The Leadership Journey Podcast: Mark Strauss

This week’s podcast is a bit different for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it’s international; and in terms of its content, it’s a discussion of a recent new book on leadership, rather than the exploration of one leader’s journey.

The guest is Mark Strauss from San Diego, California. Mark is Professor of New Testament at Bethel Seminary. Along with his colleague, Justin Irving (Professor of Ministry Leadership in Bethel Seminary), Mark has written Leadership in Christian Perspective, a book which outlines a model of ’empowering leadership.’ The book is based around research carried out by Justin, and Mark’s contribution is to bring a biblical perspective to each of the nine leadership practices that Justin has highlighted in his work.

I’ve previously reviewed the book here. I have added it to reading lists for classes I am teaching over the next few months at Belfast Bible College, and you can get your own copy here (UK).

As well as this most recent book, Mark is the author of a considerable number of books and articles. He also serves on the translation committee for the NIV. You can find out more about Mark from his website.

‘Leadership in Christian Perspective’: a review

‘For reasons both ancient and new, the church today has an insatiable appetite for the study of church leadership. A vast avalanche of books, seminars, videos, and web sites has swept over the landscape in response to that appetite. Some of it is good and helpful, but overall much of it is very weak or even misleading in ways that should trouble the church leaders consuming it.’


Thus wrote Lew Parks in a journal article some 16 years ago. He went on to describe a vision of Christian leadership that takes seriously the Scripture, the Church’s theology, and solid interaction with the best secular leadership thinking.

I think that’s a reasonable way to introduce a very recent book on leadership that’s been written as a joint project between two American professors. Justin Irving is a professor of ministry leadership and Mark Strauss is a biblical scholar (who serves on the translation committee of the NIV). Together they have produced ‘Leadership in Christian Perspective’ (Baker), in which each contributes to an approach to leadership that they call ‘empowering leadership’. They describe this approach as being about empowerment more than control, about a process more than being an event, and about shared goals and vision more than a leader’s goals and vision.

There are three major components to their model of leadership (the first points to the leader, the second to followers, and the third to the organisation’s mission) and these correspond to the three main parts of the book:

1 – Beginning with authentic and purposeful leaders;
2 – Understanding the priority of people;
3 – Navigating toward effectiveness.

Each section comprises three chapters as they break down the major components of their model, and each chapter consists of a three-pronged approach. First, the chapter theme is addressed from the perspective of biblical teaching; second it is discussed from the perspective of contemporary leadership, with reference to Irving’s research; and finally the authors aim to provide an example and encourage reflection on the particular leadership skill demonstrated in practice. Chapters also include a series of practical ‘next steps’, and a short list of relevant books for further reflection.


The first section (Beginning with Authentic and Purposeful Leaders) deals with three leadership practices:

  • ‘Modelling what matters’: in which they discuss the importance of leaders modelling what they call for in their followers.
    ‘Modeling what matters is a primary tool for leaders working to lead through influence rather than control.’
  • ‘Engaging in honest self-evaluation’: in which they introduce the concept of ‘humble self-efficacy’ and discuss self-leadership.
  • ‘Fostering collaboration’: in which they reflect on Paul’s letter to Philippians and on team work.

The second section moves the focus from the leader to the followers:

  • ‘Valuing and appreciating’: which includes a character study on Barnabas, and call on leaders to lead from love not fear, and to appreciate people both for who they are and for what they contribute.
  • ‘Creating a place for individuality’: in which they explore the biblical concept of gifts as an expression of unity through diversity, and the importance of leaders nurturing their followers’ uniqueness and creativity.
  • ‘Understanding relational skills’: which includes this –
    ‘People matter. Leadership, at its heart, is about relating well with people inside and outside your organization.’

The final section then completes the model by reflecting on leadership practices that focus on the mission of the organisation:

  • ‘Communicating with clarity’: which discusses aspects of communication theory and calls for leaders to communicate a clear message.
  • ‘Providing accountability’: in which they discuss the importance of setting expectations which are not only clear, but shared (would you prefer your followers to be owners or renters?).
  • ‘Supporting and resourcing’: which reminds us of our resources as Christians, and discusses what it means to support and resource your team.

So much for the contents: what about the book’s strengths?

I think the principal strength of the book lies in its unique approach of combining the expertise of two authors from different disciplines. Given Parks’ observation referenced at the start of this review, there is value in combining the efforts of contributors who know both the world of the biblical text and the world of contemporary leadership studies. Readers who are familiar with one field more than the other have an opportunity to ‘beef up’ their awareness of the gaps. I hope it is not a form of chronological snobbery, but a book that includes references to other recently published, or recently updated work ticks some boxes for me.

