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.


Lead like Joshua: a book review


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


Ron Boyd-Macmillan’s 6 elements of great preaching

I’ve written a short summary of Ron Boyd-Macmillan’s book on preaching. In this post I want to outline in more detail what he describes as the six elements of great preaching.

The six elements are drawn from this definition of preaching:

Reaching the whole person, where they live, with the word from above, in love.

  1. The oral test – do I have a central focus? The preacher has to reach the hearers and preaching is an oral event. ‘One of the most basic implications of this is that preachers must be careful to make a singular point in their sermons.’ Boyd-MacMillan suggests that the best piece of advice we will ever receive on preaching is this: ‘Speak up. Keep one focus. Make it memorable. Sit down!’ Apparently the more points a preacher makes to the audience, the more points the audience makes up. If preachers want the audience to get the point, they need to keep to one point or, if they make several points, they need to make sure that these serve the one overarching point.
  2. The experience test – does my sermon enable the hearer to experience the truth I am preaching? It’s about the whole person and not just the mind. The preacher should ask if the sermon that is about to be preached will create in the heart of the listener the thing that the preacher is going to talk about. Will that sermon on the love of God help to produce an experience of the love of God in the listeners?
  3. The reality test – am I describing the real world of my listeners (‘where they live’)? ‘To have credibility, preachers must demonstrate an understanding of the reality in which their listeners live.’ He gives the example of a preacher who was preaching on ‘do not be anxious’ and whose message, in Boyd-MacMillan’s view basically boiled down to effectively telling people to try harder. A preacher has to be able to provide an authentically complex description of reality; provide a genuinely insightful explanation of reality and reframe reality in a way that is biblically liberating. ‘… the preacher has to talk in such a way that the audience feels like they know how to live as a Christian in the real world.’
  4. The exegetical test – am I preaching the divine insight from the Bible (the word)? ‘Preaching ultimately is not merely relating the thoughts of the preacher, but the giving of the time-transcendent word of God as revealed in Scripture.’ It’s always interesting to read how a preacher goes about the work of preparation and under this heading, Boyd-MacMillan gives a window into his method of exegesis. ‘Exegesis begins with being gripped by the passage, and continues with checking that the truth we have been gripped by is in line with the author’s intent.’
  5. The grandeur test – am I preaching the greatness of God and addressing the universal questions of life (the word is from above)? ‘Most preachers do not set out to be trivial, but often they end up giving us coping skills to deal with life, instead of giving us God who is life.’
  6. The tenderness test – do I really love those to whom I am speaking? The preacher has the example of Jesus and his compassion on a crowd who were not merely hungry (they eventually needed to be fed), but were lost (sheep without a shepherd). The preacher needs to know that to see well is to teach well and to love well is to teach well.

While these are the main elements/tests – and they need to be drilled into the preacher – three others are suggested: the foolishness test, the theological test and the persuasion test.

Relevant, spectacular, powerful

In his little book of reflections on Christian leadership, In the Name of Jesus, Henri Nouwen uses these three ideas to categorise the temptations of Jesus.

  • The temptation to relevance: turn these stones to bread
  • The temptation to be spectacular: throw yourself from the temple
  • The temptation to be powerful: all this will be yours

They are three temptations that leaders face. It seems to me that there is also an underlying theme (in the first and third temptation) which involves taking shortcuts. A shortcut to relevance and a shortcut to power (which avoids the way of the cross).

Interestingly, Nouwen sets each of these temptations against one of the things Jesus says to Peter in the restoration scene at the end of John’s gospel.

  • Relevance – do you love me? ‘The question is not: How many people take you seriously? How much are you going to accomplish? Can you show some results? But: Are you in love with Jesus?’
  • Spectacular – feed my sheep. ‘The leadership about which Jesus speaks is of a radically different kind from the leadership offered by the world. It is a servant leadership… in which the leader is a vulnerable servant who needs the people as much as they need him or her.’
  • Powerful – somebody else will take you. ‘What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible? Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard work of love. It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.’

Fascinating juxtapositions.

For what it’s worth, I think we could read the first temptation as a temptation to be successful, and to use one’s ability to get there, without explicitly depending on God (you get some of that when you read the context in Deuteronomy 8, from which Jesus quotes).

Leaders can get hungry for success, hungry for results. Perhaps, like Abraham, there can be a temptation to speed things up rather than depend on God. There can be a temptation to fix things and to fix them quickly.

I’ve written before about the temptation to stand around doing nothing under the guise of ‘waiting on God’; but there is an opposite danger – taking short cuts to alleviate our hunger.

Five recommended reads for Christian leaders

They say that leaders are readers (which perhaps suggests that leaders who write are the real leaders); here are five books I’d recommend. They are not that recent, though I must confess that I have only read some of them quite recently.

A Work of Heart (Reggie McNeal)

I’m not sure how I stumbled across this one, but I’m glad I did! I read it a few years ago and it’s an insightful and challenging look at how God shapes spiritual leaders. In the first part of the book, Reggie McNeal tells the story of four biblical leaders: Moses, David, Paul and Jesus; in part 2 he focuses in on what he describes as 6 significant arenas in which heart-shaping takes place. These are culture, call, community, communion, conflict, and the commonplace.

A marvellous and mysterious interface of divine and human choices conspires and contends in designing a life and in shaping the heart that lies at the center of it.

Leading with a Limp (Dan Allender)

I’ve already written at greater length about this one. Allender flags five kinds of challenge a leader has to deal with: crisis, complexity, betrayal, loneliness, and weariness. Instead of responding with cowardice, rigidity, narcissism, hiding and fatalism, it would be more effective if leaders were to respond with courage, depth, gratitude, openness, and hope.

Spiritual Leadership (Henry and Richard Blackaby)

An excellent treatment of the theme of spiritual leadership. The authors do not limit themselves to leadership within the church, proposing that ‘to be a spiritual leader is just as essential in the marketplace as in the church.’ There is a rich and challenging discussion of key themes like character, influence, and preparation. There is biblical content, but the authors draw also from a (limited) number of secular leadership writers and several historical examples.

Spiritual leadership is moving people on to God’s agenda.

Growing Leaders (James Lawrence)

From this side of the Atlantic, James Lawrence (director of CPAS and Arrow) has brought us his ‘reflections on leadership, life and Jesus.’ He argues that leadership is a function, a position, and a talent. The bulk of his material is arranged around four themes: Growing leaders know they are chosen, they discern God’s call, they develop Christ-like character, they cultivate competence and they lead in community.

Resilient Ministry (Bob Burns, Tasha Chapman, Donald Guthrie)

I’ve already devoted several posts to the content of this book. The book is the result of a significant research project where the researchers wanted to discover what it takes to survive and thrive in pastoral ministry. From the 12000-odd pages of transcripts, they highlighted five themes: spiritual formation (the ongoing process of maturing as a Christian), self-care (the ongoing development of the whole person), emotional and cultural intelligence, marriage and family, and the poetry and plumbing of leadership. Far from being a dry summary of findings, Resilient Ministry is an excellent, highly readable resource that should be of value to anyone in pastoral ministry or involved in the training or support of pastoral leaders.

Christian leaders are to bear fruit by sharing their faith and nurturing the fruit of God’s grace in their own lives and in the lives of others. Fruitfulness includes a measure of faithfulness and a measure of success – valuing both but preferring neither.

What would you put on your ‘should read this’ list?