The Skill That Made Jesus A Great Leader

"Charisma," says religious scholar Reza Aslan. "That’s where his power came from."

Jesus was a carpenter. Actually, he was a tekton.

What's a tekton? Back in the first century, a tekton was a woodworker, but not in the sense of having a small business. As religious scholar Reza Aslan explained to Wharton, the tekton class was much more humble:

A tekton was a day laborer. A tekton is the kind of guy who hangs out in front of Home Depot waiting for a truck to come by to get a job. He would go from city to city looking for work. You’re talking about the poorest of the poor, illiterate, uneducated. Despite all that, (Jesus) was able to start this movement on behalf of the poor, the weak, the marginalized, and the dispossessed that ultimately led to this confrontation with Rome.

Let that sink in.
Perhaps the most influential person in history came from one of the lowest rungs on the social ladder—not a scribe, scholar, or pharisee, but a tekton, as Aslan describes in his Zealot: the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, which has been on the best-seller list since its July release. Zealot is a book about the historical Jesus, a man who led people. A man who, as you might imagine, had immense leadership skills.

As Aslan argues, people were drawn to Jesus not because of his expertise in the scriptures, but because he could talk about the needs of the people he was talking to.

"He would address those needs through his charisma," Aslan says. "That’s where his power came from."

Poor, Illiterate, Uneducated, Communicative

According to Aslan's portrait, the historical Jesus was so resonant because of his ability to communicate. He had charisma—which we can all cultivate. Interestingly, his message was one that freaked out the ruling class—"the first shall be last, the last shall be first" is a pretty revolutionary statement when you think about it—and so this carpenter's son found a way to make his populist audience understand him, while keeping his message secret from the ruling class.

How? By speaking in parables.

Those who had ears could hear them.

As Lean Startup author Eric Ries once told us, so much of leadership is getting the heuristic right, finding the image that illustrates the point: Does your organization look like a structure-oriented pyramid or like an experimentation-oriented amoeba? Are you working like a dog, a robot, or a chipmunk? The power of comparison is in building teams, too: When Ideo and GE hire, they're looking for people who can find the right analogies.

As Aslan argues, the Gospels are full of images that precisely illustrate ideas to a specific audience:


If you took, let’s say, some Herodian elite and some farmer and said to both of them, "The Kingdom of God is a like a mustard seed," the farmer understands what that means. This tiny, insignificant seed then becomes the biggest of bushes. The Herodian elite would have no idea what you’re referring to: "What’s a mustard seed?"

Bottom Line: Match the idea to the image to the audience. And avoid the Herodian elite.

[Image: Flickr user Hans Splinter]

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14 Comments

  • Jean Ebbs Doten

    Wow! Jesus had "charisma!" What an insight! -- I think you make a valid point about business: make sure your images make sense to your audience, but I don't think you know enough about the Bible to connect that conclusion to the parables of Jesus. Do you honestly think the "Herodian elite" didn't know what a mustard seed was? More specifically, many of the parables would certainly make senseto the "elite, " for example the Unforgiving Debtor (Mtt. 18:23-35) and the Crafty Steward (Luke 16:1-13.), but the twist Jesus puts on the story was meant to scandalize them. On the other hand, some of the agrarian parables had to be explained to his apostles like the parable of the Sower (Lk. 8:9-15) My point--its tempting to make a superficial "discovery" about Jesus, then apply it to a generalization about modern life. But, pardon my blunt language, when you make a generalization without sufficient background knowlege, you come across as stupid.. .

  • Something to bear in mind is that while 'the meek will inherit the earth,' the meek aren't necessarily the poor (a huge mistake most people make). The meek are meek because of their spiritual disposition and their readiness to receive spiritual instruction, not because of their societal station. In this sense, Bill Gates could be the meek, and your beloved farmer a complete fucking ass. In relation to biblical imagery, words such as poor, deaf, lame, meek refer to spiritual paucity; henceforth, Jesus never cured physical maladies (as most would like to believe); he helped to cure spiritual malaise, opening people's eyes to something greater than that of which they were formerly aware.

  • Jean Ebbs Doten

    "Jesus never cured physical maladies " You know this because----? "he helped to cure spiritual malaise, opening people's eyes to something greater than that of which they were formerly aware" Very well stated. However, you have made a conclusion based on an incomplete syllogism. Any textual scholarly analysis of "biblical imagery" clearly indicates between difference between the imagery of parables and concrete narratives of te events of the life of Jesus. Furthermore, miracles of healing have continued to play an important part in Christianity up to the present day,. Did you know that the 67 approved healings (out of 7,000 claimed) at Lourdes have been verified by by an international panel of 20 medical professionals of various faiths, including the president of L'academie Nationale de Medicine? Physical miracles, spiritual miralces, neither is merely a matter of faith.

  • Izdubar

    I feel that Jesus taught as a psychiatrist teaches. He did not come out and SAY anything. The parables were stories to get his hearers to figure the lesson out for themselves. The Buddha and other great religious leaders taught in the same way. To say that the elite of an agrarian society would not have known what a seed was is unsupportable. The wealthy were not capitalists, as in modern societies. They were landed aristocracy who I am sure would have taken an interest in their estates.

  • MarkandKristi Olivero

    Recent analysis suggests that a 1st Century "tekton" was a stonemason rather than a woodworker. Literally a tekton was a builder. In modern sense we think of a builder as a carpenter, but in ancient times stone was a more common approach to building. No doubt wood did have a function, but in the form of lumber it was not a plentiful stock item in that region. Also worth noting that Jesus was not illiterate. He was frequently addressed as Rabbi. Rabbis were not illierate.

  • Dave Patchin

    Odd that you, or Aslan, would describe Jesus as illiterate when the texts Aslan purported to study paint him as educated and literate. He quoted the OT often, uses the phrase "have you not read" repeatedly implying to his hearers that they share a common Scriptural understanding. Finally, the text states he read the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue as he taught (Luke 4:16).

  • Vic Arnold

    JESUS knew the O.T. by rote not because he was literate .Every hebrew MALE WAS REQUIRED TO BE FULLY CONVERSANT WITH SCRIPTURE WHICH WAS PASSED ON ORALLY.

  • Jean Ebbs Doten

    If they knew the OT by rote, why did they have a scroll of the Torah? I'm not a fundamentalist, but if he could not read, why does the book of Luke go into such detail? "He stood up to ead, and they handed him the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Unrolling the scroll he found the place where it is written . . . He then rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the assistant, and sat down." (LK 4:16-20) Traditionally, Luke has been considered a gentile writing for a gentile community, and it's possible he was going into this kind of detail to show how a typical Jewish synagogue would conduct its worship--i.e. that the scriptures would be read, not recited,

  • Jean Ebbs Doten

    Correction. Isaiah is not part of the Torah, which would be only the first 5 books of what Christians call the Old Testament. Isaiah is the part of the scripture of the prophets.

  • Dale Callahan

    The reason Jesus was a lowly worker and poor was by design. This model of the "least of these" is shown throughout scripture. 

    But your point might be why - to communicate to the masses, you have to be able to relate to the masses. This is why we see politicians continually (and often foolishly) try to relate. Most do not. But, it you can get inside your customers head... then you have the respect and attention.