Leadership 101: What, exactly is leadership?

leadership-bannerIt was none other than Machiavelli who suggested that ‘there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in a new order of things.’

But what, exactly is leadership? One count I saw had the number of definitions running act around 1500. It’s been suggested that, like the ancient proverb of the blind men attempting to describe an elephant, leadership has many aspects and none of them by itself appears to be an adequate definition. Warren Bennis suggested that it’s like beauty: hard to define, but you know it when you see it!


The understanding of leadership has developed across the centuries. In the middle of the 19th century, the focus was on leaders themselves, with Thomas Carlyle’s claim that the history of what has been accomplished in the world has essentially been the history of ‘the Great Men who have worked here’. It’s possible to trace the roots of the Great Man theory all the way back to Aristotle and his belief that social rank was determined through one’s superior virtues which, in turn, were the result of one’s birth.

Not unnaturally Great Man theory evolved into the Trait era (although the idea of traits is an ancient idea). The basic quest of students of leadership at this time was the attempt to identify which specific traits separated leaders from non-leaders. If people who became leaders were different from everyone else, what made them different?

The theory ran aground somewhat (at least for a while) when it was suggested that there was no consistent set of traits that distinguished leaders from non-leaders and, significantly, that just because someone is a leader in one situation does not make them a leader in another.

Trait theory never quite went away with some scholars suggesting that attempts to discard it have been too sweeping. Even if it is not possible to establish a definitive list of distinguishing marks, there appears to be evidence that there are some traits that make a significant contribution to a leader’s success.

Nonetheless, the focus of study shifted next to leaders’ behaviour. From one study emerged the idea that there were two dimensions to leadership: some leadership had a strong focus on the people it was leading while other leadership focussed more on the task at hand.

However this was not enough as people came to appreciate that no single style of leadership was universally the best style, regardless of the specific situation or environment. An understanding of leadership needed to take account of the situation in which leadership was being exercised.

Studies and theories continued to develop: from transactional leadership to transforming (and transformational) leadership, and from servant leadership authentic leadership.


Even if we’re unlikely to come up with a single, ‘correct’ definition of leadership that excludes all others, it’s worth making some kind of attempt!

For writers like John Maxwell, it appears to be the irreducible minimum:

Leadership is influence. That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less.

It’s simple and quite memorable, but probably leaves too many issues unresolved. Is all influence leadership? Does the influence of a TV advertising campaign qualify as leadership? Is there a difference between intentional and unintentional influence? To be fair, Maxwell has also been somewhat more nuanced in his subsequent claim that ‘the true measure of leadership is influence’.

Maxwell is not alone in highlighting influence as a key component of leadership. For example, Peter Northouse defines leadership as ‘a process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal’, while Howard Gardner describes leaders as ‘individuals who significantly influence the thoughts, behaviors and/or feelings of others.’ What’s interesting about this definition is that it allows Gardner to distinguish between direct leaders (think Churchill) and indirect leaders (think Einstein, whose influence was exercised through his ideas): leadership may be exercised by word and/or personal example.

I think these are all helpful, as long as we recognise the caution that has been noted by some scholars who have suggested that since few social interactions don’t involve influence, we’re not saying much when we say that leadership is influence!

David Starling suggests that ‘leadership is the act or task of making an intentional contribution toward the direction and motivation of a group in the framing and pursuit of a common purpose.’ He argues that good leadership is not an end in itself, but points beyond itself and promotes interests that go beyond its own.

It’s worth noting how his definition highlights both the element of intentionality and the idea of a commonly share goal towards which a group is moving.


Some of the writers I have mentioned are Christians, but it’s worth taking time to reflect on what makes Christian leadership Christian?

Carl Trueman suggests that trends in the culture have affected how the evangelical church has understood leadership. While accepting that Christian leaders can learn from wider aspects of leadership practice, he cautions that Scripture must determine Christian notions of leadership.

Albert Mohler, a fairly powerful leader himself, suggests that while an obsession with leadership in the contemporary church may be both necessary and understandable, this obsessive interest has nonetheless ‘served to distract the church from the nature of leadership as revealed in Scripture’, with Christians tending to draw lessons from various spheres of secular leadership rather than looking to the Bible.

