Trophies Over Towels

By Dr. Bernie Cueto

We are taught that image is everything. I remember as a kid I wanted to race BMX bikes. I bought the bike, pants, helmet, gloves, and jersey. I had everything needed. On race day, the race was much scarier than I had expected. Lots of people, lots of yelling, and very fast bikes. We lined up, the bell went off and within seconds I was off my bike and on the ground. The sad thing is I don’t remember crashing into anyone. I fell because I was going too slow on a turn (CAUTIOUS). I walked off the track and received this little participation trophy, all 2 ½ inches in height! Nice! As we were walking to the car, I saw a runner-up trophy that someone tossed in the garbage. It was bigger and nicer than my earned trophy. My mom thought I was devasted. I was elated. “Are you ok?” “Yep.” “Sad?” “Nope.” “You lost?” “I have two trophies!!!” My racing career was officially over. 

When we would have friends over, my sister’s role was our home’s official tour guide. She would always come to my room, point to my trophies on the shelf and declare, “This is the one he got for not even finishing the race and this is the one he got from the garbage.” It didn’t matter that I was not really in the race. What mattered was that people thought I was in it and did well. It is one thing to fake it as a kid in a bike race. It is another thing to fake the most important race of your life where you get to lead. Sometimes we approach leadership that way. We are more concerned with trophies than towels. Servant leadership is about towels. 

We see this clearly in John 13. The setting was a special meal with Jesus and his closest followers. Jesus had been given all authority and instead of reaching for a trophy and taking the winner’s platform, he picks up a towel and goes to his knees. The disciples were not expecting this, but they desperately needed it. They will go on to debate who among them was the greatest. Who gets the promotion with the parking spot and the corner office? They all reclined at the table with dirty feet, and Jesus responded to that need by washing their feet. I know of no other example in the literature of the ancient world, before Jesus, where such an act by a leader took place. Jewish servants were not even allowed to wash feet. His actions would have been interpreted as being dramatic and disturbing. Do not be confused. This lesson can’t be limited to a blog or talk. It is an expectation. He wants His leaders to do the same (“If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. [John 13:14]”). One of my favorite traditions at PBA is our foot-washing ceremony where the president of the university washes several students’ feet. A picture of servant leadership! Next time you are tempted to pick up a trophy, lay it aside and pick up a towel instead. Besides, there is a better trophy awaiting you! 

Dr. Bernie Cueto, Vice President for Spiritual Development



Lifework is an eight-month leadership experience that runs from September to May. Each class examines the life of Jesus as the best example of a leader and influencer, as well as corporate leadership best practices.