Posted by: Mike Willoughby | November 30, 2009

Power Trip: Part 2

Jim Mask and I were standing at the end zone fence by the locker rooms as we watched our sons compete in a high school junior varsity football game.  Our team was playing against a team in a higher division and the scoreboard reflected the mismatch in size and speed.  However, we were proud of our kids who never gave up and continued to play hard until the final whistle.  After the game as the team was beginning to head our way to the locker room, Jim turned to me and summed up the game by saying, “Well brother, that’s what they call an old fashioned learning experience!”

Sometimes we need “learning experiences” to teach us lessons we don’t seem to get any other way.  This was true for Jesus’ apostles who had been walking with Jesus for three years hearing Jesus teach on the true nature of power and influence without really “getting it.”  Last week, I shared the story of James and John as they struggled with the concept of power in the coming kingdom.  Jesus tried to use their inappropriate request for premier seating assignments in the kingdom throne room and the resulting argument that ensued among the other apostles to teach them about his unique kind of leadership.  He contrasted the secular leadership model with which they were familiar to the Godly leadership model they would need to understand to be successful in their new kingdom roles.  Jesus told them to just look at his example since he came not to be served but to serve.  However, they just didn’t seem to get it.  Even at the Last Supper, after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem and right before events would spiral out of control (from the apostles’ point of view), the apostles still were jockeying for position as they vied with each other for power (Luke 22:24-30).  Jesus needed to teach them this lesson in way that would finally sink in.  The apostles needed a learning experience!

As described in John 13, the apostles and Jesus were all reclining at the Last Supper table, Jesus rose, discarded his outer garment, wrapped himself with a towel, took up a basin and proceeded to wash the feet of each disciple.  Foot washing was a duty reserved for servants and apparently no servants were available at this hastily prepared Passover meal.  With no one willing to provide this service, the diners all had feet soiled with road grime which was a major problem in a culture where folks reclined at a dinner table with heads positioned next to feet.  The apostles no doubt were appalled at the thought of their master stooping to the level of a foot washing servant.  Peter even expresses his dismay as he initially refuses to allow Jesus to wash his feet.  Jesus completes the service and resumes his place at the table ready to teach the lesson behind this learning experience.

Jesus said:

“Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.”

I believe the apostles finally “got it” as this real-life lesson finally sunk in over the following weeks and months.  This “learning experience” along three years of teaching and other practical application lessons changed their lives and prepared these men for their new leadership roles in the kingdom of God.  Anyone who would be a leader in God’s kingdom must learn this lesson and have their life changed just like these apostles.  Just knowing about servant leadership does nothing.  Doing servant leadership leads to blessings!

I had to learn this lesson through a “learning experience” as well.  In August 1994, six years after starting a computer consulting services company with a couple of friends, I sat at a conference table with my business partners as they told me they thought it would be best for everyone if I left our company.  Under my leadership as President and CEO, we had grown the small company from three guys in a garage barely making a living to a company with offices in three Texas cities employing over 50 professionals with revenues in excess of four million dollars per year.  In spite of our success, things inside our leadership team were bad enough to bring us to this point where the other guys believed divorce was the only answer.  Although they were fair with me in buying out my ownership position and I was blessed to be able to use my personal network to immediately get work, I was in the middle of an unwanted and unpleasant learning experience.  My ego was damaged, my dreams shattered and my self-esteem took a big hit. 

Sometimes God’s learning experiences must tear us down before we can be built back up properly.  Over the following year, I meditated on these events, studied the Bible and read some encouraging books on Christian leadership as I tried to understand what had “happened to me” to cause my partners to reject my leadership.  One day I was reading this passage in John 13 and it hit me that it wasn’t that something happened to me rather this thing happened because of me!  I wasn’t a victim, I was the responsible party.  My leadership of the company was characterized by long hours, family sacrifice, self-centered ambition, self-glorification and destructive politics where I took advantage of others to improve my own situation.  When Jesus described the heathen style of leadership by saying, “the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them,” he was describing my leadership style.  When I read the John 13 story of Jesus’ foot washing, I did not recognize myself in Jesus’ example.  Although I had read that story a hundred times, the lesson had never “sunk in” until I went through this painful learning experience in 1994-1995.

