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]