes them as follows:

In a worldly point of view they were a very insignificant company, indeed—a band of poor illiterate Galilean provincials, utterly devoid of social consequence, not likely to be chosen by one having supreme regard to prudential considerations. Why did Jesus choose such men? Was He guided by feelings of antagonism to those possessing social advantages, or of partiality for men of His own class? No; His choice was made in true wisdom. If He chose Galileans mainly, it was not from provincial prejudice against those of the south; if, as some think, He chose two or even four of His own kindred, it was not from nepotism; if He chose rude, unlearned, humble men, it was not because He was animated by any petty jealousy of knowledge, culture, or good birth. If any rabbi, rich man, or ruler had been willing to yield himself unreservedly to the service of the kingdom, no objection would have been taken to him on account of his acquirements, possessions, or titles. … The truth is, that Jesus was obliged to be content with fishermen, and publicans, and quondam zealots, for apostles. They were the best that could be had.[3]

Nevertheless, now looking back over twenty centuries, it is truly astounding to see what this humble band became under his tutelage and what was accomplished through them. What might those of us responsible for forming, motivating, and managing small groups of people today—especially for religious or political purposes or for operating at the faith-political interface—learn from Jesus’ methods and example in this regard?

Lessons in Leadership

As Bruce observes, the record of the work of Jesus contained in the gospels has two distinct dimensions—a public dimension in which he spoke, taught, and acted in public and dealt with public audiences, and a more private and intimate dimension in which Jesus devoted himself specifically to the training and cultivation of “the twelve.” Be reminded, he says, that:

…there were two religious movements going on in the days of the Lord Jesus. One consisted in rousing the masses out of the stupor of indifference; the other consisted in the careful, exact training of men already in earnest, in the principles and truths of the divine kingdom. Of the one movement the disciples … were the agents; of the other movement they were the subjects. And the latter movement, though less noticeable, and much more limited in extent, was by far more important than the former; for it was destined to bring forth fruit that should remain—to tell not merely on the present time, but on the whole history of the world.[4]

It is this second dimension of Jesus’ work that Bruce examines and explains in great detail. Three aspects of “the training of the twelve” that I find particularly relevant to those of us with political interests, whether we are believers or not, pertain to the inculcation of high ethical standards, the management of political ambition, and the reform of existing practices and institutions. In this article let us begin with Jesus’ approach to the inculcation of ethics and its contemporary relevance.

The Inculcation of Ethics

Cultivation of high ethical standards among those who seek public office is absolutely essential today if public trust in political leaders, parties, candidates, democratic processes (such as elections), and democratic institutions is to be restored. This is particularly true for candidates for public office with a faith commitment as they are often held to an even higher standard than others and will be mercilessly castigated as hypocrites if and when they fall short.

In a national public opinion survey conducted by the Manning Centre (January 2015) we asked respondents to indicate on a scale of 1 to 10 (with 1 being totally unimportant and 10 being very important) the importance they attached to the following:

  • Whether candidates for public office are “knowledgeable,”
  • Whether candidates possess certain “skills,” such as the ability to communicate, make decisions, etc., and,
  • Whether candidates possess certain “character traits,” such as honesty, compassion, transparency, and integrity.

Predictably, “character” trumped knowledge and skills by a large margin. In fact, many respondents implied that they didn’t care how knowledgeable or skilful a political candidate or leader was; if they couldn’t be trusted because of character deficiencies they shouldn’t be supported for public office.[5]

This survey also indicated that Canadians have a very low opinion of the ethical standards of Canada’s current political class, with 90% seeing elected officials as being more concerned with advancing their own interests (e.g., making money) than serving their constituents, and 55% considering elected officials to be unprincipled in general.

A recent survey conducted by Ryerson University indicated that the unethical behaviors that respondents found most objectionable were the breaking of election promises (75%), the use of tax dollars to buy votes (55%), and the adoption of policies favoring particular interest groups, lobbyists, or family members solely to advance those interests and win their support (55%).[6]

The Conventional Approach

So how do we go about raising the ethical tone of the political class or our particular political group? The conventional approach is to develop and enforce a code of ethics, with positive incentives for adherence, penalties for violations, and a system for monitoring compliance. Hence the codes of ethics and compliance regimes adopted by many companies, professional organizations, and governments. In the case of the latter, codes of conduct for civil servants and elected officials may be enshrined in legislation and reinforced by the appointment of compliance officers and ethics commissioners.[7]

The real challenge of ensuring ethical behaviour from a group or organization does not lie in simply following this approach. The sad reality is that this approach by itself has generally proved to be insufficient in achieving the goal of consistently ethical behaviour, as the Old Testament record of Israel’s four-hundred-year experience with the Law of Moses illustrates.[8] The real challenge lies in securing compliance by some means or process whereby the code of ethics becomes internalized—inscribed on “the tablets of the heart” as distinct from tablets of stone or parchment or statute books. And it is in achieving and maintaining this internalization that the teaching and example of Jesus of Nazareth is most instructive.

