The guest on the next two episodes of the podcast is Dr Derek Tidball. Derek’s leadership roles have included ministry in a couple of Baptist churches as well as being Principal of London School of Theology: he is also the author of many books, including his most recent book, Lead Like Joshua.
This week we’re talking about one of the greatest of the biblical leaders, Moses, of whom the American preacher, DL Moody, reportedly said that,
[he] spent forty years thinking he was somebody, forty years learning he was nobody, and forty years discovering what God can do with a nobody.
To put that in other terms, Moses’ life falls into three phases:
- The formative years, marked first by the actions of others, and later by a significant decision;
- The exile (wilderness) years, during which Moses appears to lose his enthusiasm for the task of leadership;
- The leadership years, marked by the challenges of leadership, but also by the privilege of being favoured by God.
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Meantime, here is this week’s episode:
It 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:
- It is founded in relationship with God as Trinity;
- It is rooted in the Bible and directed by the Spirit;
- It is marked by servanthood;
- It is shaped by the cross and resurrection;
- It is sustained by prayer;
- 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?
‘Great spiritual leaders are great not just because they are great leaders but because they are great spiritual leaders’ (Reggie McNeal).
I asked Eddie to tell me the most important thing he had learned about leadership and how he learned it.
Here is his answer:
Just talking about things doesn’t mean they will happen. You have to take action and, above all, empower your team to move forward and take the flak for them when they do.
I learned this the hard way; by seeing that my good ideas didn’t get put into practice just because I told people about them and we passed motions in meetings. I had to do some work; not just think great thoughts.
Eddie went on to add this second lesson:
If you are a leader, how would you answer the question? What has been your most significant leadership learning?
Having spent time interviewing a number of seasoned leaders about their stories, while researching the theme of leadership crucibles (more of this another time), I noticed these elements that mark a leadership journey
- Conversion. While all of the leaders I spoke to have had some kind of conversion experience, some of them talk about how radically life changing that experience was.
- Call. Not everyone has an Isaiah-type experience of call: but some of the leaders I spoke to talked about a dramatic call experience as they listened to a speaker at a conference; another spoke more of a gradual awakening and eventually coming to the realisation: ‘This is what I was born for.’ Others spoke of significant happenings that preceded invitations into particular leadership situations.
- Not unrelated to the first two themes is the theme of the sovereign providence of God. Sometimes leaders find that their steps are directed by an unseen hand, closing one door to open another.
- Character and personality. Obviously these terms are not exactly synonymous, but leaders need to be aware of issues around each of them. Some leaders display very clear leadership traits in the way that they are drawn to problems. Character development is important and the leadership journey may also be a journey of character transformation.
- Paradigm shifts. The average age of the leaders I spoke to was around 61. These leaders have lived and led long enough to experience a changing world and to undergo changes in how they view certain things, like, for example, the work of the Holy Spirit.
- Crises and challenges. Sometimes these are personal or family related, sometimes they are spiritual and sometimes they have to do with leadership and ministry. Of course a leadership crisis can become a personal crisis as the leader begins to question himself/herself. One church leader spoke of how he discovered that the answer to his leadership crisis was not better leadership technique, but greater dependence on Jesus.
- The leaders discussed a number of things related to their spirituality. For example, some talked about the love of God, some talked about their experience of the Holy Spirit.
- The influence of others. Reggie McNeal has written about the significance of Jethro-like characters that cross the path of a leader and the leaders in this research spoke of fathers, of youth leader, and of others who have had significant roles to play along the way. Interestingly two of the leaders (one 60 and the other in his 70s) said that they wished they had had a mentor. (Note that the photo at the top of this may be misleading in this respect: the guy is on his own!)
- Travel was not a frequent theme, but it was there. It could be negative, with the struggles that go with isolation and culture issues in a different setting; but it could also be positive – some of the leaders spoke of positive experiences as they spent time in other countries.
- Transitions and progressions. Some leaders spoke of how God uses one situation to prepare you for another. A couple of leaders sensed a widening sphere of influence as they progressed along their leadership path.
- Retirement is a ‘crucible’; while a retired leader can look back and see how God has been at work, the loss of structure can bring challenges and at the same time opportunities to experience new forms of spirituality.
Do any or many of these resonate with you?
It’s almost a week since our leaders’ event at Edenmore Golf and Country Club. Anyone expecting to hear five tips for guaranteed leadership success from perfect and saintly leaders was in for a surprise!
What they got was searing honesty and pertinent challenge from three seasoned leaders; there was also a bit of humour – hardly surprising to those who know the members of the panel! It was a privilege for all who were there to listen to these leaders (I reckon a good century of experience between them) as they made themselves vulnerable in reflecting on their leadership journeys.
…incredibly moving, humbling and thought-provoking … a significant marker in my own journey.
Trevor Morrow, minister emeritus at Lucan Presbyterian Church, a congregation he served for over 30 years talked about the dangerous idolatries of ministry that can lead to the damaging neglect of family. He talked about the ‘wilderness’ of Lucan – a tiny church of 12 members when he went there, having left a congregation of a thousand in Northern Ireland. He talked about people God put in his path as he began to carve out a unique (and controversial) ministry as a Presbyterian in a Catholic context.
Ken (Fanta) Clarke reflected on some of the powerful experiences that have shaped him along the way. The realisation that he had been living as a bachelor in the early years of his marriage; a deeply powerful, cleansing encounter with God just weeks before his election as a bishop; a memorable, if frightening, time with God on a prayer mountain in Uganda. The latter two of these experiences reinforced Bible verses which he has had inscribed on his bishop’s ring.
Ros Stirling talked honestly about the crucible of singleness, challenging both single people and everyone in the room to be accountable. She talked about the encounter with a school pupil who was disillusioned by the Church – an encounter that would later be significant as she worked for 21 years for the Presbyterian Church, leading their youth department. She spoke passionately about her conviction that ministry needs to flow from a leader’s relationship with God – God aches for us to have such a relationship with him, but our culture tends to be so much more driven. Her conviction around this has been expressed in the establishment of Cleopas – a ministry that aims to provide space for the cultivation of this relationship.
All three spoke of people who had been influential along thew way. Trevor and Roz each spoke of the powerful impact of their father and other people, such as ministers, youth leaders and other mentor figures. Ken spoke about youth leaders and a school teacher, now quite elderly, who has continued to encourage him through the years.
We had a full room, with an audience that spanned generations and church backgrounds. People spoke about how they had been refreshed by the morning. One leader wrote that he had found the morning ‘incredibly moving, humbling and thought-provoking … a significant marker in my own journey.’ Another said that it had been ‘good for my soul’ and valued the insight of the speakers: as a young leader he is eager to glean from the wisdom and guidance of more mature leaders. Others found it timely and helpful.
If you’d like to know more about any similar future events or workshops (there might even be a related podcast in the future), get in touch using the contact form.