Irving demonstrates his familiarity with many of the currents in secular leadership thinking: not least in the way he draws from the ideas of both servant leadership and transformational leadership. Along the way, there is also material on self-leadership and the related concept of emotional intelligence.

From the biblical perspective, Strauss covers a range of biblical themes and texts (generally from the New Testament, which is his focus of study). His contributions include a discussion of how Paul modelled leadership qualities, and a simple, but rich character study of Barnabas: some of these might serve to prime the pump for anyone wanting to develop their own biblical reflections on aspects of leadership.

At the same time, one suggestion I’d make about the book would be to advocate a wider use of the biblical canon. It’s doubtless a personal bias since much of my own reflection on leadership has tended to come from OT characters Moses and Nehemiah. But I think that here and there, the biblical content section might have benefitted from delving into the OT texts.

The empowering leader model is presented in an appealing and accessible way and I think that combining the focus of servant leadership on the welfare of followers, as well as focusing on the positive aspects of transformational leadership is important. Nonetheless, students of transformational leadership should be aware of some of the recent critique of the model from Denis Tourish.

Another positive is the fact that the book is applicable to all kinds of leadership situations, and is not limited to church or other specifically ‘ministry’ settings (at least as understood in its narrowest form). Indeed, many of the practical illustrations of the various leadership practices are drawn from the world of business leadership.


I’ll be encouraging my students in leadership classes to read the book and I’d also recommend it to current leaders in need of some help to think through a positive leadership model that is evidence-based and biblically grounded.

For those of you who are ready to get your copy right away, here is the link (UK) and here for the US!

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 Bible and Leadership: a review

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Of the writing of books on leadership, to paraphrase Ecclesiastes, it seems there is no end. That goes for Christian books as well as anything else.

A recent addition to the genre is Derek Tidball’s Lead like Joshua. In the course of 23 chapters, the book moves systematically through the story of Joshua and does a great job of combining careful attention to the biblical text with the author’s ability to draw on his wide experience of leadership as well as various contemporary authors. It’s not as though the world needs another leadership book, but the author believes that too few of them ‘hit the spot’ from a Christian perspective. Too many of them draw freely on secular ideas but fail to deal seriously with the Bible. Too many of them are too complex for the average church leader to gain from them.

Contra those who might wish to argue against the concept of leadership (at least business-style leadership) in the church, Derek Tidball affirms the significance of leadership in Scripture, though he is keen to point out that Joshua ‘was not written as a textbook on leadership for later generations’!

Be careful not to go away from studying Joshua having learned leadership lessons, but having learned nothing about the sovereign Lord who keeps his word and saves his people.

I’d like to say that that is one of the most important sentences in the book, and one which ought to sound a note of caution for anyone who wants to write a book or teach a seminar on leadership from a particular biblical text. I fear it is too easy to fall into the trap of losing sight of the reason particular texts have been given to us!

Lead like Joshua begins with a reflection on what it means for a leader to ‘assume responsibility’ and thereafter the chapters have similar, pithy titles: ‘build foundations’; ‘make decisions’; ‘recall history’; ‘trust God’; ‘demonstrate perseverance’.

By the end of the book, a careful reader could have assembled a 23-point checklist of good leadership practice: a checklist against which to assess his or her leadership.

But the book is more than a checklist! There is careful engagement with the biblical text, along with reflections of Derek Tidball’s considerable experience as an evangelical leader in the UK, and an ability to draw on various key voices on leadership themes. You’ll find church leader Bill Hybels, author and speaker Gordon MacDonald, leadership writers James Kouzes and Barry Posner: you will even find Sir Alex Ferguson!

Personally I was particularly chuffed to see a chapter devoted to leadership ‘crucibles’ the theme of my recent doctoral research.

Although I was sent a complimentary copy of the book, I am not on commission to suggest that as a new term gets underway, church leadership teams could do worse than set aside time in their regular meetings to work through this book (there are questions at the end of each chapter) in their own context.

Here is the list of chapters:

  1. Assume responsibility
  2. Build foundations
  3. Make decisions
  4. Gather intelligence
  5. Prepare thoroughly
  6. Take risks
  7. Recall history
  8. Gain respect
  9. Surrender status
  10. Trust God
  11. Face failure
  12. Confront sin
  13. Re-energize people
  14. Renew vision
  15. Correct mistakes
  16. Fight battles
  17. Demonstrate perseverance
  18. Manage administration
  19. Honour others
  20. Display compassion
  21. Guard unity
  22. Mentor others
  23. Keep focus