Since then, I have been committed to studying the servant leadership model and doing my best with the help of God’s Spirit in my life to pattern myself after Jesus’ foot-washing example in all areas of my life.  My extended “learning experience” culminated with a “Followership” class Richard Beasley and I taught at McDermott Road in 2003.  During the preparation and presentation of this class, the last of the “tearing down” was done and the building up could proceed in all areas of my life.  I’m now committed to working hard but with appropriate balance, taking care of my family, having great ambitions for all those organizations and individuals in my life, seeking glory for others, eliminating destructive politics within organizations where I have a leadership role, encouraging and empowering others and in general seeking after other folks’ best interests.  The miracle I have found in the process is that by trying to put others first in my life, I have also seen my own best interests taken care of.  I am happier, more content and more successful now than at any point in my life.  I believe I am in a much better place in all areas of my life than I ever could have been had I stayed on the path I was traveling in 1994.  I certainly wouldn’t be even remotely qualified to be a shepherd in the Lord’s church without having first learned this servant leadership lesson.  Lord, thank you for your learning experiences!

This article completes the foundation building process for Intersections.  Here is the progression we have taken together to get to this point:

  1. Love God and Jesus
  2. Love and respect others seeking after their best interests
  3. Seek God’s guidance and assistance through prayer
  4. Be guided and empowered by God’s Spirit
  5. Serve others and put others first especially when you are a leader

Next week, I will begin a series of practical articles on living out a genuine faith in real life based on the foundation built over these first eight Intersections articles.  If you have not read the articles prior to this one, I encourage you to review them before proceeding.

In the meantime, let me know your thoughts on this article and the rest of the foundation series.  I’m interested to know if there are any other learning experiences out there.  See my Tips from Mike page to see how to send me a private comment if you don’t want your comment to be made public.  Also, if I can be of service to you by praying for you, please let me know.  I promise that if you ask me to pray for you I will honor your request and include your need in my personal prayers.  I will be honored to serve you in that way.

By the way – Many of those freshman JV football players are now sophomores playing on the Varsity team including my son (Matt), Jim’s son (Tim) and Jason’s son (Austin).  This Saturday, they are playing for the State Championship in their TAPPS division.  Painful learning experiences can build champions in football as well as in life.  We are proud Dads!

Until next week,

Meet me at the intersection!


  1. Brother,
    I’ve read all your posts and been inspired by each and every one! Thanks for opening your heart in this way and sharing who you are. I can affirm to you that I really see you becoming the servant leader you have described. I look forward to walking this path with you. Your love and friendship are a very real support to me. I love you, brother.

    • Thanks, Steve. It’s a pleasure serving with you and the other four shepherds at McDermott Road. Working with you guys has been a very positive learning experience over the past 18 months. I’ll take all the good learning experiences God is willing to serve up! Thanks for everything you do for me, my family and our church family. I love you too!


  2. Mike, in all the years that I have known you, I was unaware of the events of 1994-95. Thanks for sharing that painful learning experience in your life and how it helped shape and direct you toward a life lived on the model of the basin and the towel. God bless!

  3. Mike,
    As always, a well thought out, orderly and balanced post. I think it’s very difficult to see things through God’s eyes, but I believe that you have accurately described His work at a key time in your life…many have benefitted as a result of this particular struggle. Thanks so much for sharing and for your weekly encouragement! I continue to have your back…

  4. You speak of a very painful time for you and our family. I am so thankful that you were able to look to God for the answers and that you accepted the answers. It is with great joy that I read your thoughts. I hope that others will follow your lead when faced with the unthinkable!!

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