Five tips for guaranteed leadership success: a morning for leaders at Edenmore

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The title is not what it seems! Anyone expecting to hear five tips for guaranteed leadership success from perfect and saintly leaders was in for a surprise at yesterday morning’s leaders’ event at Edenmore Golf and Country Club.

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.

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If you were at the event, let us know what you thought: what was your takeaway? What do you plan to do about any questions the morning raised for you? How can events like this help you in your own leadership journey?

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.

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Are leaders narcissists? (Arthur Boers, in Servants and Fools: A Biblical Theology of Leadership)

The faddish focus on leadership raises difficulties. For example, a connection between leadership and narcissism is frequently noted. Many celebrated leadership qualities correlate to this disorder: confidence about success, influencing others, assertiveness, savoring authority, optimism about being great, viewing oneself as extraordinarily special, enjoying being the focus of attention, expecting much from others, wanting power, trusting the world is better under one’s leadership.

Crucibles of leadership development

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It’s not the first time I’ve written about this, but, as I have processed the results of y research over the past few months, I thought I’d give it another go.

The term crucible is how Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas described intense transformational experiences that had been encountered by leaders. I set out to explore what significance crucibles might have in the development of Christian leaders.

Fourteen leaders were kind enough to give me a few hours of their time and allowed me to interview them at some length about their leadership journeys. The leaders were drawn from several denominational backgrounds, they have led mostly in the British Isles, they had an average age of 61 and included twelve men and two women. Most of them have led in local churches but the sphere of leadership for others has been wider.

They described various kinds of experiences which I classified under three main headings:

  • New territory: learning to lead was sometimes a step out of the comfort zone – a couple of leaders referred to a ‘baptism of fire’; for some of them, their leadership journey has involved significant paradigm shifts, both for them and for the people they have led.
  • Reversals: leaders are not exempt from challenging personal circumstances such as loss or the reversal of their plans. In addition there are particular challenges that come with being a leader: some of the leaders have had to deal with conflict, rejection, or disappointment.
  • Isolation: leaders undergo seasons when they are unable to lead, perhaps because of illness. They may also encounter ‘wilderness’ times, out of the limelight, or times of spiritual struggle like the famous ‘Dark Night of the Soul.’

Crucibles have a part to play in shaping both who the leader is, in terms of his or her character and relationship with God, and also what the leader does, in terms of his or her calling.

  • Character: at times it take a crucible to reveal character issues that need attention. This can happen in crucibles of failure, but also in crucibles of success. In fact it is possible for a leader apparently to be successful in one area of life, say their public ministry, while failing badly in another.
  • Spirituality (or the leader’s relationship with God). An intense crucible experience can drive a leader into a greater degree of dependence on God: the crucible becomes a means whereby the leader learns to cultivate trust in God. For some leaders, various crucible experiences allowed what they already believed about God to take on an ‘existential intensity’. Leaders also described remarkable, life-changing experiences that had helped them grasp God’s love for them.
  • Calling: some leaders (not all) experience God’s call as a dramatic experience, not unlike the call of some of the great leaders and prophets of the Old Testament, whose lives were redirected as God intervened at a particular point in time.
  • ‘The Stamp’: some leaders find that their leadership takes on a particular mark or stamp – perhaps a particular emphasis comes to define or shape what they do, as their convictions are forged in the crucible.

Crucibles, then, are intense, transformative experiences that contribute to the shaping of a leader, often playing a significant part both in shaping who the leader is and in shaping the leader’s calling. In some senses they function as intensive learning opportunities where leaders learn about themselves, about God and about their leadership.

But they are not everything. Leaders – like everyone else – are often shaped in more gradual, perhaps almost imperceptible ways through the relationships and commonplaces of life.

A plea for mentors

A while ago I was reviewing the leadership journey of a godly, retired church leader. He had ‘come of age’ in terms of his church leadership at a time when – in his words – ‘there was no talk about mentors or disciplers’.

He told me that he would have loved an older Christian to have helped walk him through the essentials of the faith; even if this older person had been from a different denominational background, with different views on certain things, he could have suggested some useful reading to help the younger leader come to his own opinion.

And he said this:

That would have been so good, if I had had that. I think it would have prevented me from making mistakes later on: mistakes that I had to learn by, and did learn by. But it might have short circuited some of the problems in the ministry.

If you are a seasoned leader, say in the second half of your life and leadership, how do you read that? Is there a younger leader or two that you know who might benefit from your coming alongside them in their leadership journey?

If you are a young church leader, here are three things you need to be building into the foundation of your leadership

I could write about vision, or resilience, or creativity, or brilliant communication skills, but I won’t. At least not in this piece. Instead, here are three significant things that you might be tempted to overlook, or just take for granted.