In his famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus references the Mosaic law, the supreme code of ethics for the Jewish people of that day. He knows full well that the law is not being kept even by those who teach it, let alone by the general population. But rather than seeking to relax the code, which is often the tendency when compliance appears too difficult, he heightens its demands.

For example, he says, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder,’ … But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.” And again, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”[9]

At this point even his most ardent disciples must have despaired, thinking, “We can’t even keep the demands of the Law as it is, let alone keep it at the level that Jesus is demanding.” But having pushed adherence to the code of ethics to the point where it simply cannot be achieved by traditional means or conventional efforts, Jesus begins to show them a different route to ethical behaviour.

First of all, he presents and demonstrates love—self-sacrificial love—as the supreme ethic, which if practised will ensure that all the other ethical demands of the law (the code) will be met. “Love the Lord your God” and “Love your neighbour as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”[10]

According to Bruce, “He (Jesus) described the ethics of the kingdom, as a pure stream of life, having charity for its fountainhead; a morality of the heart, not merely of outward conduct; a morality also broad and catholic, overleaping all arbitrary barriers erected by legal pedantry and natural selfishness.”[11] Of course in the end he not only taught this ethic, he demonstrated it in an unforgettable way by his own self-sacrifice on the cross.

Second, Jesus teaches that the inner transformation required to adopt and practise this ethic involves committing yourself to and following someone else who practises it—a being morally superior to yourself who already practises self-sacrificial love. In this connection, he draws the twelve to himself, saying, “Love each other as I have loved you,”[12] and points them and other seekers to a loving God as the ultimate source of this morality. When one such seeker asks, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus replies, “Why do you call me good? No one is good—except God alone.”[13] God himself is the being who is morally superior to us all.

Third, he forms his followers—beginning with the twelve who will become the foundations of the church—into a “moral community,” one where the ethic of love is to be the distinguishing moral characteristic and whose members support one another and hold each other accountable for their behaviour. It should be noted that the size of the original community of disciples was small; that the relationships among them grew more personal and intimate as they lived and worked together; and that the moral tone of their community was definitely set by the high ethical standards of their leader. Where these three characteristics do not exist—as in large, impersonal organizations with distant or ethically-challenged leadership—the inculcation and maintenance of high ethical standards is compromised.

Implications for Us

I must first of all readily admit that I have personally wrestled long and hard—often with limited success—with precisely how to internalize high standards of ethical behaviour among members of business and political organizations of which I have been a part, and that I still have much to learn myself in this area.

If, however, you are ever responsible for establishing the moral tone and standards of a group—a church, a company, a charity, a political organization, or a government—I am convinced that that these three lessons drawn from the teachings and example of Jesus constitute an excellent starting point.

Make self-sacrificial love the supreme ethic to be pursued and practised, encouraging and rewarding those who put the interests of others ahead of their own while constraining those who consistently put their own self-interest ahead of everything else. Commit yourself to following and learning from someone who themselves practises that ethic and seek to become that person yourself, recognizing that the ethical standards of an organization will never rise higher than those of its leadership. And form or join a moral community or fellowship—preferably a small and intimate one—where that highest of ethical standards will be practised and where you will be supported and held accountable by others for doing so.

[1] The Training of the Twelve, or Passages Out of the Gospels Exhibiting the Twelve Disciples of Jesus Under Discipline for the Apostleship, by Alexander Balmain Bruce (reprinted in 1971 by Kregel Publications, a division of Kregel Inc and reproduced from the Fourth Edition, Revised and Improved, 1894 by A. C. Armstrong and Son).

[2] John 1:46

[3] Bruce, p. 37. “They were the best that could be had” is Bruce’s summation of “the twelve” at the time of their recruitment. Jesus himself, however, viewed them from a different perspective, describing them to his Father toward the end of his ministry as “those whom you gave me.” John 17:6

[4] Ibid., 107

[5] “2015 Manning Barometer,” National Public Opinion Survey carried out January 20-23, 2015,

[6] “Public Perceptions of the Ethics of Political Leadership,” Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Program at Ryerson University, accessed December 12, 2015,

[7] The Federal Public Accountability Act, An Act providing for conflict of interest rules, restrictions on election financing and measures respecting administrative transparency, oversight and accountability (S.C. 2006, c. 9)

[8] Preston Manning, "The Rule of Law" in Faith and Politics: Lessons in Leadership from the Life of Moses (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2013).

[9] Matthew 5:21-22, 27-28

[10] Matthew 22:37-40

[11] Bruce, 43

[12] John 15:12

[13] Mark 10:17-18

Source: Marketplace Institute

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