James Lawrence calls for Christian leadership with these distinctives:

  1. It is founded in relationship with God as Trinity;
  2. It is rooted in the Bible and directed by the Spirit;
  3. It is marked by servanthood;
  4. It is shaped by the cross and resurrection;
  5. It is sustained by prayer;
  6. It is lived out personally as part of the community of the church.

‘Leadership,’ he says, ‘is a key factor in the spread of the gospel.’


There have been voices of caution both within the Church and more widely. Barbara Kellerman, a leadership insider who might be running the risk of biting the hand that feed her, critiques the leadership industry’s ‘leader-centrism’ with its implication that those who don’t lead don’t amount to much. It is not enough to focus only on the leader at a time when other factors, such as the rise of the follower, have gained significance, and leaders have less power than previously. In fact, she goes as far as to accuse the leadership industry of being ‘self-satisfied, self-perpertuting and poorly policed’!

David Starling, like Trueman and Mohler, warns about the tendency to swallow the secular concepts of leadership. He notes that for all the talk of ‘leadership’ in Christian circles, there are surprisingly few explicit mentions of the terms leader and leadership in the biblical text. However it is not that there are no leaders or that there are no other images associated with leadership tasks.


After all that, how should we define it?

I think that reaching a definition requires us to consider the relationship between the leader and the followers, the nature and means of the leader’s influence, and the establishment of the goal for which leadership is exercised.

Walter Wright (Relational Leadership) describes it as ‘a relationship in which one person seeks to influence the thought, behaviours, beliefs or values of another person’.

And here is my more clumsy attempt at describing a Christian leader:

A leader is someone who is intentionally influencing a group of people towards an agreed and beneficial goal: Christian leadership means doing that ‘Christianly’!


So what do you think? Here are a few questions to reflect on:

  • How important is leadership? Is it possible to either overstate or understate its importance?
  • What factors need to be considered in understanding what leadership is and how it is defined?
  • How might you define leadership?

Crucibles of Christian Leadership (journal article)

IMG_8484

The Journal of European Baptist Studies has recently published an article I wrote which basically summarises my work on my thesis.

Here is the thesis abstract:

Among terms used to describe the events and experiences that contribute to the shaping of leaders is Warren Bennis’ and Robert Thomas’ ‘crucibles’. Their use of the term emerged from a series of interviews with leaders who had come of age in two distinct eras: all the leaders interviewed referred to a transformative experience that had contributed to their leadership. The aim of this research was to explore the significance of such experiences in the development of Christian leaders.

A sample of fourteen evangelical leaders was selected and each leader participated in an in-depth qualitative interview. Their experiences were classified using Robert Thomas’ three types of crucible: new territory, reversals and suspension. Analysis of the experiences demonstrated how crucible experiences had a part to play in shaping both the character and calling of a leader: at times crucibles functioned as intensified learning experiences in which a leader’s beliefs took on an existential intensity.

The emerging themes of character and calling are significant in both Old and New Testaments and the project reflected theologically on these. While crucibles may be significant features in the development of a leader, they do not tell the whole story: a range of factors and influences, some of which work in a more gradual way, are also part of a leadership journey.

If you’d like to read a copy, I’ve uploaded a PDF to the Academia website and you can access it here.

Leadership 101: Of writings on leadership, there is no end!

Quotefancy-1244279-3840x2160To borrow from an ancient preacher, ‘Of the making of [leadership] books, there is no end.’ Not exactly what Quoheleth had in mind, but doubtless he would have agreed.

Statistics from the publishing industry point to a relatively recent surge in interest in the subject. According to Barbara Kellerman, on average three books on leadership were published annually in the early 1980s; by 2012 the numbers were ‘somewhere in the stratosphere’.

No doubt the surge in interest reflects a more conscious awareness of the importance of leaders and leadership, concern, and a degree of handwringing at the apparent lack of good leaders, and all of it spiced up by the emergence of celebrity leaders across several domains.

Including the church.

Perhaps it’s unsurprising that the general interest in the subject is reflected in the culture. Of course, the relationship between ‘biblical’ leadership and more generally applicable principles of leadership can be complex. To what extent are Christians right to mine general leadership material for pearls of wisdom and to what extent is Christian leadership meant to be counter-cultural?