I’m taking these from one of the three references in Hebrews 13 to the word ‘leader’. You can look them up, but two have to do with the Hebrews current (at the time the book was written) leaders and one with their previous leaders.

Here is what the writer says:

Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.

  • Pay attention to the content of your message. The first leaders were basically defined as being the people who spoke the word of God to the Hebrews. If it it true that any leader’s message is important because of the way it shapes the values and direction of the organisation, a church leader’s message is vital. You are not simply tasked with presenting a compelling vision or articulating the top ten values of the group, you have the responsibility to communicate the mind of God to church. That is a very big responsibility.
  • Pay attention to the character of your life. The Hebrews were invited to consider the outcome of their old leaders’ lives. How they had lived bore consideration. The concept of ‘authentic leadership’ has gained profile in recent decades. Writing in the aftermath of some of the business scandals from over a decade ago, Bill George appealed for ‘authentic leaders, people of the highest integrity… leaders who have a deep sense of purpose and are true to their core values.’ If this is true in the business world, how much more significant is it in the church?
  • Pay attention to the quality of your faith. Do you live such a life of resilient trust in God that those who follow you could be encouraged to imitate your faith? Are you marked by a steady trust in God – like those characters in Hebrews 11 whose races have been run but who still bear eloquent testimony to the life of faith?

There is more to leadership than these three things. I’m not saying vision is unimportant (it is), or that you don’t need to learn about how to manage change (you should), or that you don’t need to worry about surviving or resolving conflict (it would be a good idea to learn how to do both of those things): but I’d venture to say that authentic church leadership cannot afford to be less than this.

Why is spiritual leadership challenging?

I suppose a group of leaders might be able to come up with a list of reasons, but here are four that I think you see from the leadership journey of Moses (seen above in a painting by Chagall).

  1. It’s challenging because it means taking responsibility. At times Moses found this overwhelming. Witness his dialogue with God in Numbers 11. He couldn’t take it. He had already had his father in law attempt to help him with some practical advice, aimed at avoiding burnout, both on the part of Moses and on the part of everyone else. This time God equipped elders from the people to be Moses’ assistants. Biblical leadership involves responsibility. When Hebrews urges believers to follow the lead of their leaders, it reminds them that their leaders keep watch over their souls as people who will give account.
  2. It’s challenging because it involves criticism. Not only did Moses have to bear the brunt of complaints about food and water, his leadership was challenged, not least by his brother and sister. ‘What’s so special about you?’ type of thing. Ron Boyd MacMillan suggests that preachers who cannot deal with criticism will not preach for long. How many leaders would say the same?
  3. It’s challenging because it exposes the leader’s own heart. There were a couple of times when God basically offered Moses the opportunity of having all the trouble makers wiped out. I think you see Moses at his finest when he prefers to put the honour and reputation of God ahead of his own prosperity. Reggie McNeal gets it when he says that ‘maturity begins to be in evidence when leaders who find themselves arrayed against the enemies of God worry more for God’s reputation than their own.’ How sad then that Moses falls when he is provoked to the point of failing to uphold God as holy in the eyes of the people (striking the rock). While it’s true that the people provoked him and made his heart bitter (Psalm 106), we are left wondering if the meekest man on earth had not fully conquered an underlying seam of anger.
  4. It’s challenging because it means leaders have to think beyond their own leadership. Barred from entering the Promised Land himself, Moses remains concerned that it will go well for the people. So he asks God to give them a new leader and he encourages that new leader (who turns out to be his assistant) in the task that awaits him.

Why does this matter?

It matters if you are a leader trying to find your way through your leadership journey. This is part of what you will have to deal with. If you’ve been involved for a while, you will not need me to tell you!

And it matters if you are a follower. Your leaders are not super-humans (nor are they perfect). They face a tough task. You do well to seek to understand and to pray for them as you follow their leadership.

The difference between a manager and a leader

If you think a lot about leadership stuff, you may have your own way of defining the difference – something like ‘managers concentrate on doing a thing right, leaders are interested in doing the right thing.’ Here’s something from Dan Allender in his fascinating book, Leading with a Limp:

The difference between a manager and a leader is the internal urge to alter the status quo to create a different world. In that sense leaders are prophets. They see the present as incomplete and inadequate and are willing to risk the comfort of the present for the promise of a better tomorrow. A manager, on the other hand, is content to keep the organization running as smoothly and as efficiently as it can function. A manager serves to keep the plane in the air, whereas a leader wants to put a new engine on the plane midair.