I’m planning to post a series of pieces on leadership over the next few months or so. Actually, I’ve got an idea (two, actually) for a book on leadership and I’d love it if some of you felt free to chip in on the various ‘Leadership 101’ posts as they appear.

Among the subjects I hope to feature are:

  • What, exactly, is leadership?
  • The making of a leader
  • Characteristics of effective leaders
  • Temptations of Christian leadership
  • The leader’s vision
  • The leader and the team

There will be other material on the leadership journey blog, but watch for the ‘Leadership 101’ posts on Thursday evenings – starting this evening.

The Leadership Journey podcast (LJP)

podcast1The idea of a podcast was first mooted some months ago. It’s been a slow project to get off the ground, but the wheels are starting to turn: in fact, the content of the first episode was recorded yesterday. The plan is to bank a few episodes before launching a weekly podcast that will be available on this website and (once we get the technicalities sorted) available for you to subscribe.

Each episode will be an opportunity to reflect on some aspect of the leadership journey. Some of the episodes will be me, talking (hopefully not just to myself!) but a lot of them will consist of interviews with a range of Christian leaders who will be reflecting on their own stories and things that have shaped them along the way.

Hopefully the first episode will be available for listening in the next few weeks. In it, I’m being interviewed about my recent research on crucibles of Christian leadership.

‘Crucibles’: a conference for Christian leaders

In February I ran a seminar for Christian leaders at Edenmore Country Club. Three of the leaders who had helped me with my recent research into the experiences that shape Christian leaders allowed me to interview them in front of an audience of over 80 people.

Next month we’re running another version of the event, with a slightly amended team, in County Fermanagh – more easily accessible for leaders living in the West of Ireland.

It will be hosted by Deane Houston and Sam Balmer at the Stables at Derrygore,  Enniskillen and is part of the Stables Seminars for Christian leaders. The cost of the morning will be £20 and includes tea/coffee and a scone on arrival and a sit down lunch at the end of the conference.

Date and Time: Thursday, November 9, from 10 (coffee) until 2.

The morning is aimed especially at Christian leaders and the basic idea is that three seasoned leaders will be talking about their leadership journeys. What was the path into leadership? What have been some of the highlights and challenges along the way? What have they learned and how has God shaped them?

As well as allowing you to glean from the wisdom of the experience of these three leaders, the morning will allow you the opportunity to reflect on where you are in your own leadership journey.

If you’re interested in attending, use the contact section at the bottom of the page and I will send you more information about how to book your place at the event.


The three leaders who will be taking part in the morning are Ken (Fanta) Clarke, Russell Birney, and Roz Stirling.

21768362_1525413160830056_289253881454462859_nBishop Ken Clarke (Fanta) is mission director for SAMS UK. Previously he served as Bishop of Kilmore, Elphin and Ardagy and before that he served several parishes as well as working in Chile. Those who know him – and have seen the fruit of his leadership – will probably be surprised to hear him describe himself as a reluctant leader! A fundamental lesson in his leadership journey has been that even though leaders are called to be shepherds, ‘one of the big mistakes some of us make as leaders is – we have actually forgotten we are still sheep.’ Ken will also be part of the Enniskillen panel.


21950776_1525410117497027_1200663181432158649_oDr Russell Birney is a former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and will be one of the three participants in the Enniskillen leaders’ morning. During his years of church leadership, he served congregations in Carrickfergus, Newry and Ballymena. Along the way he learned some powerful lessons about resilience and perseverance in ministry.


21766530_1525415850829787_8391157231416256732_n

Roz Stirling is director of Cleopas – a ministry dedicated to helping folk, through events like retreats and quiet days, to develop their spiritual lives. Previously Roz worked with UCCF and for over 20 years she led the youth and children’s department for the Presbyterian Church. Roz has always been something of a pioneer in her leadership and her vision for Cleopas came about as a result of her own experience. ‘It was that that completely transformed my understanding of how to be an effective leader for the long haul … because of the need for deep inner resources and walk with the Lord. And the fact that most leadership didn’t nurture that.’ Hence her desire to see leaders resourced for their leadership journeys.


Leadership 101

A few months ago I started a series of posts called Leadership 101. The series hit something of a hiatus and there has been a serious lack of posts.  That’s about to be remedied, but to restart the series, I’m first going to be posting the previous posts in the series, starting later today and then running weekly on Thursday evenings.